Legendary F1 driving coach, Rob Wilson. Photo by Matt Howell.

Q&A: Rob Wilson, legendary F1 motorsport coach


Rob Wilson grew up in Huapai, north of Auckland and made a name for himself as a racing driver in England and the US. Today the UK-based 71-year-old is revered on the world stage as a driving coach who remains at the pinnacle of motorsport.

Who taught you to drive?
I don’t think I was ever taught. I sat beside, or on the knee, of my father Bob and steered our 1938 Ford Standard V8 from the age of five or six. That was in the late 1950s.

By 1963, we owned a 1954 Humber Mk7. My father played alto saxophone and piano in a Saturday night dance band. On these occasions I would drive him home in the Humber under the cover of darkness from somewhere like Helensville. I would have been 11 years old and had naturally mastered heel-and-toe gear changes.

Rob Wilson helmet INP

Legendary F1 driving coach, Rob Wilson. Photo by Matt Howell.


What are your first motorsport memories?
Listening to a radio report about the 1961 New Zealand Grand Prix at Ardmore with mentions of ‘Jack Brabham’s rear overtaking his front.’ My true interest began mid-1964 after reading a Bruce McLaren column in the Auckland Star. Bruce was coasting to the finish line in the Belgian GP, out of fuel, saying to himself, “I’ve won a Grand Prix!” However, the previously pit-stopped Jim Clark roared past to take the chequered flag. What caught my interest was the exclamation mark in Bruce’s statement. As New Zealand’s greatest driver, I had just assumed he won all the time.

What kickstarted your career in motorsport?
I talked my father into taking me to the Wills six-hour endurance race at Pukekohe. Victory went to Jim Palmer and Paul Fahey driving a Lotus Cortin; soon after I got to meet Paul through a family connection.

Was there a point when you felt your driving ability really start to evolve?
By the end of 1980, I had scraped a couple of wins in Formula 3, and I held a Formula 1 Super Licence throughout the 1980s. You could assume this was a personal peak driving period, but I tended to rely upon car control to find gains in ‘dangerous’ faster corners.

At the end of 1988 I raced a single-seater on Tamiami Park, an unexciting circuit in Florida and winning that race opened up another world. It forced me to become an expert on chicane-type corners and ‘slow in, fast out’ bends.

The second key moment was about 10 years ago when, while training people, I identified a magic rate of input as drivers use their hands and feet to transfer weight through a car, effectively communicating with the surface through steering and brakes. It’s an ongoing obsession.

When did coaching for the top echelon of drivers become ‘a thing’?
I think F1 coaching began seeping through in the early 1990s when some of the F3-type drivers I was training made it into F1. Another pivotal moment was when I coached [subsequent F1 champion] Kimi Räikkönen in the early 2000s. Since then, I have worked with roughly half of the F1 grid. There are 11 drivers in the current field who I am working or have worked with. And I trained 20 of the V8 Supercars drivers in last year's Bathurst 1000, including a couple of recent retirees.

What is the thinking behind your back-to-basics driver training in a regular road car?
Using a normal road car (currently a Ford Puma) is the ideal vehicle for highlighting driver inputs, as it produces pronounced car movements. I have spent time with trainees in every conceivable vehicle with two seats, but the exceptional tyre grip and downforce of Ferraris or Porsches can obscure inputs. The physics are the same in a normal road car (driven without helmets but against the stopwatch). It offers a quieter environment and there’s room for engineers in the back seat. It is a more intimate experience and one-on-one dialogue is much clearer – even mid-corner!

Rob Wilson racetrack INP

Rob Wilson teaches specialised skills to racing drivers. Photo by Matt Howell.

As a coach, how long does it usually take you to identify room for improvement?
I can identify where there is room for improvement within three minutes, or by the end of the second lap when I am in the passenger seat. Working out how to articulate this to the driver could take 30 to 45 minutes. Getting the driver to perform at their maximum capacity can take anything from three days to three years or more.

I can explain and demonstrate – and they will listen – but it is not until they experience it firsthand that the ‘light bulb’ learning experience really begins. The variation is massive. 

I have spent more than 100 days with some drivers who you may have heard of. With others, it can be sorted in a week.

Can you pinpoint areas where you’ve had significant influence on successful racing drivers?
Of the numerous areas I work on, a key one is getting the lateral (sideways) load out of the car for faster acceleration out of corners. This can be achieved with a variety of methods; additional rotation mid-corner isn’t only achieved by more steering, and the brake pedal is not just for slowing the car down – it has many uses. Being able to release the steering very slightly also reduces tyre degradation

But even with that in mind, there are some corners which simply require an ideal geometric line.

Do you have a strong sense of what a driver is experiencing at the wheel of a modern F1 car?
I can extrapolate from the drivers what it feels like. The driving days I share with them are long and intimate, and the physics and dynamics are the same, as is the way they drive. The limit is the limit. For reference, I have lapped Indianapolis at a 225mph (362km/h) average in a beautifully-handling Foyt-Lola and found an ill-handling Formula Ford to be more demanding on a tighter circuit.

Why do you think Kiwi drivers are so well represented in top motorsport ranks?
New Zealanders have traditionally travelled a long way to Europe or the US to achieve their ambitions. It’s well documented that if a Kiwi arrived at Bruce McLaren’s workshop in the 1960s, having lumped their own toolbox 12,000 miles (probably on a boat), they were pretty much guaranteed a job. I find this ‘have a go’ attitude is still etched into the Kiwi mentality. And, as drivers, many grew up drifting around unsealed dirt roads, developing car control fundamentals in the process.

When training top drivers, it certainly helps to be easy of address in a high-pressure situation, and we all know this is often the style of folk from Down Under.

Rob Wilson portrait INP

Rob Wilson, motorsport driving coach. Photo by Matt Howell.

If you had 30 minutes with a novice racing driver, what would you focus on to make a lasting impression?

I would use a manual gearshift car, teaching them to ‘heel and toe’ for the braking / downshift procedure, even if every car they intend to race has a paddle shift. It makes the driver bump sensitive. And I would teach them the value of creating some harmony with the track surface in the way they steer and operate the pedals while emphasising it has to be done with energy. The stopwatch will be running; it’s a very good lie detector!

Being regarded as a good on-road driver is arguably an increasingly rare accolade in New Zealand. Any tips to motivate more people to become one?
Meaningful fuel savings can be found by observing and anticipating traffic flow. On motorways, reading the ‘body language’ of cars up ahead pays dividends when you can orchestrate smooth overtakes.

When there’s a traffic delay, the big frustration is usually our expectations not the traffic. I advocate switching to time mode rather than distance. Glance at the clock, give yourself five minutes, and you might be surprised by how far up the road you move. Were they the final five minutes of your life, time would pass very quickly.

What driving traits do you value most when you’re in the passenger seat?
Relaxed hands and feet allow your physical joints to act as shock absorbers, reducing negative resonance and enabling smoother driving. Good awareness of the surface you are driving on is also valuable.

Is the demise of the manual gearbox something to lament?
Yes. Hazel Jensen, the late wife of great New Zealand racing driver Ross Jensen, said to me 40 years ago: “With an automatic you are always in the wrong gear.” Automatic transmissions will have improved since then, of course, but I thought she put it quite well!


Story by Andrew Kerr for the Autumn 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Andrew Kerr is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to AA Directions Magazine.

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