Sidetracked with Ed Foster

An eye on the big picture

Teams use various methods to make sure drivers remain in peak condition, but sometimes a little lateral thought is required

Have you ever driven home one day, arrived and thought ‘I don’t remember how I got here?’ It’s slightly worrying when it happens and usually we chastise ourselves for not concentrating.

What if I told you that you weren’t necessarily being as dangerous as you thought? Bear with me… What you have done, when you drive home without being aware of the process, is use the subconscious part of your brain rather than the conscious. That underlines the pace of your subconscious compared with your rather sloppy conscious.

Some studies show your subconscious can process four billion bits of information per second, while others quote 40 billion and, recently, Pennsylvania University suggested the figure could be 400 billion. It doesn’t really matter which is closest to the truth, though, because the conscious part of your brain can process only 2000 bits of information per second.

You see what I mean about sloppy? Let’s rewind to the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, when Ayrton Senna qualified almost 1.5 seconds fasterthan anyone else. “I realised,” he said
afterwards, “that I was way beyond my conscious understanding, I was in a different dimension”. He had quite possibly been using his subconscious and therefore it felt as though he wasn’t actually driving the McLaren, much like you didn’t feel like you had been driving your car home.

I mention all this because I recently went to see Silverstone-based iZone Driver Performance, which majors on being able to capitalise on your subconscious. As you arrive you hear the sound of simulators being driven in nearby rooms, but not in the conventional manner. iZone – which was co-founded by triple World Touring Car champion Andy Priaulx and his coach John Pratt, an ex-racer who has studied psychology – doesn’t look at car set-up, tyres, suspension, aerodynamics or even braking points. All iZone cares about is the driver – are they in their ‘peak performance state’? Are they in (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) ‘the zone’?

Former Toleman Group managing director Alex Hawkridge is the chairman of iZone, which was founded in 2009. “Senna used to say that he was half a second ahead of the car,”

Hawkridge tells me as we walk past an inverted photo of Lance Armstrong (iZone’s alternative to removing the American’s photo when the drugs scandal broke). “That was thanks to his subconscious – he was driving through one corner, but engaging with the next one and making necessary adjustments. We don’t have braking points on our simulators, because your subconscious can work out whether you have exited the last corner faster or slower than normal. It gauges your approach speed – because you have visual references flying past you in your peripheral vision – and knows when you need to brake, for how long and for how hard.

“If there’s an accident you have to subconsciously decide which way to go immediately – if you thought about it properly it would all be over before you started. It’s got to be a reflex action.” It all sounds like a good basis for racing, but how exactly does iZone help a driver improve? Its approach is, upon reflection, very simple. You arrive and are put to the test in terms of fitness, driving and mindset. The results are then placed on a spider graph, with the weakest areas placed farthest from the centre. iZone’s job is to move all of those pointstowards the middle. Its aim is to create natural drivers and much of this work is done in one of the company’s two simulators… and I’m strapped in just before lunch.

I am put in a Lotus Elise (a car I know reasonably well thanks to my time in “Lance”, the office 111S). I peel from the virtual Silverstone pits and know the track, which helps. I don’t know it that well, though, because instead of recognising the new pits I think I’m exiting the old complex and thus crash immediately. Having rejoined I start setting (some very slow) lap times.

These improve steadily, but when I am introduced to the eye tracker they start to come down considerably more quickly.The eye tracker is a system the army pioneered for use on helicopter gunships – wherever the weapons guy was looking, the firepower would go. On the iZone simulator it tracks where you’re looking and it becomes apparent that I am not peering far enough ahead. I’m shown a video of where a top single-seater driver looks and it’s amazing they can even hit an apex – in the middle of Club Corner their eyes will already be lookingtowards the clipping point at Abbey.

Once I start trying to do the same, my times tumble. Not only am I positioning the car better, I am concentrating hard on what is about to happen and driving without thinking about it. Welcome (sort of) to the subconscious.

For drivers who can use Zen techniques and breathing, Pratt has done some interesting tests aimed at achieving the same goal. He has let thempound around a track until they can’t go any faster and then, without telling them why, he has made them start Zen breathing while driving. No fewer than 11 of 12 drivers improved their times immediately, by as
much as three tenths.

Not bad when you consider how many drivers hunt for thousandths of a second through car set-up in qualifying. And it’s not just amateurs who improve – iZone managed similar results with a current F1 front-runner.

This might sound a bit Uri Geller, but last year iZone helped nurture five karting champions. As you walk past a board revealing the top fitness scores, you’ll recognise a huge number of drivers from a wide variety of disciplines.

So what does this all cost? Well, there’s good and bad news… The good news is that at £150 an hour, it’s much cheaper than doing a Formula 3 test. It’s also less expensive than most other simulator businesses, where you won’t get any sort of support or instruction.

OK, it’s not as cheap as heading off to an arrive-and-drive kart session, but how much is that going to teach you? The bad news? Knowing how much you could improve as a driver, you’ll struggle to look your team in the eye and complain that your car’s underperforming.