Mind gains: inside the psyche of F1's greatest drivers

Drivers at the absolute limit say they experience a strange sensation on their way to perfection – but what is it?

Ayrton Senna McLaren F1 driver

Senna described going into a trance-like state while driving at Monaco

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David Brabham remembers asking his dad Jack what it takes to be a truly great racer. It was a big question for the young driver, but if he was expecting an elaborate answer from the triple world champion, he was to be disappointed.

“He was a man of few words and I remember he looked at me and then pointed to his head and said: ‘David, it’s all up there.’ He knew through his own experience that you get to perfection through your head.”

It wasn’t long before Brabham Jr discovered what his dad had meant – but the extreme nature of the experience took him completely by surprise. “It was a round of the Australian F2 series supporting the Grand Prix in Adelaide,” he says. “The main prize was an Australian Gold Star – it was something dad never got, so I really wanted to win it. But I had fallen out with him just before the race and I’d sworn at him, telling him to F-off.

“I remember I jumped into the car and channelled all my anger and determination into driving. I started in 35th place in that race, right at the back of the grid, but I was in such a rage and had such a level of intent that something really strange happened. I just knew I was going to win the race.

David Brabham 1992 Brabham F1 team

David Brabham says world champion father Jack helped him understand winning mentality

“I remember I judged what was happening perfectly, every gear change, every bend, every kerb. I was racing on a different level. I won the race. Afterwards I sat down and thought to myself: ‘Jesus, what just happened there, it was like someone else was driving that car’.”

It wasn’t the last time the sensation occurred. Years later Brabham was struggling during qualifying in the LMP675 class at Le Mans in 2004. Then from nowhere everything changed. “Suddenly it all started happening, I went from P11 to P1. Again I was literally watching myself drive. I felt a complete detachment from where I was. The only way to describe it is that I was a witness to my own driving. It was a lap of the gods.”

Brabham is not alone in finding that his best racing comes with a strange physical sensation. One of the greatest laps – perhaps the greatest – Damon Hill ever completed was shrouded in an other-worldly sensation.

In 1994 Hill in his Williams had been battling Michael Schumacher’s Benetton for the title all season. A disrupted Japanese GP at Suzuka meant Hill had to win the second part of the race by a margin of more than 6.8sec to claim aggregate victory and keep his title hopes alive. With 10 laps to go Schumacher was taking chunks out of Hill’s lead and hopes began to fade. Then something happened: starting the final lap Hill pulled out all the stops and eventually won by 3.365sec on aggregate.

Damon Hill WIlliams 1994 Japanese GP Suzuka

Hill says he channelled a higher power for his Suzuka ’94 charge – with a little help from Ayrton Senna

Grand Prix Photo

Ask Hill about it now and he says: “It was quite odd. The thing about it was that I was out of ideas and Michael was catching me on fresh rubber. By the final lap, I had reached my limit; there was nothing more I could do. The game was up. It sounds strange but I remember I appealed to Senna [who had been Hill’s team-mate before his death earlier in the season] as a sort of higher power, call it what you will.

“It was a last resort and then something happened. From Turn 1 through to the hairpin on that final lap I became a passenger, with someone else driving the car. I felt like I wasn’t even in the car. It was a really strange experience I haven’t got close to before or since.

“I never really talked about it at the time because you open yourself up to ridicule, although I wrote about it in my book. But afterwards I was just completely exhausted and I think I frightened myself a bit too.”

From the archive

Say the words ‘out-of-body experience’ and you might expect grizzled racing drivers to look at you askance. In the macho world of motor sport there is little room for mysticism, but in fact the opposite is true. It would be pushing it to say that belief in some sort of out-of-body experience is the norm among racing circles, but ask around and it becomes clear that it is an accepted as a phenomenon.

Few drivers like to talk about it public (like Hill, Brabham says “It’s not really the sort of thing you talk about in the paddock”), but many recognise it.

Perhaps the most famous example of reaching perfection through an unexplainable power is that of Ayrton Senna’s mythical qualifying lap around the streets of Monaco in 1988. Years after the event, he explained his perfect lap – where he ran 1.427sec faster than his team-mate Alain Prost – by saying was in a different dimension and drove beyond his own “conscious understanding”.

“I was already on pole and I was going faster and faster. One lap after the other, quicker, and quicker, and quicker, and I suddenly realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously.

“I was kind of driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. I was just going, going – more, and more, and more, and more. I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more. Then, suddenly, something just kicked me. I kind of woke up and I realised that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. Immediately my reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove back slowly to the pits and I didn’t want to go out any more that day. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”

The exact meaning of the phrase “conscious understanding” is open to debate, but it seems clear Senna experienced something out of the ordinary – and he wasn’t alone.

Damon Hill leads Jean Alesi in the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix

Hill’s charges on at Suzuka

Grand Prix Photo

“I am into double figures now of people who have told me that they have had actual out-of-body experiences and have genuinely been looking down on themselves,” says Clyde Brolin, author of In the Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big, published later this month, which explores the psychology of success in sport. “It is surprisingly common and it seems to affect racing drivers more than most.”

