Ethos

The Man Who Trains F1 Stars

When the world’s top drivers need coaching, they turn to Rob Wilson. Yes, really.

Rob Wilson looks at the stopwatch on his trusty Nokia 6210 cellphone. “I think a 1:50.4 deserves a cigarette,” he says as he delivers a warm and congratulatory pat to my shoulder. “It’s been a great morning.” I drop him off beside a decommissioned Boeing 747 tinged a bluey green by unidentified vegetation and then drive gently to the end of the runway to cool the brakes before looping around to collect him. “Right,” he says as he drops back into the passenger seat of our humble 198-horsepower Vauxhall Astra hatchback. “Let’s get lunch. Then I’ll set another target lap, and we’ll go again.”

And that’s how it goes. Wilson consumes maybe another 10 Marlboro Reds over the course of the afternoon as he chips away at my driving technique and I chip away at my lap time. This place—the Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground in rural Leicestershire, England—is his second home, and it’s here that the great and the good of Formula 1, IndyCar, DTM, the FIA World Endurance Championship, World Rally Championship, and countless other professional racing series come to hone their craft under his tutelage. Yes, in a Vauxhall Astra.

Kimi Räikkönen. Juan Pablo Montoya. Valtteri Bottas. Marco Andretti. Petter Solberg. Whatever name pops into your head, chances are the pro driver has been to this former USAF base and been coached by Rob Wilson in a humble family car. Sometimes they’re a tenth quicker than he is but not often. He doesn’t advertise. There’s no website full of inspiring nonsense to build his business. If you want to employ Wilson, you need to know someone with his number. Fortunately, everybody in high-level motorsports has his number. “I used to travel to go to them,” he says. “But then they banned smoking on planes.”

So how exactly do you become the driving Yoda to the stars? The guy that every F1 team goes to when they want to polish a young talent or to just help an experienced racer through a sticky patch? It started for Wilson, as you’d expect, with a racing career. He left his native New Zealand as quickly as he could and competed in the U.K. in Formula Ford and then Formula 3. He was quick, too, and was lined up for an F1 drive in 1981 at Spa with Tyrrell until Michele Alboreto turned up a few days before with a big check, which ousted him from the seat. Money talks, and the F1 dream was over. Wilson then raced for many years in the U.S. in sports cars, NASCAR, Indy Lights, and anything he could get his hands on.

Coach and veteran pro driver Rob Wilson has helped the top names in racing improve their times. At an airfield in Leicestershire, England, he teaches his unconventional methods in lightweight Vauxhall Astra hatchbacks— and goes through many sets of tires.

His eureka moment came as he stood beside Stowe corner at Silverstone in the late ’80s—his broken Bowman F3 car next to him—with nothing much to do. So he started watching and then timing as Rickard Rydell and Gary Brabham pounded around. Brabham was incredibly early on the throttle and looked and sounded fast, but Rydell was quicker. Wilson worked out why and gave his solution to Brabham. Sure enough, those times improved. Suddenly Wilson was a driver coach, and in those early days he used Goodwood as his base. He carried on racing well into the 2000s, but his real gift was apparent: He made the best even better.

“Traditionally you find the limit of adhesion and feel like you’re going fast on that geometrically perfect line. But you know what? You’re not going forward that much.”

Bruntingthorpe looks as pretty as an old airfield can today under sunshine and threatened by dramatic, brooding storm clouds, but it’s still a million miles from the shiny, volatile, carbon-fiber and cash-soaked world of top-level racing. Wilson, you might imagine, is similarly detached from the F1 or IndyCar circuses. He’s a New Zealander, 65 years old, powerfully built with a fearsome appetite for nicotine. If you met him at a bar and asked him what he did, you’d scarcely believe a word. His stories, which he doesn’t give up lightly or embellish, are almost unbelievable. Today he’s coaching me. Last week? F1 rookie Lance Stroll, who’d been struggling for form but didn’t look so out of his depth in the last couple races. “He’s been here a lot,” Wilson says. “Couldn’t be nicer. I didn’t expect that.”

More stories later. First, why he uses the Astra hatchback. “It’s perfect. Truly,” he insists. “Tough and with a good chassis but also quiet and comfortable so we can communicate easily. And when you make a mistake in this car, you feel it for a long time. We can be talking about what went wrong while you’re still paying the price.” Wilson has three Astras supplied by Vauxhall, General Motors’ former bread and butter marque in the U.K. (now owned by French auto giant Groupe PSA). He gets through a set of tires a day and a set of brakes per week, and he keeps each car for about 5,000 miles. My car for the day has a Michelin front left tire, a Bridgestone rear left, something called a Sunny SN3970 front right, and an Avon rear right. “The circuit mostly goes right, anyway,” he grins.

So that’s the equipment. What about the technique? “Everything is the most important thing in the world,” Wilson says with a smile over a mug of tea in the cafe adjacent to the airfield before we get started. “The first most important thing in the world is the rate you move your body. It creates the initial weight transfer. So when we are coming up to a corner, I’ll say, ‘Turn left.’ We want to turn left, but we don’t mean a turn of a certain size. We just mean a turn of the tiniest, tiniest amount. You can’t even see it.” This is the foundation of Wilson’s obsession with maximizing a car’s potential by managing weight transfer: Introduce a subtle, almost imperceptible amount of lock and then manipulate the car to the apex more assertively.

