The car. The driver. The team. The spirit. The special sauce? The glue that binds the parts into more than their sum? The mind.
Boxing and the 100 metre sprint are the least equipment-biased sports, while motor sport, along with off-shore power boat racing and open ocean yacht racing, are more susceptible to the impacts of equipment.
Your scribe has stepped into the ring nationally and internationally in martial arts (Tae Kwon Do in my case) in Europe and Australia. There is nothing like the beauty, simplicity and raw energy of doing battle with nothing but one's hands, feet, and mind. As with Usain Bolt and the 100 metres it is simple and usually clear who has won with these very human focused contests. At the very peak of such sports the dividing line between first and fifty-first is usually impossible to measure in terms of technical capability in the sport. It is all within the unseen world of the mind that those last fractions of effort and endurance which lift one to the top step are generated.
We are fast entering the excitement of season 2023. Who of the drivers, team members, team principals and master designers has the finest mind, the best belief and the greatest passion for "Death before dishonour"? From the blessed front of the grid to the blighted back, the impact of the machine can out-weigh the impact of the driver. Yet that machine only exists because it was imagined, designed and then crafted into being by humans. Once again the mind was master over the matter.
Until ChatGTP knows more than Adrian Newey, Gordon Murray and Patrick Head combined AI is not about to design "the full package". The human mind rules the genius creation of ideas within the rules that humans then work with computers to realise as an artistic symphony of composites and rare metals.
Does Adrian Newey awaken each morning, thinking: "Gee, I bet those new Ferrari guys are way smarter than me. Why bother? I'll ring Ross, and we can go fishing..." I believe not. At the other extreme does he start the day with: "Tremble! I am a God walking among little people! Bow before me!!!" (Commence deep, evil laugh). Again, no. Possibly Adrian awakens to dreamy concepts of laminar flow and boundary layers. Yet his mental attitude is far more likely to mirror that of Michael Jordan at his peak. "I have faith in my ability. I've trained for this. I am not afraid to push to the limits and gracefully accept occasional failure in the passionate pursuit of eventual victory." He might not actively think that, but the quality of his designs year after year tend to suggest he very much lives it.
Likewise each design team member, simulator curator, team lead, pit crew member and data analyst in a successful team has the mental fortitude to focus on the prize. This power of the mind gifts them the heart to power through tough days (and nights) to gain that winning edge.
Look at the great Ferrari implosion of 2022. The drivers didn't suddenly qualify at the back of the grid. Indeed, Charles managed to start on pole and subsequently have the win escape him on more than one occasion. The pit crew did not suddenly add an extra 2 seconds to each pit stop. Yet overall once the team made a couple of mistakes early in the season, they as a group slumped into the wrong headspace. In desperation they, probably unwittingly, shifted to a "Play not to fail" mind-set, rather than a "Victory before all else, we can withstand occasional failure!" approach. As a result the second half of their season was blighted by mentally induced missteps.
Contrast that to Mercedes and Red Bull. Mercedes had to mentally strengthen themselves every single race, because the 2022 car design failed them. Miss Physics did not change any of her laws in the off-season. The Mercedes design team took calculated risks, and in this rare instance they did not work as planned. The resilience shown by the team all season long was a master class in maintaining a healthy mental approach while suffering a very challenging year.
Despite not saying that much about it, one can assume the grumbling about "Mercedes was robbed" at the end of 2021 stung Red Bull a tad. So with ruthless determination they had a "We will simply do our talking on track" approach to 2022. Christian and V. Max were the clearest example of this mind-set, yet there is no doubt every Red Bull team member wanted to not just address, but completely crush, any doubts about their ability to win championships. That mind-set saw them gracefully follow Ferrari home for the first few races before bolting to the finish line with races to spare in the second half of the season.
There is a strong line to be drawn between sincere mental strength and high confidence, compared to delusional thinking. If Haas and Williams announced during the pre-season period they were targeting consistent wins and the championship double this year it would be a bridge too far. Their stretch targets are to be strong, or for Haas possibly, leading, mid-field performers.
Flipping it again, if either stated their goal this year was to finish last, and not expect a single point all season, then they have defeated themselves before a wheel has turned in anger. Realistic but challenging goals, underpinned by a winning mentality, need to be believed and honoured throughout each team to maximise their outcomes this year.
Drivers! Long may they late brake to the apex. I'm always tickled when observers question why a driver would say in a pre-season interview something like: "I'm targeting consistent wins, and possibly the championship." Why would you not say this? Can you imagine Usain Bolt saying before a race, "I'm targeting a great mid-field finish. These guys have worked hard all season, and I think it's time I allowed them on the podium." Ah... no.
The top half of the grid should all be considering an occasional win as a possibility. All of the grid should consider occasional points as a given. A sensible winning attitude does not mean winning the race. It means winning the battle with one's self to achieve at the highest level, for the given circumstance.
Consider the fascinating case of Daniel Ricciardo. What happened to him at McLaren? We will probably have to wait another decade for the eventual tell-all book, but in the meantime we can only work on the assumption he lost the mental game somehow.
Americans usually quote Vince Lombardi, an NFL coach who generated career stats of 9 wins to a single loss in the play offs, and a career win rate of 73.8%. Born in New York in 1913, Vince died in September 1970. He coached from 1937 until 1969. A stellar 32 year coaching and leadership career. He provided so many inspiring leadership quotes it is hard to pick just a few standouts.
Given the F1 "We race as one" slogan, his 1960 quote on colour is quite remarkable given the very poor standing of this topic in the US at that time. Vince had a strong anti-discrimination stance, and when pressed responded on one occasion by stating he "... viewed his players as neither black nor white, but Packer green." (At the time he was coaching the Green Bay Packers who have green as a prime colour in their uniform). Of his many great quotes I'll go with these three; "The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary." "We didn't lose the game; we ran out of time." And "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect."
A leading psychologist of the modern era is Dr. Bob Rotella. While he has applied the bulk of his career to Golf, he has wide ranging advice of use to any sport. One of his many wonderful books is "Putting out of your mind" where he outlines getting out of your own way and letting your subconscious provide the outcome by being in the moment... assuming you've done all that perfect practice Vince recommended, to actually know, really know, what it is you should be doing.
Daniel had long ago moved from "Conscious Competence", to "Unconscious Competence" - which is to say he instinctively knew how to drive fast. He was the F1 equivalent of "Putting out of his mind" so what went wrong?
The technology does not suit him? Fitness falling away? Or mental distractions with businesses, partnerships, external non-driving commitments which all required a slice of mind, heart and soul?
I believe it is a mental issue which has caused Daniel to stumble these past few seasons. As a result it is 100% recoverable if he finds the right support to walk the pathway currently untraveled. Does he have a mental sport psychology team working tirelessly with him? I do not know, but I'd strongly recommend it if he ever wants to get back into an F1 car, far less climb back on the podium.
Like all the great achievers within the crazy universe of F1, Daniel needs inner calm, strong grounding, an amazing support team and then plausible self-belief. Just as teams tend to talk about the car as "the package" these days, all the high performers within F1 need to be the complete package to perform at their full potential.
Be it Lewis with his dog providing soulful company, Christian humming old Spice Girls hits or Seb smirking and considering a Monty Python quote, each amazing performer within F1 needs to be in the right frame of mind to win. Otherwise all the support team and car details in the world are simply for nothing.
At the end of the day our highly technology dependant sport is still 100% predicated on humans performing at amazing levels. Do we want to see each of them strive for immortality this season, pressing the bounds of performance, the laws of Physics, and the rules to the very verge of breaking? Well, don't mind if I do...
Learn more about Max and check out his previous features, here