In motorsport, rain is the great leveller. When the heavens open, the formbook goes out the window. A wet track helps less powerful cars compete with more horsepower-gifted rivals while drivers with a deft touch on the wheel and pedals have an inherent advantage.
By Graham Duxbury
When rain begins to fall, the racetrack will evolve rapidly as grip levels plummet. It is up to the driver to determine how long slick tyres will be able to cope with the changing conditions and when the most opportune time arrives to pit for rain tyres.
Similarly, when the rain abates and a “dry-line” begins to appear, it is up to the driver to help the team make calls for tyre and maybe aerodynamic changes.
On a wet track, optimum grip is not usually found on the usual racing line. Rubber deposits cause the track to become extra-slippery requiring the skilled driver to search for grip off-line.
According to IndyCar racing legend and former Jaguar F1 team principal, Bobby Rahal, no racing driver likes the rain. “Some just dislike it more than others,” he says.
History shows that certain drivers shine in wet conditions and are able to overcome any shortcomings in their equipment.
Ayrton Senna, the three-time world champion, was superb in the wet. In the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, at the start of his F1 career, he was behind the wheel of a Toleman-Hart – a mid-field racer at best.
However, in the torrential rain that flooded the Monegasque circuit that day, Senna – who had started from thirteenth on the grid – demonstrated the wet weather skills that would become legendary. When the race was stopped at half distance due to “undrivable conditions” he was poised to pass Alain Prost for the win.
Fast forward 10 years to the 1994 European GP at Donnington Park in England. Once again, the race was held in dangerously wet conditions. From the start, Senna made up five places to lead on the opening lap – a lap that has gone down in the annals as the greatest of all time, underlining the Brazilian hero’s mastery of the wet.
Michael Schumacher was another driver whose wet weather performances were capable of impressing F1 fans. The 1996 Spanish GP began in atrocious conditions. Visibility was down to an absolute minimum, particularly in the spray thrown up by the cars. (In today’s safety-orientated world, the race would have been delayed or started behind the Safety Car.)
Schumacher, falling to seventh on the opening lap, was in the lead by lap 12. His win, reinforced by a succession of fastest laps, was a clear indication of the German’s brilliance behind the wheel.
Perhaps one of the most outstanding wet weather drives was that of Jackie Stewart’s win by over four minutes at the 1968 German GP at the Nurburgring. The race, run in conditions that would never be countenanced today, saw the Scot drive away from the field and disappear into the thick mist blanketing the 21km circuit that Niki Lauda named the Green Hell.
Another huge winning margin in torrential rain – four minutes, 54 seconds – was the result of Jim Clark’s dominant drive in the wet 1963 Belgian GP. Only Clark and second-placed Bruce McLaren were on the lead lap at the flag. Clark’s brilliance in the wet, particularly at Spa, a circuit he disliked, is clear evidence of the outstanding skills of a driver who remains one of the sports’ greatest.
Fear of racing in the wet can sometimes have unfortunate consequences. In 1976, the world championship was to be decided at the Japanese GP. Niki Lauda was three points ahead of James Hunt after a year of incidents, including Lauda’s near-fatal crash at the Nürburgring.
The race started in wet, foggy conditions after some debate as to whether it should go ahead at all. Some drivers, including Lauda, were not happy with the decision. On the second lap, he decided to withdraw, later saying that his life was worth more than a championship win.
Surprisingly, the rain abated and the track began to dry. Hunt, who was leading, fell back after a tyre stop. But his fourth-place finish saw him amass just enough points to win the World Championship.