Perception & Action podcast: The Science of the Racer’s Brain
MotoPod podcast: The Science of the Racer’s Brain

Interviews (text transcripts):

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Interview with Dr. Otto Lappi by Aake Kinnunen 1

Otto Lappi, a research fellow settling down into a table at a café in Helsinki surprises: a love of speed and racing is revealed underneath the shell of an academy researcher. “I never thought that I would actually get to do research on these things”, he chuckles.

The Science of the Racer’s Brain, his book that came out last year was, according to Otto Lappi, a kind of call-to-arms for the academic world. This is a world which has not always been particularly interested in motor racing as a professional sport, less so as a cognitive research area for cognitive science.

This little-studied field is often perceived marginal, or it gets conflated with traffic psychology. Lappi wrote his book in collaboration wit a racing driver performance analyst Alan Dove from the UK.

Following its publication, contacts have come from different directions. Researchers are as coming out of hiding, as it were, to disclose that they also are interested in motorsport.

– Contacts have been developed into Austria, Germany, Great Britain and also the Omnia motorsport career education here in Finland, Lappi says.

In the future he hopes that the book will inspire more researchers to get involved with motorsport as a research field.

From traffic to motorsport

Dr. Lappi’s field of study is Cognitive Science. Lappi is laughing, relieved to hear from the interviewer that this time he is not being mixed up with traffic psychologists.

For us laymen, the difference is that although cognitive science has much in common with experimental psychology, for example regarding research methods, in cognitive science the focus is on the processes of the mind from a more “engineering point of view” – working models and simulations is the goal, not so much clinical or societal application.

Answers are sought, for example, to how memory, attention or perception work – often automatically and “under the hood” – in different environments. On the other hand, cognitive science operates more like computer science and in the direction of artificial intelligence: comparing a human driver and a robot car opens completely new perspectives on the functioning of the human mind.

– I have always been particularly interested in driving as a research environment, Lappi sums up.

He wrote his dissertation by studying the eye movements of drivers cornering in traffic in Espoo, Hyvinkää and the Ring III ring-road.

Traffic research was always, however, a kind of stepping stone for Lappi, because already at that point motorsport was on his mind.

– The idea was from the beginning that I wanted to take this research in the direction of expertise and elite performance. I thought of measurements in traffic as groundwork, to which speed gets added at some point.

The foundation: a drive to improve

Carried out on test tracks and in driving simulators, cognitive research focuses on learning and expertise, and how the mastery of a skill develops. The basic motive is to find out what makes some of us fast, and the rest of us are not able to repeat these performances.

– There are some people who can really take a car through the bend at high speed. Others cannot. I would like to know which properties underlie this different. How the underlying mechanisms work differently, where the differences come from, and how some succeed in developing these abilities to such a high level.

Often people’s interest in racing and driving, let alone race driving that combines these, is based on specific applications. There is a perceived need to improve traffic safety, or to select the right people for an athlete development program.

However, Lappi’s research group is conducting basic research. Fundamental research aims to define the important research questions, what is necessary to understand the phenomenon in the first place. First, you need to figure out what questions need to be asked. Then you need to find or develop research methods that are appropriate to attacking these questions.

– The exciting thing about basic research is that you don’t know where it is going to take you 10 years from now, Lappi gets excited when describing his position within the field.

One reason Lappi identifies professional sports in general and motorsport in particular as a good field of research, is that there are many different exercises and drills, aimed to improve and measure specific aspects of athlete performance. While the origin or effectiveness of some of these may be partly obscure, motorsport training principles have been documented well in the professional literature for drivers and coaches.

Focusing on the gaze

Lappi highlights the use of gaze, which he has studied a lot. Within the motorsport community, one broadly accepted belief is that slower drivers look too close in front of them, and the faster driver looks further. In driver training, drivers are reminded to “look far enough”, and the issue has even been investigated by teams and driver coaches using eye trackers.

