MIND GAMES

Don't think before you peak

Drivers, Bahrain GP 2010

Drivers, Bahrain GP 2010 

 © The Cahier Archive

Insomniacs will blearily tell you that their mind jumps into overdrive at the moment when they least want it to. It's the same with racing drivers and other top sportsmen chasing a goal. The closer you get, the more idle chatter appears: "What if I blow it now? What if such-and-such happens or so-and-so suddenly finds form?"

Then there are the if-only moments, reliving errors and misfortunes without which life right now would be a lot easier: "Why did the car have to break just then? Why oh why did I attempt that move?"

Left to itself, the mind is a capricious rascal capable of disappearing in all directions at the most inopportune moments. Hitting the Zone - the blissful area of performance where everything just works - is all about controlling this mental freefall. Some tame it naturally, others use anything from meditation to hearing the right piece of music to having a nap before the race (insomniacs need not apply). But it has to be tamed.

Fernando Alonso, Singapore GP 2010

Fernando Alonso, Singapore GP 2010 

 © The Cahier Archive

After Fernando Alonso's Singapore triumph reshuffled the five cards on top of the F1 deck yet again, Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali stated that the championship is now a mental battle. He's right - but success in this unprecedented five-way contest will hinge not on doing the most thinking but the least.

All the contenders know how to race and how to win. But to perform to their natural best as glory nears, they will have to block out all thoughts both of everything that has gone before and of the end result.

Jenson Button gave us the perfect demonstration of how hard it is to make it over the line with his faltering ride to last year's championship despite winning six out of the first seven races. As the pack closed in he started playing the percentage game, edging towards a title which had clearly been in his sights since race one.

Jenson Button, Singapore GP 2010

Jenson Button, Singapore GP 2010 

 © The Cahier Archive

It eventually needed the impetus of his disastrous Brazil qualifying session to release him from his thoughts and give him the freedom just to go for it. With nothing to lose he reverted back to his natural game and flew to the 5th place he needed to wrap it up with a race left.

Now he's been there, done that and got the trophy, the current big F1 debate is how far such experience can help and hinder in this year's totally contrasting title race. In 2009 the field was spread out but this time they're bunched and primed for the sprint finish. Of the five title contenders, three are already world champions. So is it better to be a title virgin or a championship Casanova?

For the answer they would be wise to listen to the words of one Jimmie Johnson, who knows all about getting it right when it matters. NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup guarantees a shootout over the last ten races of the 36-race season. Johnson has turned that into his own private playground, taking the last four titles. The secret? He's found a way to hone the Zone.

Jimmie Johnson, Four times Nascar Champion

Jimmie Johnson, Four times Nascar Champion 

 Photo: The Freewheeling Daredevil

"Even at the speeds we race at, there are times when you have the ability to slow everything down and simplify it," Johnson told me in Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone. "You can almost predict what's going to happen and be ready for it. Then you have great results. That's the Zone."

"Athletes aim for that Zone in different sports, but in ours it's not just the mind that needs to be right. The equipment needs to be right. The driver, team and engineers all perfect the car and when it all comes together it works and you're in the Zone. But the car's not always going to be perfect. You have circuits where it's always challenging and you are never comfortable. So for me it's more about being at one with myself."

"As a new driver you're thinking, 'Here's my braking zone, here's my apex'. With experience you're not thinking about that, you're just focused in on what you're going to do. When you're at the top of your game you're just trying to get deeper and deeper into the rhythm of the track. That comes with experience."

Johnson has already had to draw on that experience this year after a disastrous first race in the Chase, only to recover and win race two at Dover's 'Monster Mile', taking maximum points and reasserting his own challenge for his fifth straight title. But what is most intriguing is what Johnson revealed about the very different states his head was in for his first two championships.

"No one can operate to their best when they're stressed out," he added. "In my second championship year I knew what to expect. I knew the games my mind was going to play. I knew the fear, the worry and everything that would come - and once it started coming I had it. I said, 'I'm just not going to listen to it. All I'm going to do is drive that car.' "

"I just tried to put it out of my mind and, while it didn't go away, it worked well - better than the first year anyway. You're not concerned about the title or other people. You're just thinking about putting the car where you want. When you have that ability you can place the car wherever you want, however you want. It's second nature."

Sebastian Vettel, Singapore GP 2010

Sebastian Vettel, Singapore GP 2010 

 © The Cahier Archive

Whoever best slips back into this 'second nature' in 2010's remaining F1 races will surely come away with the crown. That's not easy, especially with the tricks the mind plays. When your goal is a lifetime's ambition dating back decades it requires serious mental gymnastics to fool yourself into ignoring its importance.

