Head starts for Hamilton and Webber
SEPTEMBER 1, 2010
BY CLYDE BROLIN
If there remains any doubt that grand prix motor racing is primarily a mental contest, the Belgian Grand Prix provided the perfect illustration.
In the most trying of circumstances - a mixture of wet and drying conditions round Spa's legendary mix of corners - not one of the protagonists made it through the race without some kind of hiccup.
Some proved more catastrophic than others, of course. That there are now two clear leaders in the title race is because the other three contenders were all taken out in queues at the Bus Stop. Of those only Sebastian Vettel was at fault, eliminating reigning world champion Jenson Button in the process.
Vettel has again come in for some hefty criticism, not least from the burly McLaren pit crew who stared him out during his drive-through penalty. The clearly ruffled young German looked ever more the schoolboy as the race progressed and his errors mounted up, offering his detractors yet more material.
But an indication of the hardships all the drivers faced comes courtesy of 300-race veteran Rubens Barrichello, who earlier piled into Fernando Alonso at the same place. If the Spaniard was the innocent victim of this midfield clash, he went on to take himself out with a late spin.
Such mishaps make Lewis Hamilton's dominant performance look even more sublime - but even the top three didn't come through entirely unscathed. Robert Kubica again performed admirably in the Renault, apart from an early off en route to Les Combes and the misjudged pit stop arrival that lost him second place to Mark Webber, who had himself squandered pole with a slow getaway.
Hamilton's otherwise immaculate weekend was dented (or nearly) by his own off at the Bus Stop, albeit before there was a Ferrari to run into, and his late brush with the barriers from which he escaped only with the help of 'the Lord'. But he'd earned that slice of divine intervention with a qualifying lap in the Saturday rain that had the rest of the field looking to the heavens.
Hamilton and Webber are typical of the new breed of superfit grand prix driver, but it is their mental strength that has earned the pair their current breakaway from the most competitive championship field in years. There is, you see, a limit to the importance of physical condition in driving fast.
During my research for Overdrive I met Dr Riccardo Ceccarelli, who has worked in F1 since 1989, lately with Renault - you now see him accompanying Kubica at races. The Italian heads Formula Medicine, a company specialising in driver fitness whose 600 clients to date include many of the current grid.
Ceccarelli's physical method is to train drivers to be fitter than they need to be, with the crucial muscles in the neck, arms and shoulders slightly oversized. Given that they face two hours of an average lateral force of 2G, he prepares their necks to withstand 3G. If they have to turn a steering wheel with effort of 20kg, he prepares them to handle 30kg, so a force that feels heavy to you or me feels light to a driver - even when they are not at 100 percent. But any further physical prowess is overkill.
"A driver needs to reach a certain level of fitness to keep his effort down and his mind clear," says Ceccarelli. "But it is not the case that the fitter you are, the better you drive. If you have to be at fitness level eight to last a race distance, it doesn't matter whether you are at ten or twelve. Being as strong as Schwarzenegger or being in a state to win a marathon doesn't make you drive any faster.
"When you get to the point where your heart is working well and you're fit enough and strong enough in the neck and arms to make driving easy, the last part is the mind. A grand prix is a marathon not for the muscles but for the brain."
For 20 years Ceccarelli has quantified concentration by fitting heart monitors to F1's stars as they race. Drivers have a resting heart rate of between 50 and 60bpm. When the lights go out that can rise to 140bpm purely due to adrenalin - but that is still the low point of the race because they haven't yet expended physical effort. The rate averages 160bpm under normal racing conditions and stays consistent unless they crash, in which case it goes off the scale.
But Ceccarelli's heart rate printouts are illuminating because when a driver is under particular pressure - trying to overtake, defending attacks from behind or putting in a string of hot laps - the rate rises by 20bpm. Ceccarelli insists the difference is purely down to increased mental activity. His research suggests drivers use their brain to its full capacity on a qualifying lap but they can't maintain that level of concentration for an entire race - like asking a sprinter to keep up his pace for a marathon - hence the short bursts of higher activity.
