12 current F1 drivers are trained in a Vauxhall Astra. But why?

Bottas, Raikkonen, Ocon and many more top-level drivers have their skills honed by Rob Wilson in a Vauxhall Astra. Now AutoClassics joins that list

You’d be forgiven for thinking that drivers who win in Formula 1, the World Rally Championship or in LMP1 cars in the World Endurance Championship haven’t got a lot left to learn when it comes to on-the-limit driving.

And even if they did, you wouldn’t guess that a Second World War airfield, a mid-spec Vauxhall Astra and a 15-year-old Nokia 6310 are the tools needed to maximise their performance. Surely some variety of slicks and wings, or a least a rear-wheel-drive car, and a fully fledged circuit offer more similarities to their day job?

Yet 12 of the drivers who competed in the 2017 F1 season all venture to Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome to spend a day with one man. They don’t go there for data analysis or for physical assessment, but rather to learn the importance of a ‘flat car’ with former racer Rob Wilson.

Across a 33-year career, Rob Wilson plied his trade through the single-seater ladder with Formula Ford and Formula 3 taking him to knocking on the door of Formula 1. But a lack of financial clout meant Wilson went over to America for ‘just one race’. Five years later he returned with Indy Lights, IndyCar and IMSA sportscars now all on his CV.

But what makes Rob really stand out is his driving style, something that’s been learned over the years through ‘osmosis’. He doesn’t race anymore, despite offers – including a paid seat at this year’s Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans to share a car with a Formula 2 winner who would only enter the race if Rob did.

Suffice to say, his skill is massively sought after. But he doesn’t have a website where you can book his services, he’s more a person that you know only if you need to know him.

‘I started coaching in 1988 so it’s coming up to 30 years,’ says Rob. ‘For a while I always combined it with racing. Once I was competing at Bathurst and was just so busy with everyone wanting a day. And I thought if we come first in the race, fourth or eighth, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to anybody! So why don’t I just do what I’m best at?’

Back to school

And with the 65-year-old New Zealander’s alumni including F1 champions Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Rosberg, it proved the right choice. Today, though, he’s not got a world class driver to guide, far from it. No, Rob has to work with a 21-year-old writer for AutoClassics who doesn't have a single car race of experience to fall back on. So it’s back to school – pen and paper in hand, sat in a classroom and waiting for the coolest lesson to begin.

‘You want to be deeply manipulative with a car,’ he begins. 'Driving on a circuit is not a case of taking an apex three-quarters of the way round a corner and making just one movement of the wheel. It’s more controlling than that.

‘When you move your body it’s about transferring weight through to the road surface. And the transfer is in the first five per cent of any input, so you’re trying to remove the join. It’s not input, input – there’s a little curve between to join them.’

Rob's reluctant to call his style 'smooth', he thinks that makes it sound boring. Being as he teaches a driver to pre-empt what's coming and to introduce motions into the car, perhaps 'fluid' is a fairer assessment.

‘You’ve got to warn the car what’s coming. When you brake, there’s got to be that fractional introduction just to tell the car what is coming next. Within a split second the brakes are all up to temperature but in the first instance they’re not. So there’s this settling down effect. If you get a little movement at the beginning of your braking then you will pay for that for the rest. So if we just introduce something it harmonises everything.’

Then it’s time for visual learning as Rob scribbles down his ‘technical’ drawing: two stick figures separated by a box filled with squiggly lines. As simple as it may look, the message is clear. What Rob is trying to do is bypass telemetry. Although it can read to the finest of details, the data only gives a two dimensional reading of what the driver is doing. Rob wants the clear, full picture – and feeding that back from driver (stick figure one) to the race engineers (stick figure two) so they can understand is just as vital as the laptime itself.

‘Too much of an obsession with just the data desensitises you. Digitalisation is another form of poverty, it reduces your senses as everything is taken from a number. So we’re getting the engineer to feel it too.’

And in motorsport where the numbers are so heavily relied on, it’s why having engineers at the coaching sessions is important too.

‘The rear brakes always get the message later than the fronts. People don’t factor that in, even in F1, even if it’s only millionths of a second. So the front of the car goes down, the rear comes up and then the weight has transferred from 60:40 to 75:25. So it doesn’t get the maximum out of the car so you need to introduce the inputs.'

All the while he's gesticulating with his hands, showing how the balance transfers.

'But an engineer will tell you if you’re not applying 100bar of pressure within 0.2s then you’re not braking efficiently. We’re looking for 0.22s to introduce it. So it’s taken us a bit longer to get there but because we had more effective rear brakes the car slowed down better. So we need to school the engineers to feel this too.’

