Mens sana in corpore sano
Until recently, racing drivers invested many hours relentlessly training their bodies –surprisingly, without getting bored – but relatively little time training their minds: which is pretty odd, as racing is a famously cerebral sport, where multitasking under pressure is an essential attribute.
That’s all been changing though, with the ‘mental gym’ now becoming just as important (and tortuous) as the physical gym.
The theory is that the brain can be developed and enhanced just like a muscle through regular exercise, and there are all sorts of neurological studies involving MRI scans to prove it. But how exactly does it all work? As an experiment, we sent a bunch of journalists – a profession not always associated with athletic prowess – to find out. The venue was Viareggio in Tuscany, the headquarters of Formula Medicine, and the event was called ‘Inside a driver’s mind’.
In some cases, that’s a pretty dark place – but rather than delve into the inner psyche, the idea was to replicate the sort of mental tasks a driver commonly faces during a race with ‘normal’ people and work out who coped with them best.
As a benchmark, there was even a real Formula 1 driver in attendance: Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson. Not to mention DTM ace Bruno Spengler, who drives for BMW. So who came closest to emulating their skills?
Video games on steroids
The answer came from various instruments of psychological torture, with an emphasis on tyres and strategy. In one exercise, victims had to drive a video game ‘race’, choosing when to stop for fresh tyres, while also answering either ‘true’ or ‘false’ to various statements on the screen. Get the answers right and you make progress; get them wrong and you don’t. But there’s a catch: if you select a softer compound, just like real life, the questions come more rapidly, and you get a chance to go faster (as long as you answer them correctly). Select a harder compound and you have to make fewer pit stops but the questions arrive more slowly – so there’s less chance to get ahead. With four people playing at a time, there’s the stress of competition as well.
In yet another exercise, competitors had to ‘race’ each other in the face of different distractions, while their concentration was being monitored. But here’s the thing: if they concentrated on the task too much, this translated into over-driving in the game, and the cars slowed down as tyres degraded. The point is that drivers always need to have some spare mental capacity. It’s important to concentrate, but not to over-think it.
France’s next world champion?
The theory finally became practice during a simulator race at Monza, designed to be as accurate as possible (which is how one competitor even ended up being black-flagged). “Of course, it’s more like a video game, so it’s not the same sensation as really driving a car, but the perspective is quite accurate so it’s a good way to learn circuits,” commented Ericsson.
And disproving the theory that those who can drive do it, while those who can’t simply write about it, Auto Hebdo Formula 1 correspondent Julien Billiotte from France claimed the top prize from the 20 or so journalists who were present, which was a model P Zero Pink hypersoft tyre. As well as bragging rights for the rest of the year.
According to Doctor Riccardo Ceccarelli, who headed up the team assessing the journalists, Julien possessed the closest combination of ability, competitiveness, and calm to the professional racers, meaning that he had truly got ‘inside the driver’s mind.’
So if you’re ever visiting a grand prix and you see him behind you in the rental car queue, prepare to get overtaken…