Clearly the 'fitter' the driver is mentally the better, and Hamilton and Webber showed at Spa and all year just how much muscle they've got up top. Sadly there is no weight training regime for the brain but working with teenage hopefuls has helped Ceccarelli analyse the mental qualities that see some reach the top while others fall away.
It's not an exact science because motor racing has even more factors than other sports when it comes to who makes it, including upbringing and sponsorship opportunities.
But Ceccarelli's team has accurately predicted success for the likes of Kubica and Felipe Massa, who completed Spa's top four.
Ceccarelli has a homemade list of personality factors that affect performance: 'Cheap' drivers, for instance, use just the right amount of physical and mental energy on what they're doing, ensuring nothing goes to waste and staying more relaxed. 'Expensive' drivers go over the top, tensing muscles, gripping the wheel too tight or thinking too hard, raising their heart rate artificially and wasting precious energy.
If you're a 'sponge' you soak up all the problems you're facing off the racetrack and keep them inside you, whereas if you're 'waterproof' you let them all bounce off and you just don't care. In racing driver terms, 'cheap waterproof' wins hands down.
"When you are euphoric you can do anything and it is all easy," says Ceccarelli. "If you're alone, feeling the pressure and without a good relationship with the team, your performance will normally get worse, especially if you're a sponge. Maybe some drivers are truly waterproof and can thrive in such a situation by putting 110 percent into it. They react to a difficult situation by saying: 'Okay, you want to get rid of me so now I'm going to show you what I'm really made of.' But I've seen very few like that. Normally if you are suspicious of those around you the pressure and the problems get on top of you.
"The last part of performance comes from a mentally perfect attitude. If you're motivated and have a good atmosphere when you race, with people around who you trust and a team that believes in you and works for you, you'll perform well and make few mistakes. Every driver tries to create a positive atmosphere - 'his' atmosphere. This involves the team, too, where a political war can develop. Some drivers are good at creating an atmosphere for them rather than the other driver. In this case the driver with the right connections performs better and the other one performs worse. This is normal in every sport and entirely down to the mental attitude."
Much has been made of Vettel's youth, but maybe what he really needs is a raincoat. By contrast Webber's career of always finding himself in the wrong car at the wrong time may just have provided him with the umbrella he needs.
As such, you can understand his frustration over the apparent preferential treatment for his team-mate, and his request for the situation now to be reversed. Ironically, the Silverstone flap over wings may come to haunt him, making it harder for Red Bull to justify backing him - even if they wanted to, which he clearly doubts. No doubt he is speculating what would now be playing out if Vettel had his kind of lead.
Hamilton, by contrast, has made no claim for backup from Button - only right given the flare-up he witnessed during his very first season over that subject. He's been in blistering form yet until Sunday Button had been ominously trailing his every move, barely falling back in the standings. After Spa, if anything it's the reigning champion who is owed a break.
The facade of civility in McLaren has been impressive but you can bet there is steel behind those smiles too. As one grand prix winner told me in Overdrive: "If you are up against another driver in the same equipment, the battle between you is almost entirely mental. It's mind-blowing, but you know it's all up here in your head."
Perhaps what best links Webber and Hamilton is that they have both overcome a recent hard time to get here, just as Button did before last year's fairytale resurgence. During pre-season testing in 2009 you could hardly have made a case for any of them to become imminent title challengers.
To recall, Button was absent entirely for most of it. Webber was hobbling around on one leg following his bike crash, knowing he'd need all his determination just to make the grid for what turned out to be his best year yet. Such grit comes from the muscle in your head too - and in 2010 he's competing not only in the best car but with both mind and body fully functional.
That same winter, Hamilton knew he would have to defend his title with a dog of a McLaren, a situation that deteriorated further with the hysteria over the lies to the stewards in Australia. But his firm faith in his ability to turn negative experiences into positive energy has been borne out. Few question how much stronger the battles at the back have made him. He leads the title in what is still the inferior car.
The other title challengers still have plenty of chances to reassert themselves, indeed Vettel must take heart that his current problems are setting him up well for the future. But for now Hamilton and Webber have a head start in more ways than one. Keep that when all about you are losing theirs then, which is more, you'll be the man, my son.
Clyde Brolin is the author of 'Overdrive - Formula 1 in the Zone'