MIND GAMES

Still time for Hamilton to make his own luck

Lewis Hamilton, Brazilian GP 2007

Lewis Hamilton, Brazilian GP 2007 

 © The Cahier Archive

Lewis Hamilton brought up the subject himself before Korea. Kimi Raikkonen was 17 points back with two races to go in 2007 and he still won the title. Hamilton didn't mention it was his own generosity that ushered the Finn back into the hunt, but his point is clear. In today's money, anyone now heading to the final Brazil/Abu Dhabi double-header within 42 points can still turn it around.

In a season of such twists and turns as 2010, writing off anyone within that would be bold, even if it requires further charity by the front-runners. Technically there are still five in it, then, even if Jenson Button (42 back) admits he's all but out. Hamilton's gap to new leader Fernando Alonso is half that - a comparative breeze.

Hamilton's spirit as a racer was amply illustrated by his desperation to get going in the Korean wet as the leaders whined about the conditions, trying to preserve their championship advantage by default. That he is still in the hunt is therefore deserved, even if his race performance didn't match such enthusiasm.

The Briton was twice passed as the safety car peeled off. The first led to an almighty stroke of luck as Nico Rosberg, not him, was taken off by Mark Webber's spin. The second allowed Alonso through for the win. After that it was about hanging on, as it has been all year. Hamilton's never had the best car but the rest have shot themselves in the footwells so often he's been gifted the chance to cling on at the top. Only lately has he succumbed to bad fortunes of his own, self-inflicted and otherwise.

Kimi Raikkonen, Brazilian GP 2007

Kimi Raikkonen, Brazilian GP 2007 

 © The Cahier Archive

"It's funny, I've never believed in luck; I've always believed you make your own luck," Hamilton told his personal website before Korea. "But that belief has been stretched a bit over the last four grands prix. I go racing with my heart and I race hard, but that approach hasn't paid off too well for me recently. Still, I've learnt on more than one occasion that the world championship isn't won until the very last gasp - so I've definitely not given up."

Perhaps Hamilton has now been reassured after all as he heads to Interlagos, the scene of his own famous last gasp glory. But if he wants to keep making his own luck, one of his countrymen shows how to follow the process through to its natural conclusion.

Raikkonen was not the only beneficiary of a late change of fortune in a global motor sport series three years ago. For an even more astonishing example of how the fates can work, consider the bizarre climax to the 2007 World Touring Car Championship.

In the WTCC each weekend has two races, with the top eight in the first race reversed to form the grid for the second. To keep the title as open as possible the series uses 'success ballast' - weight handicaps to penalise the best drivers at successive events - so the odds are openly stacked against anyone running away with it.

Yet Britain's Andy Priaulx had done just that by taking three straight titles, the first when the series was still based exclusively in Europe in 2004. He was joint leader as he travelled to the 2007 Macau double-header finale - but with no less than five other drivers still capable of denying him four in a row. Then it all fell apart.

Priaulx qualified a lowly 12th and in race one he had gained only one place around the twisty street circuit by lap eight of nine. His main challengers were running first and second while he was heading not only for no points, but for a similarly impossible grid spot in the second race. Bye bye championship.

Then a sequence of events set itself in motion that defied belief. First, leader Yvan Muller pulled over when his fuel pump fell off - the only mechanical failure of the race. Within half a lap, second-placed Augusto Farfus clashed with third-placed Gabriele Tarquini, clattering the barriers and putting himself out.

Suddenly, from nowhere, Priaulx was up to ninth, just a spot away from the prized eighth place that would earn him pole for race two. Fellow BMW driver Duncan Huisman duly moved over for his title-chasing team-mate. P8.

It meant Priaulx started the last race from the front with a point's advantage. Better yet, Muller and Farfus's cars could not be repaired in time so they weren't even on the grid. Priaulx still had to hold off fellow Brit James Thompson but he did so, romping to win the race and an unlikely fourth title.

Andy Priaulx, Macau 2007

Andy Priaulx, Macau 2007 

 © BMW AG

Surely Priaulx must have thought his luck had run out as the laps ticked away in race one and he was on the road to nowhere? Not a chance, as I found when I spoke to him for Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone.

"All I can say is I wouldn't outwardly say I knew, but I knew," said Priaulx. "I was 12th on the grid but I still visualised myself winning the title. I kept that up through the whole race. I was deviated and I brought myself back. I didn't cloud the issue: I wanted to win, I wanted to be champion. I could see the podium but I didn't know how I was going to get there. So I visualised it.