But there is little scientific research on this. It is undefined, for example, how far one should look, when this should be, and where and how feedback should be given to the driver (before the run, after it, or via pit radio), and so on.

In this case, the beliefs and practices in the motorsport community give a clue as to where there are interesting objects of study for basic scientific research, and inspiration on how to develop more rigorous experimental paradigms.

It is also interesting to compare the use of the gaze on the racetrack and in traffic. The viewing distance is further on the track and the environment is more spacious, so the visibility is better and Lappi is currently interested in studying peripheral vision, as is utilized in figuring out the whole bend.

– I would say that the use of gaze reflects differences in the basic logic of the tasks – ow a car is taken through a bend on the race track vs. in traffic and how attention and memory need to be used to guide steering, Lappi sums up.

In traffic, you have to look from one object to another. Pedestrians, road signs, mirrors, other cars – all of these are objects that must be observed, recognized and memorized. In addition to the driving task, the driver has a lot to do in everyday traffic – other tasks, beside what demanded by the physical driving environment itself. Traffic rules and speed limits need to be observed, for example. All these are demanding some of the driver’s capacity.

In other words, in terms of attentional demands motor sports is actually a clearer task than driving in traffic?

– Clearer, yes, but not easier, Lappi smiles.

Inspired by the flow experience

With their total focus of attention, race drivers may get themselves into a “meditative” flow state. At the theoretical level, flow is thought to emerge when a person can concentrate their attention entirely into one single task. The mind does not jump from one task or percept to another. Racing is a good task to study in this regard, because in order to perform it well, you have to focus so completely.

Lappi explains how the speed and the performance is created by the brain’s ability to anticipate, despite the high speeds and quite uncomfortable environment of the racing car, the track layout and the behavior of the car far ahead. This takes the gaze also further along on the road.

– It is interesting: what are the processes of attention which generate a flow experience, which in turn leads to this change in gaze strategy, and at the same time produces speed in the driving task? These processes cannot be measured with any device; with eye trackers you only see where the eye looks, Lappi explains his enthusiasm for the flow state.

Lappi is also fascinated by the fact that the descriptions of the flow state are so similar across people. Tunnel vision changes into a widescreen, high-definition field of vision, and time seems to slow down.

Because of the way the visual field is organized in the brain, this experience must partly be based on memory.

– It is interesting for the researcher that there is some fascinating but consistent here unknown process here, and furthermore the means by which it can be switched on and off.

So where did the academician’s love for motorsport come from?

– Who knows where out own whims idiosyncrasies have come from, Lappi grins.

However, clues are to be found in photos taken when he was three years old, sitting behind the wheel of his father’s Dodge Dart.

– Motorsport also was on my mind when I was an undergraduate student. How the concepts and research methods of cognitive science, psychology and neurophysiology could be put to work to give me a deeper understanding of racing.

At that time, Papyrus’ Grand Prix Legends and NASCAR games would frequently be running on his PC. While driving, Lappi would also be reflecting on human problem solving, and what he had learned about how the mind works.

A garage of summer cars

Even if there is something to explore in all elite sports, a purely personal interest in motorsport stems from this background.

In the traffic research of his dissertation, 1.6-liter Toyota Corollas equipped with eye trackers and telemetry data logging were used. Although the speed didn’t make your head spin, it was a background research that helped developed with the methods, and in terms of developing the right questions. It is also easier to find test subjects for traffic research.

– Of course, most people can drive a car but it is very difficult to find race drivers as test subjects, the scientist smiles.

And are there hobby cars in the garage?

– Summer cars are a first-generation Mazda MX-5, and also a first-generation Porsche Boxster S. And a Porsche 924 as a project car. But the word “project car” probably tells you that at the moment it is not a runner. I do not know what’s going to happen with that but at one point I just had to go out and buy something, because the car fever got so bad, Lappi laughs.