And with the braking sorted, the next step is to tackle to corners themselves.

A different racing line

‘With the more modern, gumball-like tyres if you slide, it stops. So we’re after a slightly squarer style of driving,' he says.

‘What you’re trying to do with a slightly shorter corner is add a bit more steering in the middle to keep a diagonal line towards the outside of the track. Then, with less lock, you’re getting a couple of hundred kilos of weight out of that side of the car.

‘When we get to the middle of the corner going 50mph we’ve still got, roughly, a three per cent under-rotation in the wheel so we have 48mph wheels. There’s just a little bit of push, a little bit of understeer but it’s normal. And then we just try and go a fraction lighter on the brakes until we get both body and wheels doing the same speed.

'It’s like a camera coming into focus on the tread of a tyre, it goes from blurry to crystal clear and the bite level just goes up enormously.

‘Once you tune into that, you’re finding that so much of the time is found between corners because it means corners aren’t going on too long.'

In order to achieve the brief inputs, the most important thing is the rate at which you move your body. It’s about keeping flex in your joints and always communicating to the car in a progressive way.

‘If you’re watching F1 cars coming out of Ascari [left-hand corner at Monza] as they go down to the Parabolica, now they finally are staying on the right-hand side and bring it across a bit later. That’s because, and I don’t know why it took people so long to work it out, when you cross the track at anything from 100mph onwards you’re putting about 300kg on one side of the car. So when you put that weight in you slow the car down, like touching the brakes. You pay for it for the rest of the straight.’

So, to put it simply, it’s all about Newton’s third law. If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, when driving a car on the limit the bigger the driver’s inputs, the more the car has to respond and that upsets its balance. So the smaller the input and for the less time the input is being made, the less the car has to do to respond. So, introduce the brakes, take a short corner and above all else: keep a flat car.

It’s the exact same technique used by Usain Bolt in the 200m. To the casual viewer, it looks like athletes run a smooth curve around a corner, but instead they change their stride to little diagonal lines. The same skill as Rob teaches, the same speedy result.

But why a Vauxhall Astra and Nokia 6310?

Not that Rob’s judgement was ever in question, but the Astra proved the perfect wheels for the day. Other than shooting off for a new set of front tyres and brake pads at the end of the day, it put up with hamfisted inputs without complaint.

That it’s front-wheel drive too is, surprisingly, a solid platform for learning Rob’s style. The understeer builds progressively, letting you know when you’ve not applied his instructions to the full. There’s enough of the ‘feel’ journalists pine after so you can modulate your throttle if you’ve been a bit greedy and put too much attitude on the car.

The brakes took the punishment well also. Heading into the day, it’s easy to think that just slowing down might pose an issue. As a road driver, the natural tendency is to brake progressively to the start of the corner rather than immediately putting the anchors on fully. But no, with markers setting out where to brake and a pedal that stays reassuringly film, your brain immediately tunes in. You automatically know a heavy application is needed to slow the Astra by 40mph to make the corner, avoid the field and not to add any more black rubber marks to the cones.

Having spent so much of his time belted in the passenger’s seat, within just a handful of laps Rob is able to assess the level of each driver. That means he can tailor his style to the person in the hot seat. So he isn’t barking instructions or ever getting frustrated, rather he makes any F1 driver, nine-time motorcycle champion or Indy 500 debutant feel like the most important person.

That leaves you to focus on the most strict opponent of the day – the stopwatch on his battle-scarred Nokia 6310. It only measures to tenths of a second rather than thousandths, but that’s plenty – deciding who should get the Honda/Brawn F1 drive for 2009.

And the screen showed the results of Rob’s teaching. Granted early laps consisted of learning the circuit and aiming for corners that aren’t really there, only marked out by cones; but having learned the basic route, a 1m59s time was the early benchmark.

That dropped by ten seconds each time around, until a series of sloppy laps pinned the times between a 1m39.2s and 1m37s window. But back from lunch and a debrief, with the sun setting on a bitter December day for what Rob flatteringly calls, ‘the night stint at Le Mans’ that time finally fell to a 1m33.3s.

The last effort was the quickest yet far from clean. It certainly wasn’t an amalgamation of everything learned, and that’s the final impression you get from the day at ‘school’. Chasing those final tenths is where the obsession lies – it's the ultimate bug to catch.

Coming soon: more on that Mk1 Astra GTE that you see in the video.

Images and video courtesy of Tim Andrew

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