Wilson’s driver training is a hands-on experience, quite literally. He likes to teach in the Vauxhall economy car because “when you make a mistake in this car, you feel it for a long time.”

He’ll also often talk about a “flat car.” The physics concept behind it is obvious: the less steering angle, the greater the acceleration. To achieve this you begin each turn with that miniscule weight transfer then progressively steer to the apex. In the middle of the turn—where there’s the least amount of penalty for tire scrub—quickly introduce a bit more lock than seems natural to shorten the corner and then actively straighten the car to the exit. “It’s about altering our values,” Wilson explains. “Traditionally you find the limit of adhesion and feel like you’re going fast on that geometrically perfect line. But you know what? You’re not going forward that much. And that’s bad, actually. I want you to be offended when you feel tire scrub.”

This introduction to Wilson’s techniques goes on for maybe an hour. We discuss shortening corners, braking lightly for a fraction before really applying force to ensure the rears are responding before the nose dives and the rear raises up, trying to match wheel speed and car speed momentarily in the braking phase, and how all this feeds into a race scenario by putting less stress on the equipment. “Shortening the corner reduces tire degradation,” he says. “So in the middle of the corner there’s a bit more lock, a higher peak, but for the next 10 car lengths there’s less load. It’s like putting your hand on a red-hot stove for a millionth of a second. You won’t burn. If the stove is half as hot but you put your hand on for a few seconds, guess what happens.”

It sounds simple. Then Wilson demonstrates personally on his unique circuit, drawn out by the airfield’s natural turns and a few cones to add a crucial chicane and a slow switchback. “Monaco’s Lowes hairpin,” he calls it. The running commentary is enlightening. Probably. I just can’t get over the speed and efficiency. He’s smooth with the car at times then sometimes more assertive, and his lines don’t trace the long arcs of a classicist. Watching the dramatic “corner shortening” is really remarkable. The car doesn’t gracefully blend out of the turns to the circuit’s edge on the limit of adhesion. Rather, he literally steers it out there in a straight line, and you feel the rate of acceleration climb the instant he’s removed the exaggerated midcorner steering input. It’s bordering on phenomenal, and my nerves skyrocket. This guy has coached Nigel Mansell. Now I have to show him my silky skills? Punch me now.

Fortunately the teacher is patient and remains calm even if I barrel into a turn way too fast, the tires scrub wide, and my exit is a mess of wheelspin. Most importantly, you feel he wants you to be better and gets great satisfaction when you get things right. To be honest the first few laps are ugly, probably worse than if I drove my own “natural” way. But slowly it starts to click—the lovely feeling of the car responding accurately because of that initial steering input, the extra lock midcorner allowing you to quickly get the car straight and drive out to the exit, the gentle and then assertive braking that seems to keep the car more level and more stable on corner entry. The time tumbles away. That 1:50.4 is just 0.8 second off his target lap.

After lunch he blitzes me with a new target: 1:47.8. On these tires that’s a good lap, he says. On four Michelins maybe we’d get down to 1:47.2 or even a high 1:46. The roast-beef lunch at the local pub has slowed me down, though. I do a 1:50.6, then whack a cone, then another. It feels like it’s going the wrong way. But it clicks again on the last couple of laps. My hairpin is close to perfect, I negotiate the esses with Wilson’s line (avoiding the curbs and straightening each section), and my braking and steering techniques improve so the last two corners are much sweeter.

The result is 1.48.7 despite one mistake coming onto the crucial back straight. “Fantastic. You have the speed,” he says flatteringly. “It’s not about making you faster. It’s about making you do the right things. Now you can see the progression … how you could get to a low 1:47. You’re on the road from being somebody who can drive a race car to a racing driver. There’s a difference.”

“Some of the Indy teams have what they call the ‘Rob Matrix’ in new telemetry programs,” he tells me between long drags on his beloved Marlboros.

I’m elated and leave full of anecdotes and advice. Rob Wilson is a fascinating guy, and the truly amazing thing is, in a digital world of telemetry, his techniques have become even more important. He looks at what’s between the telemetry traces shown on computer screens and is now working with engineers from BMW’s DTM team, Porsche’s WEC guys, and pretty much every F1 team to help them understand what those squiggly lines can’t show them. “Now [that the engineers have been here], they can feel this stuff and apply that knowledge to what they’re seeing on the telemetry,” he confirms. “All of them are [now] trying to measure that first 5 percent, the rate of weight transfer. Some of the Indy teams have what they call the ‘Rob Matrix’ in new telemetry programs,” he tells me between long drags on his beloved Marlboros.

I can’t leave without asking him who he thinks is the best of the best. “I love Kimi,” he says. “He’s maybe the one guy I’m biased toward.” Wilson spent a lot of time with Räikkönen in his early days and has huge affection for him. OK, so who’s second? “I never coached Mansell until after he’d won the F1 title and just before he started racing in the U.S. But when I did, I couldn’t believe his finesse, his understanding of the surface. Totally at odds with his reputation for being a real beast in the car.” And third? “Everybody’s third, Jethro. That’s the point. Everybody’s third.”