Brolin spoke to dozens of athletes – from tennis players to golfers and gymnasts, as well as drivers – and argues that reaching a state of complete concentration puts sportsmen and women into a state that he refers to as ‘the zone’.

“There are different levels of concentration and it starts with the basic sensation of being on autopilot,” he says. “It seems to happen when all the years of practice and training just flow out and there is nothing stopping it and the athletes let themselves go. It feels as if you are not doing it yourself. This is common to all athletes – not just racing drivers – and has been known about since the 1970s.

“Then there are the absolute extremes – where the person feels completely detached from themselves. This seems to happen more in motor sport and the reason is that motor sport is the perfect setting for it. Because apart from maybe on a straight, your level of concentration is so high there is no easing off for two hours. Tennis players, for example, reach this level of concentration but only in little bursts of half a minute or so, then they stop and start again.”

So is there any scientific basis for the phenomenon and if so is there a correlation between reaching such a state and improved performance?

Don Macpherson, a sports psychologist who has worked with several F1 drivers as well as Ryder Cup golfers and Wimbledon tennis champions, says he is convinced it can result in near-perfect performance.

“I’ve lost count of the number of drivers that have asked me about this,” he says. “They find it hard to talk about but they should talk about it – it is a wonderful thing. Two elements have to be in place for the phenomenon to occur. The first is high levels of concentration and the second is an element of danger.

“When there is a significant level of danger the normal mind – which is used to analysing things – jams up, so your natural instinct takes over. Your brain starts working differently, operating on deep memory, which in the case of racing drivers accesses all their training and practice. This is also why time seems to stretch and slow down. In effect what is happening is that drivers are reaching a different state of consciousness and in extreme cases this can mean feeling completely separate from their physical selves. In many ways this is the perfect state to be in when driving – you are channelling all your years of training directly to the car without your brain getting in the way. It can result in the ‘perfect’ lap.”

McLaren 1988 Senna

Senna at Monaco ’88 – F1’s greatest lap?

The element of danger isn’t just a psychological trigger, says Professor David Dexter, visiting Professor of Neuropharmacology at Imperial College, London, and an expert in how different drugs can affect the brain. “Quite a lot is known about the physiological changes in racing drivers,” he says.

“Most familiar is probably the hormonal and neurotransmitter changes associated with the fight or flight response.”

This reaction affects the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that controls body temperature and other functions, which tells the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, mainly adrenaline and cortisol. This in turn causes the heart rate and blood pressure to rise. The cortisol also suppresses the bodily functions that aren’t immediately needed to deal with the situation. The overall effect is to increase energy, concentration and agility.

According to Dexter, this reaction can work in tandem with other factors that affect racing drivers – in particular g forces. “When you are travelling quickly and experience increased positive g, blood is forced away from your head – that can affect vision and brain function due to the drop in oxygen reaching it.

From the archive

“One common effect, for example, is tunnel vision, which occurs at between 2 and 3g. Working together these physiological changes most probably account for the change in vision and any semi-out-of-body experience.”

So much for the science. But if it is simply a case of gravity and the body reacting to hormones it is pre-set to release at times of stress, how come drivers don’t experience the sensation every time they get in the car and hurtle around the track?

Hill, who as anyone who has read his autobiography will know is one of the most thoughtful of world champions, says he has pondered his experience often and in depth. He says that in many ways the frequency of experiencing such total concentration marks out the good drivers from the greats. The more often you get to the point where training, concentration, natural skill and the laws of physics and biology come together in complete harmony, the better driver you are.

But there’s more, too: “It seems to happen to people when they push themselves further than they think they can go,” he says, “right to the edge of the branch, which is a huge amount of mental stress.”

Jack Brabham was right all along, then: a lap of the gods is all in your head.


All in the mind?

The brain is in charge, but bodily responses are vital

Doctors and sports psychologists have long recognised the physical and emotional changes that affect racing drivers. Some think that during a race the exposure to danger activates the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. This is an automatic survival mechanism which prepares the body to take action. In racing drivers, however, this reaction can combine with other elements including the high concentration levels needed during a race and positive g to result in a so-called out-of-body-experience.

Racing thoughts: Once activated the fight or flight response speeds up thinking time and decision-making

Tunnel vision: High g forces experienced by drivers can result in tunnel vision as blood is forced away from the head

Dry mouth: Entire digestive system, including the mouth, shuts down in dangerous situations as energy is diverted towards the muscles

Concentration: Ability to focus on anything other than the immediate danger can become difficult when fight or flight response is activated

Breathing: Becomes quicker and shallower in order to take more oxygen to the muscles, but it can result in light- headedness or dizzyness

Heartbeat: A faster heartbeat feeds more blood to the muscles in preparation for fighting or running away. Hands get cold as blood diverts to major muscles; muscles tremble in order to remain ‘ready for action’

Adrenal glands release adrenaline: This sends signals to other parts of the body, so that they get ready to respond