Can a nice guy be F1 champ?

What makes an F1 world champion? Does he need to be ruthless? Drivers like Nico Rosberg, Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean certainly think so. But there are also others, like Daniel Ricciardo, who believe one can win and still be a nice guy at the same time

The history of Formula One is filled with winning drivers who are unafraid to demonstrate ruthlessness, aggression and sometimes, the darker arts of a cut-throat sport.

From the snarling rivalry between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, to the calculating Michael Schumacher, and now Lewis Hamilton, they have all been unyielding, even unsporting, in their quests to become world champions.

This season alone, Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg weaponised their Silver Arrow race cars, turning them into carbon-fibre missiles to nullify each other by crashing. Twice.

But is it possible to be Mr Nice Guy, a poster boy for fair play, and win the drivers' world championship?

Or must all title winners feel no remorse after ramming a rival off the track?

F1 drivers at the Formula One Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix whom The Straits Times spoke to offered a variety of opinions.

  • F1 drivers behaving badly


    Piquet was in the lead at the German Grand Prix in 1982 when a backmarker, Eliseo Salazar, failed to slow down and let him through. Salazar collided into the Brabham's side, ending the Brazilian's race. A furious Piquet started a brawl with Salazar before the surrounding marshals had to restrain him.


    F1's most bitter feud had its epi-centre in Japan, which was the season's penultimate race then. Two collisions in two years resulted in Prost winning the title in 1989 and his nemesis Senna victorious a year later.


    At the season-ending Australian GP, championship leader Schumacher's Benetton was damaged. He banged into title rival Damon Hill's Williams, forcing both cars into retirement. It is still debatable if the collision was intentional but it gave the German the first of his seven F1 world titles.


    As Schumacher was about to lap McLaren's David Coulthard, the heavy rain hampered visibility and both cars collided, resulting in the Ferrari losing a wheel. But an enraged Schumacher, who was fighting for the title with Coulthard's team-mate Mika Hakkinen, pursued the Scot on three wheels all the way to the pit before storming into the McLaren garage.


    During the closing stages of qualifying, Rosberg had set the fastest time but his Mercedes team-mate Hamilton was threatening to claim pole position.

    Rosberg locked up and went onto the escape road, triggering yellow flags which forced Hamilton to slow down and abort his lap, granting the German a very controversial pole position.

    Rosberg went on to win the race the next day.

  • Nicola Chew

For Mercedes' Rosberg, emotions go out of the cockpit. Only the chequered flag matters, even if friendships - such as his relationship with childhood buddy Hamilton - turn frosty.

The 31-year-old said: "You are driving for Mercedes, battling for race wins and for the world championship in Formula One. That's a whole different level where there is so much more in it.

"There's now all of a sudden things like media, the public, even fame, money... it's a crazy world in that sense.

"And that makes it much more difficult to be friends in such an environment when you're fighting one another."

Force India driver Sergio Perez, who had reached the podium twice this season in Monaco and Baku, hungers for more glory and will drive aggressively but draws the line when it comes to endangering the lives of his rivals.

"You have to be more than ruthless, you have to be selfish and think for yourself while you are driving and when you are trying to make a move," he noted.

"Ruthlessness is a very generic word. If you expand it, it can mean many things but I believe you have to be selfish and make the most out of a single situation. But when you cause accidents, obviously, that is too aggressive."

Haas' Romain Grosjean agreed, saying: "Sports, in general, is selfish. It's not the sportsmen who are selfish but the sport itself which demands a lot from the person.

"Of course it goes against the norm in life but in sport and especially, Formula One, you have to put yourself first if you want to be on top. In order for your training, racing and commitment level to pay off, you have to be aggressive and be ready to fight for what you want.

"You can't blame the driver if he shows aggression or a strong desire to win - it's just part of the sport and racing brings that out in you."

But there is also another school of thought, one that believes you can be a winner without being mean.

McLaren's Jenson Button, who won the 2009 title with Brawn, is widely recognised as one of F1's nice guys. He said: "People are very different when they drive a racing car and when they are outside the car and in front of a camera. When I'm in a car, I'm aggressive and I give it my all, I don't give up.

"But I think I may judge situations a little differently to some other guys, especially the younger kids. I weigh up the risk factor when it comes to an overtaking manoeuvre and it might not always be so exciting.

"Maybe a younger driver might crash more often but you need to assess when you are fighting for a world championship: Do you make the move? Or do you wait a couple of laps and make the move then?

"It's about choosing your moment. I think I've learnt a lot through the years of experience."

Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo, currently third in the drivers' standings, is another gentleman of the sport. He, too, remains respectful of his fellow drivers.

He said: "I think you need to have some form of (ruthlessness) with you. Whether you have a little bit or a lot, I think you do need to find the right balance for yourself.

"It doesn't need to completely consume you."

• Additional reporting by Nicola Chew and Yogaraj Panditurai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2016, with the headline 'Nice guys can finish first'. Print Edition | Subscribe