After our chat, it doesn’t seem so surprising at all that Lappi and Dove devoted their books to the pursuit of speed and knowledge.

1 Translated from Finnish original published in Moottori magazine 03/2023. Translation by O. Lappi. Published with permission.

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Talent, Work Ethic and the Drive to Improve

Interview with Ross Bentley Part III


This third and for the moment last instalment of the Ross Bentley interview is about working with different forms of information, the hunger for information that keeps you learning, and the importance of that constant need for self-improvement.

This goes to the core of the ‘seven laws of expertise’ we write about in the book  (especially ‘law one’, constant development and ‘law seven’, progressive problem solving).

OL: Talking about ’talent’ and the skill developed from that talent: what’s your view on development potential (whatever you want to call it)?

When you are looking at a driver – sitting there in the car, or watching them on video, or going through their telemetry… – and you assess ’Okay this one’s a bit good’ or ’This one is, well, not that good… yet’ what is it that you see?

There’s obviously the lap time, but there’s different ways of achieving a lap time, and as you said, lap time now is not necessarily the index of potential in four years time…

RB: One way of answering that question is I’ve been asked: ‘If you were gonna go and find a driver that’s gonna go to Formula One, what would you look for?’

And having thought a lot about that: the number one thing would actually be work ethic. And an openness to that work ethic. I’ve seen a lot of very talented drivers come along but not go as far as they could, because they didn’t have a strong work ethic. They weren’t able, they weren’t willing, to put in the effort that it takes. Lewis Hamilton, you could say, was born with all his natural talent – but he has worked really hard at developing that talent. And every one of those drivers at the top level has. So, if there was just one thing this would be what I would look for.

There are certain drivers that I’ve worked with, where I say ’I want you to go and do this – brake fifteen meters later, turn your head and look to here, change your line to turn in earlier here, whatever… – and these drivers are able to go and do that right away. Two examples of this that are not from the young driver pool is two actors: Patrick Dempsey and Craig T. Nelson. Coaching them was fantastic, because you would say something to them, you’d say ’brake fifteen meters later and you could see them go. It was like they were first rehearsing lines for a movie, and they’d run it through in their mind, and they’d go on the track and they would do it right! And the best drivers that I’ve seen – again whether they’re 14 years old 40 years old – they’re able to do that.

And sometimes I say something, sometimes I’ll draw something, sometimes I’ll show them something in the data… I have a driver that if you show them the squiggly lines on the screen and say ’Go make that brake trace with your foot – go draw that line.’ He will go and draw that line! That’s how he interprets things. So, part of my job as a coach is to present the information in the right way – but they have the ability to take that information, and act on it. Whereas with other drivers you can say it to them, you can draw pictures, you can show them video, over and over and over again… and really it takes them a long, long time to do that.

I don’t know if that’s a skill, if that’s a trait, I don’t know what that is. But it’s something that separates the best from the rest. To be able to take in information. They can look at data on a screen and go ’Oh I need to do this, and they go and do it. Whereas somebody else will look at the data on the screen and say ’I need to go and do this…and they have a hard time applying it.

Watching what the driver does in the car, I guess it’s basic eye-hand coordination. It’s good timing for things. Those are things that when I see I go ’Okay that’s pretty special’. Some people tend to be born with more of that, some of it comes from years of playing different sports, having developed those skills, that ability.

But you come back to: ’but how badly do they want it?’ And what are they willing to sacrifice? What are they willing to do? How hard are they willing to work at it?

When you see some of that good eye-hand coordination, you see that ability to take that information and apply it – and marry that up with with with this ’I’ll do whatever it takes, I’m willing to work hard at it then that’s pretty tough to beat!

OL: What you’re saying about being able to take information – verbal or graphical or whatever – and ’get’ what you need to do, translating it into the actual action and motions is really fascinating.

And it’s such a layer of complexity in the sport that most people outside probably don’t realize is there. Just how much different types of information there is to learn in this sport is underappreciated, interesting and really cool.

