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Formula One driver psychology 23 Dec 2004

Nigel Mansell (GBR) tests a Jordan Ford EJ13. Formula One Testing, Silverstone, England, 28 June 2004. World © Moy/Sutton (L to R): Niki Lauda (AUT) Ferrari, before his fiery accident in the race, which inflicted life-threatening burns, talks with Jody Scheckter (RSA) Tyrrell, who finished the race in second position. German Grand Prix, Rd 10, Nurburgring, Germany, 1 August 1976. World © Phipps/Sutton Gilles Villeneuve (CDN) Ferrari finished in eighth position. German Grand Prix, Rd 10, Hockenheim, Germany, 29 July 1979. World © Phipps/Sutton Race winner Didier Pironi (FRA) Ferrari sprays the champagne as a livid second place finisher Gilles Villeneuve (CDN) (left) looks on Ð enraged over what he saw as a breach of team orders when Pironi raced to victory. San Marino Grand Prix, Imola, Italy, April 25 1982. World © Phipps/Sutton Jaguar Team Associate Jackie Stewart (GBR).
Formula One World Championship, Rd2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, 20 March 2003

How the very best use mind power to their advantage

It is said the emotional highs are higher and the lows lower in Formula One racing than in any other sport. Drivers engage in a constant psychological struggle to counteract a mental turmoil of anxiety, disappointment, despair, anger, jealousy, resentment, sorrow and fear. Small wonder then, that many believe drivers to have elements of schizophrenia, paranoia and/or various other personality disorders within their mental make-up.

Indeed, a strong case can be made for the concept that some emotions and character traits normally regarded as antisocial – rage, hate, greed, lust, revenge, ruthlessness, and so on – may be necessary to fuel competitive fires to the levels necessary to excel in Formula One racing, hence the old adage ‘nice guys finish last’. It may also pay off for a driver to be paranoid, feeling that the whole world is against him, which, in fact, all his rivals are.

Nigel Mansell was just one example of a driver who seemed to parlay paranoia into success on the track. “We’ve always had bad losers – Nigel Mansell is a bad winner,” is how Keke Rosberg, the 1982 champion with Williams, characterised the man who, with the same team, lifted the title ten years later.

Mansell excelled in adversarial situations, in fact needed them to perform at his best, and if they didn’t exist he seemed to go out of his way to create difficulties which invariably raised his aggression levels even higher. He was continually at war with the track and everything on it, he fought with his team, his team-mates, the media, the FIA, and anyone he thought stood in his way. But the embattled Mansell was also one of the most exciting drivers of all time and when he retired he became a well-adjusted civilian.

So did Jody Scheckter, the 1979 champion, who as a driver also had a love-hate relationship with the sport and sometimes failed to keep the potentially destructive emotion of anger under control. Scheckter: “I’ve been crazy as hell and felt so mad I could have jumped out of the car at 200mph. I’ve changed gears without taking my foot off the accelerator, wanting to destroy the engine. I used to get really upset in practice and qualifying; that was the worst time. The races were more about controlled aggression. But when you’re really desperate and there’s only a few laps left you get angry and it gets really dangerous. But you just don’t care. You hold your foot down.”

After he retired (because, he admits, he became fearful for his life) Scheckter tried to convince his good friend Gilles Villeneuve that anger could be his downfall. But Scheckter’s advice, given to Villeneuve a few days before the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, was tragically ignored by one of the most passionate of all drivers.

In the previous race Villeneuve’s team-mate Didier Pironi had overtaken him, against Ferrari team orders, and won. Villeneuve’s deeply felt sense of betrayal caused him such mental anguish that he vowed never to speak to Pironi again and, come what may, he would beat him in Belgium. There, when Pironi had set a faster qualifying time, Villeneuve came upon Jochen Mass’s slower car, refused to lift off and suffered the horrible accident that took his life. While Villeneuve undoubtedly took more risks than any driver in his era, most people believe he died because his dangerously confused state of mind interfered with his sense of judgement.

Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart believes the ability to control the mind (a skill Villeneuve arguably lacked) is what makes the difference between a very good driver and a great driver. “The mind is everything,” says the Scot. “All the boys in Formula One today have gifts from God and there’s 20 of them. Then there’s the top six, then the extraordinary three. But the genius is the one who takes it to another level. That is Michael Schumacher today, just as there once was Fangio, Clark, myself if you like, Lauda, Prost, Senna – the absolute multiple champions. And it’s always the head that took them there.”

All of which supports the strong and growing body of evidence that rather than running madly off in all directions in pursuit of physical fitness, today’s Formula One drivers may find it more productive to have their heads examined…