"It was an intense way of meditating to bring myself back to my visualisation and my goal and it happened. I have a knack of doing that throughout my whole career. You need a bit of luck but you've got to look for it sometimes. There are some things I've had happen with the car that you really couldn't have anticipated, but I did. That day in Macau some other things happened which you wouldn't believe, which I wouldn't like to talk about. People would say I'm really weird..."

Okay, let's cut Priaulx some slack for now because on many weirdness scales he will have already shot up beyond eleven. Readers of Overdrive will get an idea of just how far Priaulx really did fly round the Macau streets but for now let's concentrate on how this 'visualisation' thing works.

The technique is used widely throughout sport. Many routinely carry out a complete mental rehearsal of an event, such as rowers gathering to work through every stroke of a big race the night before. In motor racing the classic image is of a driver with his eyes closed in the cockpit going through either a qualifying lap or the run to the first corner. Priaulx reckons this process of picturing the future can be crucial not only to be prepared but even to tailor it to your liking.

"All the best athletes and the best drivers do it," he claims. "Legends like Michael Schumacher and Valentino Rossi have got the natural ability, but they can do it year in year out because they back it up with good visualisation, good awareness. I've seen Michael close his eyes on the grid. Maybe he doesn't know he's doing it, but when drivers do that I think they're meditating naturally. The guys who pray before races are doing the same thing. It's all about belief.

Andy Priaulx

Andy Priaulx 

 © BMW AG

"Some guys do it naturally and some have to work on it. Other drivers rely too much on their natural ability - their arms and elbows - and not enough on their mental, psychological, spiritual side. You have to do the work before you get in the car because when you're in the car you have to be completely intuitive and free and not think about it. You've almost done it at a subconscious level so it just happens."

Priaulx is widely read both on the science of different states of brain activity and on spiritual matters. Not a typical sportsman, then, but he can back up the otherworldly theory with the experience of reaching the top of this more concrete world of ours. His string of titles may be the stuff of fairytales, but his early career hardly looked like it was heading for a happy ending. That is what prompted this racing driver from Guernsey to delve into such esoteric subjects in the first place.

"Natural ability is not enough in motor racing," he says. "My main challenge was trying to find money and I didn't know how to deal with it. I was struggling, getting loads of 'nos' on the phone every week and then having to get into a racing car I knew I couldn't afford to drive.

"I found that very hard to overcome. There was so much negativity around it reflected in my driving. I was desperate and prepared to do anything. Then a friend said, 'Have you tried meditation?' So I started to develop a practical form of meditation where I visualised shaking hands with the guy I was talking to. In the end it was successful."

The average Zen master squatting atop a mountain may flinch to think of meditation as a means to make money. But motor racing is an uncompromising world. Priaulx's mission was all about the end result, a race seat, and it paid off. And if meditation can be turned into a practical shortcut to a racing budget, that is nothing compared to what it can achieve in the car.

"People talk about the Zone as a very outward thing but it's not," he insists. "It's very spiritual. The Zone is when you're operating at the intuitive level. You're not thinking about it so it happens naturally. Your awareness is at a level that you hear a pin drop or the smallest fly in the crowd.

"When I started with the meditation I was hardly ever in the Zone. Then over time I worked out what it took to get there. Maybe some drivers can get there naturally. But I believe those who are consistently competitive throughout their whole careers know how to attract it.

Lewis Hamilton, Brazilian GP 2008

Lewis Hamilton, Brazilian GP 2008 

 © The Cahier Archive

"My approach is spiritual but I'm not going to sit under a tree for three days and hope something happens. I've got a spiritual way of producing performances and success but it's also a practical way. I don't just sit here and say, 'I'm going to be champion.' I visualise it and think, 'What do I need to do to be champion?' I'll back it up with hard work and action. I work, work, work but still visualising the end result.

"It's very easy to go into a negative spiral. So it's about trying to turn that around and say the glass is half-full and I'm going to fill it up. That's something very successful people manage to do all the time. It's about realising you're in control of the universe and what you want to achieve you can. I believe you can make it come to you before it happens - not always when you want it, but it does eventually come."

No amount of visualisation will suddenly make Hamilton or Priaulx title favourites, of course - especially as this 'universe control' is available to all. If Alonso unlocks the secret at Interlagos then he'll be away. Even Priaulx couldn't overturn SEAT's recent WTCC dominance, but this year he's won six races and is just 25 points behind leader Muller with two weekends left. Still, I wonder how much of a head start the rest will feel comfortable with as they sit on that Macau grid for next month's finale. 43?

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

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