On this note, the kind of information we have in the book, and the stuff I put in your newsletter… where do you see the value of it, or why do you like it?

RB: I read your book and my brain is exploding with ’Oh this is cool, this is amazing, this is what explains what I’m thinking there!’ or ’Ah, I never thought about it that way…’

Somebody else might read your whole book and go ’I took one thing out of it that will make me a better driver’. And you go ’Okay how much did that book cost you? In the grand scheme of things, it’s probably the cheapest thing you’ve ever bought for racing! Wow what a great investment.’ And again, I know some drivers who don’t want to do that and they’re going to reach their limit a lot sooner.

One of the things that I kind of touched on (but didn’t go all the way with) in terms of the the special driver: one of the things that really separates the very, very best from the rest is they’re hungry to learn more.

You look at every World Champion, every Indy champion, every NASCAR champion, every Sports Car champion: they’re obsessed with learning. You know, I’ve worked with drivers who tire me out! ’I wanna learn more! Can we look at the video one more time? Can we talk about this a little bit more…?´ The very best are constantly looking for more information.

I know that what I provide in the world and your book – what you’re providing to the world – is incredibly helpful to drivers that want to learn. There are some drivers who don’t want to learn – and, you know, they’re going to reach a limit that’s not as high as they they could.

OL: That’s a nice way of thinking about it: some people are voracious for new kinds of information, new angles, new ways to look at things. ’Can i think about it a little differently? What will that give me?’  That’s where we try to position the book, too. What it’s all about: a new angle, a new way of looking at things. New kind of information that’s not out there yet. To get people thinking and talking and writing and doing research from a new angle…

RB: And I think it feeds on itself, too. The more you learn the more you want to learn!

You read something, and it makes you want to understand a little bit more about that. And then you understand a little bit more about that and that makes you go a little further. And it just keeps feeding on itself.

OL: I hope hope so, because when writing it’s always about ’How do I condense all this into 200 pages?’ Oh, all the stuff that had to be left out and just didn’t fit in the book, but would have been super cool to also be able to tell about… all those those stories still lined up!

RB: One of the keys to coaching, too, is knowing what to leave out. I see some coaches talk to a driver and it’s like ’We need to do this, and this, and that and we’re going to change this, we’re going to do that and we’re good. And the driver’s just going like ’I can’t take it all in!’

I think as a writer of books, as a coach – as anybody that’s trying to help somebody else – you have to figure out where to draw the line.

OL: That’s also why I’m also hoping to reach out to some people who are in into this – buy into the whole idea of it – and get feedback. From from people like you, and from drivers. What do people really want? What are the parts that make you want to go on reading?

It’s a shot in the dark because nobody’s written a book like this before (that’s why we had to do it!) So, I’m hoping to get feedback from readers, and then redo the second edition or whatever to make it talk to the people who actually want to hear these things.

RB: You just demonstrated that passion for learning and constant improvement that the best race drivers have! You’re like, you worked hard at it… you put it out there… and now I gotta make it better!

OL: It’s kind of funny you brought that up, because if I think about my scientific career so a lot of the the way how to apply yourself and how to develop an experiment, or how to develop a research project, or a research group or a career… for all that I’ve learned so much from reading about racing, how racing drivers get coached or develop themselves, and how successful racing teams are organized. So, I was interested in racing from a Cognitive Science point of view – but but being interested in that, and and figuring out how you should do it, also has made me the kind of scientist I am.

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Deliberate Practice – Making Your Experience Count

Interview with Ross Bentley Part II


This second instalment of my chat with Ross Bentley delves more in the different specific ways that motorsport athletes train and develop their skill and talent.

OL: Deliberate Practice in another theme I was interested in, and the different ways of organizing practice generally.

