When the 2012 Formula 1 season starts in Melbourne on Sunday, 24 of the world’s best drivers will be putting their lives on the line. They’ll be battling wheel-to-wheel at speeds in excess of 200mph in the name of… well, in the name of what, exactly?
The winner of the Australian Grand Prix will receive a nice cup, and no doubt, a hefty financial bonus for his success, but is the lure of an oversized trophy and a wad of cash worth the very real possibility of death?
“The thing is,” says three-time world champion Nelson Piquet, “there’s nothing — not one thing — that’s as good as beating a rival you respect to win a grand prix. I sometimes p*ssed my pants during the slowing down lap because I was so happy.”
Piquet won 23 races during his 13-year F1 career, including the 1981, 1983 and 1987 Drivers’ Championships, and the pleasure he garnered from coming first tells us something about the motivation of the drivers. The highs are so high that the lows — or even worse — are worth the risks.
“We love what we do,” says Michael Schumacher. “We accept that there are risks involved and we’re doing our best to keep them to a minimum.” Plus today’s stars can hide behind the fragile argument that the sport is statistically safer than ever. Ayrton Senna was the last F1 driver to lose his life (in 1994) and the cars have since been made immeasurably less dangerous. “Ayrton didn’t die in vain because we’ve made great steps in safety since he passed away,” he adds. “But the danger is still there; we know that.”
Any residual complacency was knocked into touch last October when Dan Wheldon — a friend and former rival of Jenson Button — was killed in an IndyCar race in the US.Motor racing will always be dangerous, and that’s one of its attractions. The danger gives drivers a buzz. Ask F1 stars to name their favourite corners and they’ll always list the fastest and most dangerous bends in the world: Eau Rouge at Spa-Francorchamps, 130R at Suzuka, Copse at Silverstone and Turn 8 at Istanbul Park. They are all taken at speeds in excess of 180mph.So are the men behind the F1 wheels incredibly well-trained drivers, ‘stimulus addicts’ or just hell-bent on self-destruction?
“You know the risks before you step into the car,” says Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber. “But once you’re strapped in, you’re only thinking about how to improve the handling of the car and how to drive the perfect lap. To be fast in F1, you need to get all the details right and that’s what makes it so absorbing.”
Webber’s point about paying attention to the details has been reflected in the calibre of every world champion. The best drivers have been highly intelligent — almost without exception. Quadruple world champion Alain Prost was known as the Professor, such was his attention to detail and astute observations in technical briefings; Senna, apart from possessing an enormous amount of charisma, was always inquisitive; and Michael Schumacher has a fierce intellect and doesn’t need to be told things twice.
The ability to focus and live in the present is vital. “These guys have immense concentration,” says mental performance consultant Andy Barton from The Sporting Mind. F1 drivers don’t just bomb around the track thinking about what winning will mean to their team or contemplating how they’re going to catch their rival who’s currently three cars ahead; they focus only on the next corner. “As soon as you start thinking about the future you’re opening yourself up to anxiety, so when they’re at their best, their mind is very much in the present,” says Barton. “Stress doesn’t exist in the moment. They don’t have time to clutter their minds with unhelpful, distracting thoughts.”
Being a nation of thinkers, it’s hard to comprehend such mental discipline. But brain training is something we’re all capable of. “The brain is a muscle,” says Barton. “Taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus [the part of the brain used for navigation] than the average person. Similarly, racing drivers have developed their minds for the skills they require.”
And visualising the course is one mental skill that is inherent in all F1 drivers. “All the elite sports performers I’ve worked with are united by having an extremely vivid imagination,” says Barton. “When drivers mentally rehearse racing around the track, they’re feeling it, smelling it, tasting it even. It’s a multi-sensory experience.”
However, years spent training and preparing their minds is only part of what sets racing stars apart. “The F1 drivers are special people,” says Riccardo Ceccarelli, founder of Italian sports clinic, Formula Medicine. “They have to cope with a lot when they’re in the car: there is physical stress because the G-force is high and their heart rate is around 200bpm for two hours. They also have to concentrate hard. It’s an intense period.
“I’m often asked if they are like Superman, but that’s not the case. Their eyesight is often outstanding, but things such as reactions are similar to normal people. Where they are exceptional is in multitasking; it takes less brainpower for them to carry out tasks compared to you and me. That means they can be driving the car at 200mph while pressing buttons on the steering wheel and talking to the team over the radio at the same time.”
The aerodynamics on modern F1 cars generate so much grip that the drivers are subjected to forces up to 5G (supersonic pilots will experience, at most, 9G) through fast corners and under-braking. That’s particularly hard on their necks because their heads can feel like they weigh up to 25kg, and they’ll brake and turn many times in a lap, for as many as 72 laps in a race. The level of focus needed to hold everything together becomes addictive.
“I could never sleep the night after a race,” says 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg. “I’d get home and go out for drinks until 3am. I was knackered, but still wired and it took me a while to come down from the high — even if I hadn’t won the race. When you consider that we’d often be testing somewhere in Europe two days later, it was tiring. You burnt out, unless you were careful, and that’s one of the reasons why drivers’ careers were rarely longer than 10 years in those days.”
Today, there is next to no in-season testing and careers are significantly longer as a result. Michael Schumacher turned 43 in January and there’s speculation that he’ll continue with his current team, Mercedes AMG Petronas, beyond this season.
Schumacher is a ‘stimulus addict’ and that was never more apparent than after his leg-breaking accident at Silverstone in 1999. He missed his speed fix and the rate with which he returned from injury was incredible. He would have won his comeback race in Malaysia three months later had he not handed the win to his Ferrari team-mate Eddie Irvine.
“There are lots of reasons for drivers to be fit,” says F1 trainer Nick Harris. “The most obvious is the need to withstand the G-forces in the car. But fitness also helps you recover from trauma. It’s why Michael and many others have made such swift returns after injury.”
WIRED TO WIN
But if the drivers are so multi-talented, why are they so willing to put themselves in danger? “It’s the challenge,” said 1976 world champion James Hunt. “You do it to challenge yourself — to prove that you can overcome your fears. It’s mind over matter.” Hunt’s determination was legendary: he used to get so nervous before the start of a race that he’d vomit, yet he never shied away from getting in the car.
The drivers who win regularly are ruthless, both on and off the racetrack. They are prepared to do anything to win, whether it’s doing another 50 press-ups when their bodies are exhausted, or helping to lure the most gifted technical brains to join their team. Even the best drivers are only as good as the cars they are driving.
“You don’t want emotion in a racing car,” says 1979 world champion Jody Scheckter, “but I’ve been crazy as hell behind the wheel. I’ve felt so mad that I could have jumped out of the car at 200mph. I’ve changed gears without taking my foot off the accelerator, wanting to destroy the engine. I tried to show controlled aggression in the races, but when you’re desperate and there are only a few laps left, you can get angry and it becomes dangerous. But you just don’t care — you hold your foot down.”
Scheckter recognised his own shortcomings and retired from the sport just 12 months after winning the world title. Rather than becoming someone hell-bent on self-destruction, he demonstrated a high level of self-preservation and quit while he was ahead.
Senna also spoke about retirement prior to losing his life at Imola. He carried on because he didn’t want to let people down, so we’re told, and that might be the biggest skill of all: knowing when to quit before it’s too late.