The best drivers, the fastest cars

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Formula 1 offers a striking example of how meritocracies really function.

Formula 1 is the apex of motorsport. It boasts that it features the best drivers and the fastest cars, and certainly the skill required to manoeuvre these wheeled missiles around the twists and turns of a racetrack seems to demand an otherworldly skill, something that goes beyond the mere operation of a vehicle and into a kind of symbiosis between hands, mind, and machine. Viewers were given a treat at the recent Hungarian Grand Prix (unlike at this weekend’s debacle in Belgium), when Esteban Ocon upset the odds to secure a wholly unexpected maiden win.

While Ocon did well to keep Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin at bay, what really won the race for him occurred some ten seconds behind. There, his teammate and two-time world champion Fernando Alonso held off current world champion Lewis Hamilton for ten laps in a virtuoso display of defensive driving. By stopping Hamilton from overtaking, Alonso bought his teammate enough time to win the race.

The duel between Alonso and Hamilton is illustrative of something that goes way beyond the confines of motorsport. Alonso, like Hamilton, is regarded not just as one of the best drivers on the current grid but an all-time great. Yet here he was, not even competing for the race win but instead fighting a desperate rearguard action in a much slower car to thwart Hamilton’s relentlessly quick Mercedes.

Alonso’s predicament in the race shows that to achieve success in Formula 1 you can’t just be the best driver – you have to have the best car as well. In other words, while Formula 1 may feature the best drivers AND the fastest cars, it doesn’t necessarily feature the best drivers IN the fastest cars.

In fact, the need for a fast car is even greater than that of driver skill. Alonso’s mere two world titles are due to a succession of poor and unlucky choices that mean he’s never found himself in the outright quickest car on the grid. By contrast, Sebastian Vettel is a four-time world champion from the time when Red Bull were technologically ahead of everyone else. Jenson Button’s sole world title came from having the best car on the grid for almost exactly half a season. And even the yawnfest of Schumacher’s dominance in his Ferrari years was due primarily to his having – like Hamilton now – a better vehicle than the vast majority of his competitors.

It’s spectacles like this, in other words, that reveal the uncomfortable truth underlying claims of meritocracy in sport, as in academia and elsewhere.

Meritocracies like to claim that they represent an egalitarian system in which success comes to those with talent, with merit, and with worth. While it’s certainly true that meritocracies like science do tend to weed out rank incompetence in a way that (for example) political parties do not, they still tend to exaggerate their own virtue in the implicit and usually unstated assumption that only those in possession of the requisite talent succeed, while those who do not succeed are therefore meritless.

Stated this baldly, its absurdity is clear, just as it would be absurd to claim Alonso is not in the same class as Hamilton or Schumacher because he hasn’t won as many titles. This same absurdity underpins the racist assumptions of many Western societies, where racial minorities are implicitly suggested to be less capable than their white peers, instead of having less access to opportunities for advancement within the system.

In meritocracies, those who succeed do indeed have merit – but they do not have unique possession of it. There are either not enough places to accommodate all those with merit, or not enough openings, so some end up on the inside and others are left on the outside. There are more good drivers than there are good cars. 

Given a chance, many of those outside would show themselves equally good, just as George Russel – very highly-rated and even more so after his heroics in qualifying last weekend, but currently driving a back-of-the-field Williams – did when given one race behind the wheel of Hamilton’s Mercedes. But for a puncture, he would have won a race at this first attempt.

There are Hamiltons out there, good drivers in fast cars, there are Alonsos, good drivers in slower cars, and an awful lot of Russels – good but unproven drivers in slow cars.

What Formula 1 reminds us – in every single race – is that talent is far more broadly distributed than opportunity is. And success correlates more closely with opportunity than it does with talent.

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