For example, There’s seat time, and just driving. Absorbing the feel of the car and getting smoother with your responses. (Which is, I suppose, like what happens if you put a five-year-old in a kart, then that’s the kind of thing they do. They do absorb it. And even small children become quite proficient at handling these devices). Then you can go from ’just driving’ to driving with a deliberate purpose. Like taking a specific aspect of driving, feeling speed, or feeling the tires, or trying to be more aware. Driving with a specific goal, not just for performance. Then there’s the awareness training that you talked about, what can do in your hotel room. Or mental imagery training to visualize your lap (see also the Karun Chandhok interview below). Then at the other end of the spectrum, there’s looking at telemetry and analyzing your driving, and really problem solving and reasoning, when you’re not in the car. Thinking about it. Educating yourself.

So how do you see all these kind different ways of ’practice’? Could you say something about their advantages/disadvantages, usefulness for different types of drivers etc.?

RB: Well, that’s a huge topic, I could go in many different ways here… Standing way back looking at that question, it’s related to the question of much of driving talent is something you’re born with, and how much of it has been developed. We cannot control today how much somebody is born with. What we can control is what gets developed.

I’ve had the opportunity of work of working with young drivers who, when I met them (at age 12 or 16 or whatever) have spent a bunch of time in karting. And you go ’Wow this kid is really special!’ And they don’t work at it very hard…and they don’t go very far.

And then you have another kid who at 14 you’re looking at and go ’Yeah not very special’ but they work at it, really hard, and by the time they’re 18 they’re fantastic. (That’s a whole other topic around mindset – growth versus fixed mindset and all of that kind of stuff).

The bottom line is for me: I look at every single driver and go: ’They can get better. No matter how much natural talent they were born with or not born with, they can get better.’

And obviously experience in the car is important, but there’s an awful lot that can be done outside as well. So you can speed up that process.

There’s a a driver who by the time he was 17-18 years old was getting paid to drive race cars – a very talented fantastic driver – and we looked at we looked at how many hours he’d actually spent; in karts, and then in cars and everything. And the calculation was he was going to be in his 50s before he ever got to that magic ten thousand hour thing. (Which I know is a misconception in many ways). You can’t wait in this sport.

OL: You cannot just get more and more seat time – you have to figure out how to make that seat time more efficient, more effective?

RB: Yeah, and that’s what coaching is meant to do.

I’m currently working with a gentleman driver who three and a half years ago barely knew that racing existed. We were just at Sebring [this interview was done one week after the 2022 Sebring 1000k and 12h race weekend] and he was telling somebody ’Three and a half years ago I didn’t know that Sebring existed. I didn’t know that IMSA existed. I didn’t know that Le Mans existed. He said he’d heard of the Indy 500 but that was it… now he’s racing in LMP2 cars in IMSA, and in the World Endurance Championship. A part of a part of the reason he’s progressed so quickly is because of the approach. Being very deliberate about the practice. You know, different forms of practice.

You touched on using data and video – that helps today. 20-30 years ago we didn’t have the level of data and video that we have today, so you couldn’t get as detailed with it. What we can do with data and video now is we can just pinpoint every little thing, and that speeds it up.

Using mental imagery or visualization, you can multiply: for every minute you spend in the car you could spend 60 minutes in your mind!

Simulators have come so far. I would say on a typical week for my gentleman driver now every single day that he’s not at a racetrack he’s on the simulator. And five out of seven of those days I’m working with him remotely, on the simulator. So it’s as if i’m sitting in the car with him. And we run through every scenario that you can imagine, prior to ever even going to the track.

So you take all of those, and then when we go testing it’s not just: ’Well go out and drive it – try to drive as fast as you can. It’s: ’All we’re gonna do for the next 15 laps – all you’re going to do – is work on a smoother brake release now. All we’re going to do is we’re going to work on turning your head, and looking through the corner more. Now all we’re going to do is we’re going to…’ And so we break it down so much.

It just speeds up that process of learning. And, you know, I’m not taking anything away from this fellow’s natural abilities, but it’s pretty astounding how far he’s come in three and a half years!