This is where the three with championships in the bank do have an advantage, despite Michael Schumacher's insistence to the contrary. Perhaps this is no surprise given the German's weakness in title battles (see Mind Games - Fight or flight for Schumacher at Spa?>).

Indeed the next stop on the calendar, Suzuka, may have hosted his favourite ever race - the lights-to-flag duel of qualifying laps in 2000 against Mika Hakkinen - but that came in the penultimate round. It also hosted two of his title finale struggles. In 1998 he stalled on the grid and handed the honours to Hakkinen. In 2003 he stumbled his way to the 8th place he needed.

Perhaps Schumacher was just giving some backing to countryman Sebastian Vettel, whose Japanese trip will provide an untimely reminder of his brusque introduction to Mark Webber when he took them both out as they followed Hamilton behind the Fuji safety car in 2007.

Mark Webber, Singapore GP 2010

Mark Webber, Singapore GP 2010 

 © The Cahier Archive

There is a flipside, though, and it's not just beginner's luck. In Singapore, Webber was his usual eloquent self about the challenges the Red Bull pair face over the title run-in. "In any case where you have slightly unchartered waters it obviously comes with a degree of inexperience. But there's also that great thing that you are incredibly hungry for it. It's not that McLaren and Ferrari aren't, but we as a team at Red Bull totally understand how unique this opportunity is."

"JB, Lewis and Fernando have won more titles and hats off to them. They have been there but we're not leading the championship by mistake. We're optimistic that we can continue to chip away in the next few weeks. Then the closer it gets the more exciting it will be."

"Will five of us go to Abu Dhabi? It might be unlikely. It might be four. It might be three. It might be one. None of us know. But what I do know is that we have to finish races, keep hanging in there. We need to be in the hunt at Abu Dhabi."

As for form man Fernando Alonso, after his Singapore win he spoke about how he is peaking at the right time this year. Whereas at this point of some seasons the Spaniard admits to tiring of all the travel and everything else that surrounds his sport, this year he's just freshening up. That's ominous for the rest because he is someone who knows the Zone well (see Mind Games - Any sport in a storm for Alonso?).

"In a championship that is nine months long you cannot be completely fit, focused, motivated one hundred percent for all the races, every month," he said. "So we go up and down, this is normal for all sports. But now in this part of the championship I'm at a peak, one hundred percent of motivation and concentration. So it's good to arrive now. It feels like the championship is starting now."

Peaking is everything in many sports - notably the Olympics or football's World Cup - but it's not typical in Formula 1 which is more of a steady slog where consistency reigns. But Alonso is right. This year it's about who peaks at the right time.

Jurgen Grobler, the German who has coached Great Britain's rowing crews to many Olympic medals for two decades, says in Overdrive: "In rowing you have to find that extra when it matters. The Olympics are once every four years so rowers have to find the performance on the big day. Not a day earlier, not a day later. But I've often seen crews do things way above expectations. In long-term preparations you find out what you think your limits are. Then people go beyond. On the day they find that bit extra they thought they didn't have. That's why records get better all the time."

Lewis Hamilton, Singapore GP 2010

Lewis Hamilton, Singapore GP 2010 

 © The Cahier Archive

It's possible that even Alonso is peaking too soon. After a championship like this you get the feeling that it isn't going to peter out into anything remotely predictable. The freedom that comes with the 'all-or-nothing' attitude shown by Button in Brazil last year means we can't rule anyone out yet - including the reigning champion.

Many wrote Button off as mistaken in going to McLaren in the first place. He may have been largely outpaced by his flying team-mate over the season but he's within five points after 15 races. And he's been there more recently than any of them.

Hamilton meanwhile has a double-whammy to ponder in the long hours between the flyaways. Yet he still has time to recover too, and he is right to insist that he won't change his style. He may have taken nothing from the last two races but it's to his credit that he didn't play the cautious game in Singapore. Instead he went for broke - and got it. That is, lest we forget, what motor racing is about.

If Hamilton tries to tone down his natural style now he'll have to make a conscious effort to do it, so he'd be sure to miss out on the Zone. And remember he already knows all about late peaking, as his own 2008 title fight took that to extremes even he may not wish to relive.

Best not to think about it...

Clyde Brolin is the author of 'Overdrive - Formula 1 in the Zone'

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