A lot of focus is put on the physical element of motorsport – are you fit enough? Are racing drivers athletes? But what goes on in a driver’s mind when they’re behind the wheel. The human mind is a complex enough bit of kit without the effect of putting it inside a racing driver who needs to go out into a racing car and take on the pressure of a race and the other competitors out there.
To understand better what goes on behind the visor, I spoke to three different drivers to get their take on how to face the mental challenges of a race weekend and the difficulties of being behind the wheel. Each of them has their own individual take, and there’s good reason to speak to them.
Joe Osborne is one of the newest McLaren factory drivers, with a wealth of racing experience in GT racing and as a high speed driver coach for the marque puts both car and driver through their paces. Anna Walewska has won the 24 Hours of Dubai with Century Motorsport, and is an ARDS driving instructor and so has plenty of experience in getting new drivers up to race standard. Adam Christodoulou is a Mercedes man, and flies the globe to take part in as many races as they can throw at him, with a new pressure situation every weekend. Each of these drivers gave me their take on the mindset game.
First and foremost – let’s start outside of the car. The build up to a race is a crescendo of adrenaline, but can a racing driver really get nervous about stepping in their car? “Everyone will get pre-race nerves,” says Christodoulou. “It would be unnatural if you didn’t! Generally it’s when you’re waiting to put your helmet on it starts to catch up with you a little bit. It’s different for everyone. I get more nervous I think if you’re fighting for a strong podium position and it’s closer to the end of race.” Walewska’s take is much more passionate. “If you don’t have nerves, you don’t have passion. You’ve got to have that adrenaline kick. The key is to manage the nerves. You learn how to deal with it. You’re in constant ‘fight or flight’ mode – but you need to learn when to be able to switch it off and switch it on.”
Once the nerves are settled, it’s time to concentrate on matters on track. Joe Osborne’s focus is purely on making everything work for him on track. “I always like to do a quick lap in my head. Go through each corner and brake references. How many gears am I going down? What are the points of interest for that corner? Is it a hard brake? Is it a soft brake? Am I hitting the kerb? Am I looking for track limits on the exit? Is it an over taking point? I’m trying to get through as many scenarios in my head right before the race so it’s at its freshest.”
In an endurance race, a driver can face a much tougher mental obstacle – not being in the car at the start. Christodoulou explains the mood. “At the start of the race, you’re very aware, it becomes very quiet in the garage because everyone’s watching the TV footage and sector times. It’s a risky time of the race. The nerves kick in for me closer to knowing when I get into the car – of course if the safety car comes out things change quickly and you don’t have time to think about it. It’s earplugs in, balaclava on, helmet on and get ready to jump in the thing.”
Joe Osborne’s take is similar. “I feel a lot worse out of the car than in the car. When you’re in the car you’re the first to know of any problems, whereas when you’re watching, the data feels a little bit late to you. You’re watching ‘over the shoulder’ of your teammate all the time.”
They say a problem shared is a problem halved, and Anna Walewska explained the importance of speaking to the team in preparing mentally for a race. “In a team environment, my engineer is the most important person. To me, on a personal and a working level and for strategy, they need to understand where I’m at in my head so they can manage it. If you’ve got that rapport, it’ll either work or it won’t, so discussing with my engineer is key in that process.”
Even in the formation lap, contact with the pit crew is vital to keeping in the zone, and Adam Christodoulou talked through what goes on at the final run to the starting line. “You go through your procedures, making sure you’re in the correct engine map, and that you’re getting the tyres and brakes up to temperature and it’s a bit like pre-flight checks. Different teams speak different amounts too – in America they speak to you every lap whereas in Blancpain they’ll give you a mark of how far you are through the race or your stint. It depends on what the team is used to.”
Keeping the focus on the opening laps is critical, but there are always opportunities. “It is (too easy to go hard) in an endurance race,” says Walewska. “But in a sprint race yes, it is all about the first corner. The strategy is keep clean – no damage – come away with progression. If you can make up a few places on the first corner or first lap, great. If not – let it go, it’ll come back later in the race. You can’t strategise everything, but you can visualise how you want the start to go, and where you want to finish. You’re almost a passenger to an extent, but you need to have that outlook to your end result.”
Joe Osborne gave us his take on finding what drivers call rhythm. “I’m fortunate that I’ve been doing this for so long now that I don’t struggle to find a rhythm. I’ve had scenarios where it’s a last minute call in a 24 hour race and you’re getting your helmet on as quickly as you can and you’ve just got to jump in and go, and sometimes maybe adds a little stress because you haven’t gone through things the way you wanted to. But it doesn’t have a negative effect on performance, you just haven’t gone through all your procedure. You can’t be precious in endurance racing – you need to be a plug and play driver when required.”
Then we come to the crunch – making moves up the field. There’s a lot made of aggressive driving, but is there a difference between attack and aggression? “It’s always going to be a thin line between the two,” says Christodoulou. “You have to go out there and attack straight away. It does depend on the championship, the track, and also your tyres. Some tracks are hard on tyres, so you don’t want to go out and go ‘purple sector’ on your first flying lap, because by the end of the stint you’ll be screaming that you’ve got no tyres left! When you’re fighting against others, it’s important to make sure you get ahead of them. You never want to be stuck behind someone, so you attack as soon as you can.”