OL: And that’s the Deliberate Practice approach down to a tee. You’re putting in the hours – there’s no magic number but you’re putting in the hours – and you’re making the hours count. And the way to make them count in that framework is precisely that you take these these specific things, you take one specific aspect or one specific skill, and then you work on that. You design a kind of drill for it.

And that’s why I like your your books and the newsletter and all your stuff: it’s interesting to me because because you can look at it and go ‘Well what kinds of drills do they use, what kinds of cognitive cognitive tasks do you set to the driver?’ And that can give you then clues to the underlying processes ‘If this is the specific subtask that gets assigned to the instructee, the person practicing deliberately, then what specific cognitive processes are needed for this this particular more restricted subtask?’

And then you can think what brain processes might be then supporting those specific cognitive processes. So it’s interesting and helpful because it’s so analytical. And something that can be further developed into a more controlled scientific experiment direction as well, which is interesting from a scientist’s point of view…

I find that books like Ross’ Speed Secrets titles are a great resource for this kind of cognitive task analysis, which is an essential step in hypothesis & theory development, and an inspiration for the design of experimental paradigms. (I have written about this in this research paper).

RB: One of the parts of coaching that I love is, you can take all the data, the video, doing mental imagery, working on simulators, going to the track, working on specific drills and everything… but one of the things that is critical is looking at the driver’s state of mind.

(It’s shocking to me how some big teams in the highest levels of motorsport don’t seem to care much about that stuff).

There are some drivers who need to… I hate to use this this word, but they need to be ’cuddled’ a little bit more. They need to feel like they’re part of the team, they’re counted on. And they really need that support. Other drivers don’t need that.

Looking at drivers from that perspective, you would not think that showing up at a racetrack somebody could ever be in a bad mood. ’You’re at a racetrack! How great is this?!’ But there are some times where life gets in the way. It could be a family issue it could be some other business thing or something like that.

And one of the reasons why I believe that younger drivers are are faster than older gentlemen drivers has less to do with their reflexes and all of that kind of stuff, but has more to do with when you’re 18 years old you don’t really have anything else in your life! When you’re 48 years old you probably have a family, and you’ve got other things that are impacting your state of mind.

So, one of the things that I focus on as a coach is just trying to read my drivers. You can have the data, you can have simulators, you can have all those things – but if a driver is just not in a performance state of mind, all those other tools, all those other approaches… there’s a limit to how far you’re going to with that.

OL:  Yeah. The analytical viewpoint and trying to understand from a cognitive scientist’s point of view, mechanistically, what might be happening is all well and good…but a real human being is not a machine. Your student is not a machine!

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Weird Experience

Interview with Ross Bentley Part I


This interview comes from a chat with Ross Bentley – renowned driver coach, former IndyCar and World Sportscar Championship racing driver, and author of the Speed Secrets books on race driving technique.

Ross’ work was for me a major inspiration and resource when writing The Science of the Racer’s Brain. So, this opportunity to pick his brain on driving and coaching was a real thrill to me.

It was also an honor and privilege for me when Ross invited me to write a couple of guest pieces to his weekly newsletter (which you can find here:

Our discussion ranged widely on deliberate practice, flow, talent development and how racing drivers use vision. We begin this first instalment on “wide screen visual awareness” – one of the distinctive ways racing drivers describe how they see the racetrack (I explain it in this video).

OL: The first thing I’m interested in is the idea of ”widescreen” attention. This is something that’s that is one of the original interests that drew me into into looking at motor racing as a domain of expertise in the first place. One of the first things that got me interested in in a theoretical way in motor racing.

What I mean is when you are going fast and you don’t get tunnel vision, and the track rushing at you. When, somehow, the racetrack opens up for you and you are trying to see everything and it feels like you are able to see everything in high-definition. And you feel you have the all the space and time in the world and you get into a flow.

