Mind games: Uncovering the mental tools behind Formula One
Welcome to the first edition of ‘Mind Games,’ a series where we will delve into the psychological side of Formula One and discover what makes and breaks drivers, and the tools needed to create true champions.
Written by Justin Tan, Edited by Aiden Hover
Every one of the competitors on the 2021 Formula 1 grid – from multiple world champions to backmarkers – is brilliant at their profession. Even in the most extreme cases, the difference between teammates is rarely more than a couple of tenths over an 80-90 second lap time. They have all, without exception, truly earned their right to race at the pinnacle of motorsport.
What makes the difference between a fan and a racer? Relentless hard work, and in today’s world a bank account to match this. Nobody is born driving a car, hence there is no shortcut to honing the skills required in this arena. It simply requires long hours of teasing a speeding vehicle around spaghetti-shaped corners. This is how the brain gradually learns to read, react, and respond to the sensations felt all over the body as the car rolls and yaws to instantly convert that flood of data into clear instructions to then send back to the limbs attached to the steering wheel, brakes, and throttle.
The work has only just begun, following countless hours of practice. All the proficiency in the world will be of no use if you cannot access it on the one day – that one moment – when it really matters: the chaos of the run into the first corner, the critical wheel to wheel battle in the final stint, or keeping cool during a “Valtteri, its James” race defining moment. What separates the best is not the ability to nail a single stunning lap; it’s about doing it consistently, corner after corner, apex after apex, race after race, season after season. That consistency boils down to not only the bodily ability but a person’s mental strength, knowing that the brain controls everything. Watching Nikita Mazepin spin out at turn 3 of his first F1 race does not mean he has lost his hard-won abilities, he has just briefly forgotten how to access them. While he is a rookie, it is this mental slipup that separates him from the true greats of the sport.
All great achievers – from inventors to artists – are always great dreamers first.
Sport is no exception: to reach the top you must first dream of being at the top, to create that initial vision. Then you relentlessly chase that dream, no matter how many years of hard graft it takes, painting it in with more and more intricate details along the way. Once we imprint a message firmly enough into our subconscious minds, we find this inner will to drive us towards our picture-perfect vision. Technological advancement – shown through simulators – is built with the principle purpose of training F1 drivers to memorize and actively visualize every racetrack. However, memorization and visualization take up different parts of the brain.
This is the real reason why 4-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, can be found sitting in his stationary car with his eyes shut for the majority of Saturday lunchtimes. “Qualifying is very raw so you spend time going through the laps,” says Vettel. “What are the key points? Where do you have to improve compared to the run before?” “Once you start the lap there’s no time to think so you clear your mind and you have to be in the moment. Even if you make a mistake it’s important not to think about it. You just focus corner by corner, ideally, let it flow.” This profound aim to “clear your mind” and be “in the moment” has been central to spiritual traditions such as Zen Buddhism. These basic principles may seem eccentric and unusual to elite sport but everyone has their own ways of finding such focus, finding inner peace of mind, restoring our beliefs, and setting our true potential free.
Of course, this then begs the question of why Sebastian Vettel has found life on track such a struggle as of late.
He, like all the other drivers on the grid, could benefit from a mental cleanse the next time he spots Mercedes #44 and #77 in his mirrors. While the average internet fan would have us believe he has reverted to the standard of a beginner in the face of his former young teammate Charles Leclerc, that view simply does not hold the matter in my eyes.
If Sebastian was not a multiple world champion, Charles’ achievements would not cause such a stir. Vettel has not ‘lost it,’ it is just that none of his patented mental techniques are a secret anymore – in addition to the German now facing a fellow mental master in the sister scarlet red car.
Leclerc has worked with an F1 doctor turned mental coach, Riccardo Ceccarelli, since he was 11. This immersion to the mental side of elite sports has helped him understand the racing mentality, an art he has been honing ever since. While his beginnings with the Scuderia showed susceptibility to ‘red mist,’ his recent demeanor and turn of events show that he has won. “I’ve grown a lot mentally over the last few years,’ Leclerc says. “There are many techniques that can be used. I personally like the one picturing the perfect lap in my head, especially before qualifying. I do this often because it really helps.” “When I’m not in the car this imagery helps me hugely to be fully concentrated and readapt to the car quicker.” “Then for the race, it’s about looking at previous races and picturing all the different scenarios to be ready for any of them – like where to be at the first corner.”
While Leclerc’s comments echo his ex-teammate Sebastian Vettel, both Ferrari drivers have faced rather large external issues in recent years preventing them from winning: an on-song Sir Lewis Hamilton in an absolutely dominant Mercedes car.
Lewis has always insisted he will never use a mind coach – as has superstar Max Verstappen – but he is yet to face such a real mental opponent in his time at the Brackley outfit – with the exception of one year. While the titles rack up, his level of self-belief has rightly gone into the stratosphere.
This mental subject was a chink that Nico Rosberg spotted in his and Lewis’s armour ahead of his 2016 FIA Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship – after the pain of a Lewis domination the year prior. “We all train our bodies flat out every day, yet we don’t do that much for our minds,” says Rosberg. “So I really ramped it up in 2016 and found a way of working intensely with a mental trainer. My focus was on meditation. The word is often misinterpreted but in my case, it was about concentration practice and learning to control your mind.” “You can’t switch off negative emotions, but you can change how you react to them. If you’re aware, you can slow them down and move your mind towards more positive thoughts.” “I worked on it for 20 minutes every morning and evening throughout 2016, and it was beneficial both for racing and my life as a whole. It gave me that bit extra – and it’s a part of why I became world champion.”
The word ‘meditation is another that seems completely opposite to the pressures of elite sport, but it has had scientific backing recently and Rosberg credits it with giving him the calm to face the shots and pressures en route to unseating his teammate at the top step. Even then, he only just managed it, and the panic betrayed by his voice during the Abu Dhabi finale showed he was far from the epitome of inner peace, though he was steely and jubilant in his victory.
This is not an easy feat by any means, and Rosberg was so convinced he could not repeat this feat that he retired. Yet without his newfound mental tools, who knows, maybe he would have ended up in the barriers.
With the 2021 grid being closer than ever in the turbo-hybrid era, more than one has the opportunity to match Rosberg, and deny Hamilton a record-breaking 8th title – but only if they dream big, stay calm in the face of pressure, and truly believe in themselves. As a fan, I have longed to see a true title fight in years. I truly believe that Max or Valtteri can truly push him all the way, but it really is all in the mind.
*All quotes are from transcripts of “Behind the Grid” podcasts with the drivers.*