Silverstone: How to cope in the driving rain

From Senna to Hamilton, ability to thrive in the wet has always marked the men from the boys

Pinning a car to the floor in the wet is Formula One's biceps flex, the great differentiator that separates man from boy. Being quick in temperate conditions, on fresh rubber and with clear air in front is for Geoffrey Boycott's granny. The way to enter racing myth is to hammer 750 bhp of grand prix grunt through Maggott's and Beckett's when the rational half of the brain is screaming "brake".

The pantheon of racing men is topped by those who weaved mystery in the rain. Ayrton Senna won 41 grands prix but the one that gave greatest expression to his genius was arguably at Donington in 1993 where his mastery of fluctuating conditions on a showery afternoon saw him home 80-odd seconds ahead of Damon Hill in second and a lap clear of Alain Prost in third.

At Silverstone four years ago, Lewis Hamilton finished more than a minute ahead of the field on another soggy Sunday afternoon. In the final race of that season he came off the final bend in a Brazilian monsoon to rip the world title from the grasp of Felipe Massa, who was three corners into his lap of honour when the Ferrari hierarchy told him of Hamilton's unlikely sweep past Timo Glock's Toyota to claim fifth.

Sebastian Vettel alerted the world to his talent with a pole-to-flag maiden win for Toro Rosso at a wet Monza. Jenson Button, too, took his first grand prix victory in a stormy Budapest. Neither was in a championship-winning car but they jumped through those wet windows to demonstrate their credentials as racing men. Unpicking the skill is almost as hard as delivering it. It is not always profitable to ask the driver how he does it.

Senna believed he had a mystical connection to God and that he was the instrument of a greater power acting through him. What we know is that the car must be fundamentally good. The engineers can tinker with the set-up to make the ride softer to allow the heavily grooved tyres to disperse the water more efficiently, but ultimately the driver makes the difference. Television does not convey what these boys do. The commitment required to maximise the potential in what are prototype rockets is immense in the dry. In the wet it doubles. The best intuit the grip and feel their way to victory.

Fernando Alonso, an established warrior of the wet, offers a more prosaic explanation of how it's done.

"It's a combination of factors, one of which for sure will be the competitiveness of your car," he says. "Lewis and I, in our career we've normally been lucky to drive in good cars, winning cars, so in dry or wet conditions it has been a help.

"Then I think it's the experience you have and how many wet races you have done. Probably for Lewis, it rained a lot when he was competing in the early categories, as it does in my region [Oviedo] in Spain. My first races in Formula One in the wet, 10 or 11 years ago, I made a lot of mistakes that now I try to avoid. So the more races you do, the better you feel."

Hamilton concurred: "Us Brits should be pretty good in the wet. A lot of my success in the wet has come down to a lot of the weather we have here, a lot of my races up in Scotland – Larkhall, Rowrah, all over the country, all the experiences I had in karting, they've all contributed to the success I have nowadays.

"So I'm quite grateful for the changeable conditions throughout my career, but also grateful for good weather."

There will be not much of that. The forecast this weekend is dripping wet. The variables associated with rain might yet produce a random winner. If not expect the cream to float to the top.