You write about it in your books, and about drills on how to how to try to achieve that. So, can you say some words about i. phenomenologically what it’s like for you, how it feels, or ii. from a performance point of view what is needed from the car or from the driver or the situation for that to happen?

RB: I’ve often talked about if you go skiing, the very first time you ski down the mountain it literally is a tunnel. And eventually, you get to the point where you can hear somebody behind you coming by you. And it’s usually a six-year-old kid going by at 100 miles an hour past you!

The same thing obviously happens in a car, with experience.

A story about that is the very first time I drove an Indycar at the Michigan International Speedway – which is a two-mile highly banked oval we were turning average lap times of 230 miles an hour… and I don’t mind admitting that I was almost terrified like at first. Just to turn in with your foot flat to the floor.

I can remember at a point getting out of the car (I think we were actually going to the drivers’ meeting or something like that) and this was Mario Andretti’s last season of racing, and I remember him making a comment about a woman sitting in the grandstand! And I was like: how could you see something like that? At first I thought he must have been joking, but a couple of the other very experienced drivers made comments like that, so…

For sure you get to that point where it’s kind of this all-aware all-knowing feeling of flow or zone or whatever you want to call it.

It’s like you are aware of everything – but your mind is really good at being selective at the same time! Because, you know, for me seeing a woman sitting in the grandstands might not be the most valuable thing right now. Even though it’s available to my to my brain, I have to be able to select: ‘Okay I’m aware of it – but I don’t need to worry about that now, as I turn into Turn One.

OL: It has some something to do with how you manage time, I suppose as well, not just space? There are different times on a lap to pay attention to different things. So it’s somehow both space and time are bundled together – in some weird way…

RB: I’m a bit weird – no, I’m in motorsport, I’m very weird!

You say ’weird way’ and I’m like ’Yeah… What is that weird way?’ A very funny story related to this. There was one year racing in the Daytona 24-hour race. and you come along the front banking and I was in a car that’s probably doing 190 miles an hour. And I do my my stint in the car for a few hours. I get out of the car and at one point I say to the team manager ’Where did Dean go?´ And he’s like ’What do you mean?’ I say ’Dean, you know, our our fuel guy. Where did he go?’ and he’s like ’How did you know?’ and I said ’Well I noticed after a few laps he wasn’t at the wall anymore, and when I came in for the pit stop he wasn’t. And he’s like ’Well, yeah… he got sick and we’ve replaced him with somebody else.’ And it’s just that awareness. After that happened I kind of started asking myself: ’What is that weird thing that allows you to be that aware?

It’s part what we do on a racetrack. It’s amazing. It’s fascinating. It’s ‘How do we do that…?

And obviously in your book you’ve you’ve explained an awful lot of that.

OL:  A little bit…as much as we could could at this moment time.

RB:  Yeah – what will we know 100 years from now? Hopefully, we’re still driving around on racetracks a hundred years from now…

OL: I’m sure we will be. I mean, they raced horses and carriages in Rome, didn’t they? It has been going on for 2000 years, so it’s probably going to go on for a while yet. Because people love it!

And it’s interesting you said: hearing the kid coming past you, or or other cars around you. So, it’s not just a purely visual thing? The human visual feed spans about 200 degrees – a bit over 90 degrees from the straight-ahead on both sides – but this is more than that. It’s like a 360 view or sense of the world…

RB: I don’t know what is going on there, but I think a big part of coaching is helping a driver get to that to that state quicker.

You can just sit there and do lap after lap after lap, and gain lots of seat time – but how can you get there quicker? I’m a big believer in the whole Deliberate Practice thing – Ericsson’s work. It was something that I started doing with my coaching, and then I remember reading Ericsson’s research and this whole idea of Deliberate Practice and everything and went ’Oh wait a minute that’s what I do!