Walewska agrees. “Sprint racing is all about being aggressive, showing your nose. Psychology is a big part of motorsport so before you get to the grid, you’re psyching the other drivers out. Even on the green flag lap – it’s all about presence. If I’m alongside a driver slightly in front of me, as the green flag drops, I’m down the road. I’m in front, and warming the tyres and brakes until the last moment when you have to get back in formation.”
But there’s even time to make plans to make the pass you’re after. “100% – you can plan to make an overtake. Obviously it’s given to you in a certain environment,” says Walewska. “If the guy in front has a little push (understeer), you know he’s going to be slow and be a couple of mph down. You don’t think “attack” on that corner specifically, but you know you’re going to be up on him. So, do I slipstream out or I do I know the car under him isn’t good enough in the next corner? Then I know exactly what he’s going to do, and I can pre-plan the attack.”
The planning process must begin immediately though, according to Osborne: “As soon as you’re in vision of them you’re trying to work out where they’re at their weakest. You can work out where you’re closing the gap the most. Are they leaving a particular corner slightly open where you can throw a move down them. I tend to like to go for the 3rd or 4th more obvious overtaking point. Most drivers know where the ‘big’ overtaking points are. But if you can create or re-discover a point that’s not particularly used, like Hamilton at Snetterton where I can manufacture a different line which allows me to overtake, if someone isn’t expecting it they don’t defend from you.”
Putting on pressure is key to good attack, and can also work in defence too. Osborne is clear on how he feels about putting others under pressure. “I don’t think there’s ever enough pressure. I’m a mind game character, I’m happy to be mind-gamed myself! I think all is fair in love and war.” There are lines though. “I don’t flash my headlights at other professional drivers. It’s pretty derogatory to think that flashing your headlights is going to put someone off. Under safety car I’ll always be nice and close to the driver infront so they know I want to overtake them and get on the front foot. I’ll put pressure on so they don’t get into their rhythm.”
Pressure can of course backfire. “When you’re frustrated, you tend to overdrive,” explains Walewska. “ So you are pushing the tyre a bit too much. You see it on your delta, your lap time is coming down way too much. Regroup. Think about hitting your apexes and getting everything on song, and then get going again. Pressure is all about presence. If I hesitate in a move, say I’m going to nosedive into a hairpin, the other driver knows I’m not quite 100%. You’ve got to make your presence aware and they know then that that person, Anna, is coming through.”
When you’re up against a stubborn opponent, sometimes it’s out of the driver’s hands. “You’ve got to hope there’s a little luck on your side! But at the same time they may be on a different strategy so, it’s in their best interest to not lose time either.” Christodoulou draws on his experience in the Mercedes GT machinery. “Our advantage is on tyres and in high speed corners, so we have to attack during the complex parts of the circuit and maybe do a lunge to get past. As soon as you catch one car up, you’re looking at the next one. You’ll end up with a few laps of understanding where you’re gaining and losing. With backmarkers involved, it’s important to get ahead before where you know your car has an advantage, because if you’re stuck you can lose time and you’ll never recover that.”
Defending is a much more difficult prospect and Christodoulou is honest on his perspective against an aggressive opponent. “It’s tough. If you’ve just come out of the pits and it’s happening, you’ve got to manage it and have the confidence and the belief that you are quicker than them. Of course, you don’t know that you are quicker than them at that moment. And because you don’t want to lose time to people infront, you have to make a tactical decision – do I let the guy behind past and jump others who are possibly fighting amongst themselves? It’s a gamble of position vs how much time you’ll end up losing against other people.”
Joe Osborne takes a much more practical view of defence, especially when you go into a weekend knowing your car isn’t at it’s best. “You’ve got to think you can prepare for the car not being at it’s best. If you’ve got a good Balance of Performance it’s a lovely weekend. When it’s a bad Balance of Performance you’ve still got to get as many points as you can. If you’re in a defensive mindset you know where to position your car. And attitude’s a huge thing. If you move the car across the track quickly left to right, you look super aggressive, whereas if you move slowly, the other guy thinks you’re half heartedly defending. You’ve got to use your car as your vocal point. If the driver behind can’t get past you, he’s doubting himself . ‘Even though I’m faster than this guy, can I actually pass him?’ You’ve got the upperhand as the defender.”
Walewska also believes there’s the opportunity to reverse the pressure when you’re ahead. “It’s reverse psychology. Everything you have to do is on point. You bang in your apexes, you get quick exit speed. There needs to be aggression in the car – so they know it’s going to be difficult to pass. Equally if someone makes a last minute nosedive, I’ve got them, I’m not going to do anything stupid. I’ll do the cutback, I’ll go in a little deeper and bring the speed right down, which will enable me to get back on the power earlier than they can because they’ve missed the apex and have scrubbed the tyres. It’s all preparation in your head.”
Not everyone agrees that pressure is a reversible thing, and Adam Christodoulou is thoughtful on the matter. “Pressure is not really reversible. Unless you back them up into the traffic behind. You try and beat them mentally by doing a better job of being faster than them! If you know you’re not, then you can use tactics on them, back them up so that then they have to fight for position. But generally that’s very risky.”
When it comes to race driving, there’s nothing that beats the rush of adrenaline that you feel, but to get there, first you must apply yourself both physically and mentally. Hopefully the insights from the drivers have opened up a pathway into the mind of a good driver, and how it feels to take on the biggest thrill and the toughest challenges of a race weekend.
With my very greatest thanks to Joe Osborne, Anna Walewska and Adam Christodoulou, who took the time to sit with me and put up with some very provoking questions onto how their heads work in a race car.
©Pete Richardson April 2019