Senna, Schumacher and Alonso compared by the man who worked with all three F1 legends

Thomas Maher
McLaren's Ayrton Senna races Alain Prost at the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix. Imola, April 1989.

Formula 1’s Pat Symonds has reflected on his time working with three F1 World Champions Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, and Fernando Alonso.

Pat Symonds, Formula 1’s chief technical officer, worked with all three F1 World Champions during his time working with ‘Team Enstone’ between the early 1980s and 2008.

Working with Toleman in the 1980s, the precursing iteration of the eventual Benetton and Renault teams, Symonds was a leading engineer at the team when Ayrton Senna made his debut with the squad.

In the 1990s, Symonds was Michael Schumacher’s race engineer during his maiden title year in 1994 and again through 1995. Symonds remained with Enstone as Schumacher left for Ferrari, but worked closely with another World Champion when Fernando Alonso claimed the 2005 and 2006 titles with Renault.

Appearing at the Autosport International show in Birmingham in January, Symonds looked back over his career when he was asked how the three World Champions compared.

“It’s an interesting question. I worked with Ayrton and Michael, I worked with Fernando,” Symonds told media, including PlanetF1.com.

“The interesting thing is, give or take a little bit, I worked with each one of those a decade apart. So Ayrton in the 1980s, Michael in the 1990s, Fernando in the 2000s.

“The thing you’ve got to remember is that what you wanted from a driver was very different in those three decades. A decade in any business is quite a long time but, in motorsport, it’s like a century – things change so, so rapidly.”

Pat Symonds compares F1’s demands over the decades

Symonds opened up on how the demands the teams placed upon their drivers changed between the 180s and the following two decades.

“So with Ayrton, working with him at Tolman, it was in the days before we had really any data acquisition, we were just building our first data acquisition devices,” he said.

“So we were relying on the driver an awful lot, even down to what revs he was pulling at the end of the straight,have we got the right top gear in, what’s the water and oil temperature, have we got the radiators blanked correctly… and things like that.

“As well as driving the car fast, as well as being tactical, we were having to think of all these things. By the time we get to Fernando, we know a hell of a lot more about what’s happening with the car than he does in terms of those sort of details. So then what you’re really looking for, is you’re looking for the driver who can interpret how you turn the vehicle dynamics into something that the driver can handle.

“Michael, for example, he liked a very unstable car. It may make the car very quick, but you need to be a damn good driver to drive this. We used to set his car up in quite an unstable manner, and his teammates often struggled with that, because of the way it was.

“So trying to rate a driver, who is quick and why are they quick, is really difficult, when you’re looking at that period of time.”

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What do the very best drivers have in common?

While Symonds wasn’t able to shed any light on which of the three World Champions he felt was the outright biggest talent, he explained that the very best all share common traits.

“I think there are certain characteristics of the drivers that do carry through and the prime one is having a huge self-esteem,” he said.

“Every good driver believes that they’re not just a good driver, but the best driver. And that’s really, really important. That’s not something that’s just present in motorsport, that’s something in any sport.

“You need that ability to not have to think about when to press the brake, when to turn the steering wheel, when to open the throttle – it needs to be natural within you, and you then need to have the intelligence to understand when you got it right and when you got it wrong. That’s what makes you quick, then you add all the other things that make you a complete racing driver – the further intelligence to understand the tactical situation, the fitness, all these sorts of things.”

Symonds also revealed that the very best drivers are generally able to find their ultimate pace for any given car or setup within only a handful of laps, particularly by the time they’ve climbed to F1 standard. As a result, it’s unlikely that a driver can go faster simply by ‘trying harder’.

“The clever drivers are the ones who sort of think about each part of the circuit and concentrate on it, then they put it all together, and then you get the quick lap,” he said.

“These guys are so good, they’ll do five to 10 laps and that’s probably as quick as they’re gonna go.

“Not because they try harder and go slower. There are some who overdrive and, probably in Formula 1 you see that because your biggest competitor is your teammate. Everyone knows that.

“When you’ve got a really good teammate, like those three that we’ve mentioned, then their teammates are always looking at what they’re doing. They’re trying to go faster and you can try too hard, and then go slower, because you do need to be smooth driving in Formula 1.”