The ‘shame’ of modern F1: How ‘mediocre drivers’ can excel in car-first Championship

Thomas Maher
Thierry Boutsen, 1987, Benetton, and the race start of the 2024 Australian Grand Prix.

Thierry Boutsen has compared the Formula 1 of today to when he was racing in the sport.

Three-time Grand Prix winner Thierry Boutsen has compared the “very different” modern-day F1 to when he was racing.

The Belgian racing driver competed in Formula 1 between 1983 and ’93, winning three races with Williams between 1989-90, before going on to win the Le Mans 24 Hours in a very successful post-F1 career.

Thierry Boutsen: We could do anything we wanted on track

Speaking in an extensive interview with, the former Benetton, Williams, and Jordan F1 racer spoke about the vast differences between Formula 1 in the late 1980s and early ’90s versus the highly technological sport it has evolved into.

“The shame about Formula 1 today is that it all depends on the technology and the car,” he said, speaking from his office in Monaco.

“The driver, in my days, was responsible for something like 70 to 80 percent of the victory.

“The car was to bring the driver to victory, but it was counting for about 20 to 25 percent. Today, it is totally the opposite. If you don’t have the best car, you can’t win, there’s nothing you can do.

“You see that the difference in lap times is very, very small. That’s because the cars are up to the limit and the driver cannot go over the limit to compensate for something that is missing.

“In some cases, you can see that the driver is only a passenger, which has changed a lot since I was racing.”

A major change over the past 30 years, aside from the technology, is the intense scrutiny the drivers are placed under in the media – with every movement analysed and explored by social media users, while the FIA keeps a watching brief to ensure no rules are broken on track.

Boutsen says this level of scrutiny was unthinkable during his time, saying the only limitations on drivers was the physical boundaries surrounding the track track.

“It is very different. There are major differences between Formula 1 when I was driving when I was driving with Nelson [Piquet], Nigel [Mansell], and Riccardo [Patrese],” he said.

“First of all, the only thing that counted when we were driving was time – we could do whatever we wanted on the circuit, except take shortcuts.

“We had to stay on track but it was designed so that we could not use the kerbs or go on the other side of the kerb. So it was more like a natural talent that was capable of keeping the car on the asphalt and then driving as quickly as possible. There were no penalties.

“Never we heard five-second penalty, 10-second penalty, or ‘You have to let the other driver go by’. For the drivers [now], it’s a nightmare, now because it’s like them driving down the road where there’s a 60mph speed limit. You go 62mph and you’re going ‘Oooh oooh oooh’, you know, you’re going ‘Are the police there, am I going to be caught?’

“Because it’s the same on the racetrack. I think I would not like it. I would like to go racing, and what’s chronographed is what counts. You go as quickly as possible with the car you have, a track that you can use to its maximum for yourself. This is one big difference.”

Thierry Boutsen: Even mediocre drivers can be fast in modern F1

Boutsen also feels the formula has become overly skewed in favour of the car, with drivers unable to make as big a difference to a result as what was once possible.

“The other difference I see is that now the car is the key to success,” he said.

“Because of all these electronics on the car, I would think, because the car is the limiting factor now with all these controls – with all these electronic controls – a mediocre driver can go fast because he goes to the limit of the car.

“And it’s easy because if he goes too far, the car will correct him.

“You can see we were fighting with the steering wheel, the car was going in all directions while, now, they drive like a grandfather, very smooth and very easy.

“It looks like they don’t have to fight with the steering anymore, like we had to do because the computers compensate for that.

“If they accelerate too strongly, there is something that stops the car from accelerating and they have all kinds of controls that are driving the car instead of the driver.

“That means, to me, that even a driver who is not as good as the best one can drive very fast. Maybe not being capable of doing the lap times of Max Verstappen, but can drive fast.

“Therefore you see the difference between all the cars is getting less and less. When we had a half-second difference in qualifying with another guy, it was just like nothing because, in the race, we could compensate for that and be fighting with the guy who, in qualifying, was a little bit faster.

“On the other hand, if you’re really a top, top driver, you’re also limited by this car which is the limiting factor.

“So I think the very best drivers are not really given the chance to exploit their capabilities because the car is preventing them from being over the limit or being able to drive over the limit.

“So you have a limiting factor from the top and a limiting factor from the bottom. That’s why the grid is so close today, it’s quite unusual. Today, one-tenth of a second is a huge difference. In my day, it was nothing – even half a second was nothing.

“We only had one set of tyres, so we had to manage all this. we didn’t have a radio so we couldn’t speak to the team. So all this made the racing like pure racing, I would say more than today. Today is pure engineering, with a little bit of racing.”

Thierry Boutsen: Technology has resulted in a ‘normal evolution’ within F1

But Boutsen denies that he feels the sport has pursued the wrong direction with such reliance on technology. While the sport has evolved into something less driver-focused, the Belgian said he doesn’t believe the sport is less enjoyable than 30 years ago.

“No, I don’t say that. It is very different. Very, very different,” he said.

“I have not driven a car of today’s age. Not yet! For the drivers, racing is racing – just the technology is very different. We see the same evolution with road cars, and airplanes, everything is now controlled by electronics and computers, much more than before.

“Is it better or worse? I don’t know, it’s just a normal evolution. I don’t think it’s better. I don’t think it’s worse – it’s just different.”

Asked whether he believes he would enjoy being an F1 driver nowadays, or whether he raced in the correct era for himself, he smiled: “I enjoyed doing what I was doing at the time. For sure, if I was young today, I would enjoy driving today. Absolutely, without any doubt. It would be the same level of enjoyment, absolutely, yes.”

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