Atlas F1   Taking the Lid Off F1

Formula One Technical Analysis

  by Will Gray, England

Atlas F1 presents a series of articles by certified engineer Will Gray, that investigates in greater depth all the technical areas involved in design, development, and construction of a Formula One car.

Part 4C: Racing Vehicle Environment -
Driver Psyche - Mental F1

Pressure. Imagine. You're driving around a circuit at crazy speeds, the guy on your tail, right on your tail, is catching. Let him by; you lose, he wins. Now imagine the fight is for the World Championship, and you begin to see the intensity of pressure the top drivers have to withstand every race.

The intense hopes and expectations of a Grand Prix can have psychological effects on the drivers in either a positive or a negative way. Most of the time, the emotions are kept well hidden, but you only have to look at the 1999 season to see them: Three grown men were seen to cry, right in front of millions of T.V. viewers. All three were Grand Prix drivers who had just lost the chance of their best or most important result of the season. That's pressure cracking. To the other extreme, witness the tears of joy from Jackie Stewart when, at the 1997 Monaco Grand Prix, his newly founded team scored an unexpected second place, and the crazy joyous antics of Rubens Barrichello every time he makes it to the podium! Formula One, by its very nature of intensity, puts pressures on drivers, team bosses, mechanics, and fans, which creates this reaction. Winners, losers - there is always rivers of emotion flowing around the circuit.

Throughout the grid, every team member is under intense pressure to perform. Engineers must make split second decisions and alter strategic plans in an instant, mechanics must do a ten minute job in just five, and even workers at the factory are under pressure working long hours to keep up with development. However, it's the twenty two drivers who sit on the grid who must carry the hopes of all these people upon their shoulders, and they are the ones who can chuck it all away.

The old saying goes "to finish first, first you have to finish." In F1, this becomes "to finish first, first you have to beat your teammate." Rivalry between teammates is often intense, because they are seen to have the same car and the only performance difference is in the driving. This is not strictly true, as their cars are often set up to drive quite differently, but the difference between teammates' times is down to their driving, and their ability to assist in setting up the car to suit their style. If he's behind, there's no-one else to blame! This rivalry can become extremely intense and bitter when teammates are battling closely at the front of the grid, as was the story of the late eighties and the classic Championship deciding crashes in Japan between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Pressure boiling over again.

The late Ayrton Senna, though, was as cool as they come, and many saw him as a cold person for that. In truth, his concentration dominated his life, and he quietly got on with the job in hand. He dealt with pressure. Michael Schumacher copes in a different way, but one which often makes him equally disliked by the public. He deals with pressure through arrogance (some would say he has a right to be arrogant!), and he is a genius at diplomatically airing his views! The similarity between these two is concentration.

Out on the track, the best driver is a focused driver. Qualifying gives us the chance to see the level of concentration required in Formula One. Drivers can be seen sitting in their garage, eyes shut, flicking their head around. They know every corner to the millimeter, and they drive each one in their mind. When it's time to head off for a flying lap, they have already lapped their mental circuit several times. They're focused.

Come race day, there are many other pressure factors. If the driver managed a good grid position the day before, his job in the race is that much easier. He will be motivated and pumped up to turn his good qualifying performance into a top result. If he qualified poorly, the driver's mind can send him two ways; he will either become even more determined to get back to the front, or he will be completely demotivated by his performance, and not think he has a chance in the race.

Incentive is a key motivating factor. There is no better incentive than to win, but the team and driver's job is to keep that incentive in sight when the driver is not in the lead. One way is to constantly report the gap between the driver and the cars ahead and behind, via radio and pitboards - but that can only motivate if he is closing on the one in front, or the guy behind is catching the driver up. The biggest incentive to a driver is visual contact. To see the car he is chasing is real, rather than just a bunch of numbers. He can see himself closing. It is incredible the amount of times that a driver will slack off during a race when he can't see the car he's chasing. If the driver isn't on the limit at all times when he's chasing, he's not giving himself the best chance to overhaul the gap.

The other race-deciding pressure is on the pit crews. Now, with racing so even at the top, we often hear of races won or lost in the pits. Precision timing is critical, and if any member of the well drilled team is out of place or makes a mistake, he could be costing the team vital championship points. The teams practice and practice, and know exactly what they have to do, but sometimes the pressure of the moment becomes all too great and mistakes are made - see Ferrari's efforts in the European Grand Prix!

F1 is a pressure game. In drivers, in team bosses, in strategists, mechanics, and engineers. In fans. Everyone feels it. Some cope, some let the pressure cooker boil over. Some are winners, some aren't.

Previous Parts in this Series: Parts 1 & 2 | Part 3 | Part 4A | Part 4B

Will Gray© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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