Deliberate Practice (DP) is an approach to practice design developed by K. Anders Ericsson. DP is geared towards specific sub-skills: a DP practice session is designed (often by a coach) to have clear and specific goals that are not necessarily conducive to maximum performance at the time, but towards maximizing learning opportunities by clear feedback. The motivation of a DP “drill” is not to perform at the peak (during training), but to work on and improve a specific aspect of performance.

RB: One of the tactics I use when I’m coaching drivers is now have them go on the track and take time to not be focused on ’I got to go fast!’ but focused on just practicing being more aware of what’s going on around you. And then even doing that while driving on the road – deliberately practicing that ability.

OL: Focusing on that subset of skills.

RB: Yeah. The more specific you get with that that practice, the more effective it is.

I was always looking for something that would either give me an advantage or make up for the disadvantages that I had (not having much money and such…). So, I got interested in the whole sports psychology area, and started reading every book I could.

And one of the things that I would do is I would sit in a room and practice listening, to the point where it was like ’Okay I hear a car way off in the distance, I hear the sound of the the air conditioning unit, I hear the sound of this and that, I hear my breathing…’ and I would practice with this idea of ‘Can I hear my heartbeat?’ And I believe that I got to that point a few times. And then I would sit there and go ’What do i feel just sitting in a room? What do I feel well? Okay I feel my butt sitting in the chair, I feel my feet on the floor…do I feel air movement in the room?

But it takes a lot of practice, and I think it’s the same kind of thing.

It’s one of those things that you can never prove that that helped, because you can’t go back and take it away…

OL:  …yeah, you’d have to do an experiment, and those are difficult to do. And and as long as it works for you that’s the main thing if you want to go fast?

RB: Does it work because it actually works, or does it work because I believe it works? At the end of the day, as a race driver, I don’t really care. If it works, I’m going to use it.

OL: Exactly.

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The Flow of Doing a Lap

Interview with Ben Edwards, Part II


Ben Edwards has commentated F1 for Eurosport, BBC, and Channel4 – but more than that he has commentated on Champ Cars, Touring cars, karting… his resumé and taste for motorsport is eclectic. That has given him a unique view to the breadth and depth of talent in different areas of motorsport.

In this second installment Ben talks about how to convey and describe what a racing driver is doing.

OL:  When you think then about trying to convey the skill and the requirements of motorsport to people who who do not understand it, do you reckon as a sport it’s a particularly tricky one to comment it on and explain? Because anybody can go kick a soccer ball and…

BE: …everyone thinks they can drive a car!

OL: Exactly.

BE: Yeah, you’re right. I think there’s a lot of people who find it difficult to understand the

value of motorsport because they think ”well I can drive a car, what’s so clever about it?” It’s like any sport, though, isn’t? People either generate a passion for it or not. And get an understanding or not.

OL: When when we’ve been trying to put into words (and pictures) what a racing driver has to do – what the job description includes – that has been quite Interesting. And quite tricky.

For a commentator there’s the shared image on the screen which you see and which the viewers also see – but then the commentator brings something more to it. Pointing out things that the viewer might not necessarily realize are happening, or things that are important that that the general viewer might not not notice. How do you see that part of putting into words the stuff that’s incredibly subtle and dynamic and kind of everybody can see… but the viewer can’t see it the way you see it?

BE: You know, I think I can do that a bit – not to the same level as uh an ex-formula one driver when I’m commentating on formula one. But the good thing was I was a racer myself, and I was a race instructor so I sat alongside all sorts of people. From, you know, a lot of total novices mostly but also some very talented people, occasionally. I do think that in my commentating I’ve been able to understand a bit more, you know, what what it takes for a driver to get the most out of a car.

AD: Yeah well you’re fortunate because you raced as well – you were a good pedaller.

BE:  Whereas a lot of commentators of course – if you’re a pure journalist commentator without a background of having done it – it’s slightly different. You can still see a lot, because you’re watching it all the time. You’re watching so much stuff that even if you haven’t driven, you absorb this knowledge; because you’re so used to seeing how a car goes through a corner when it’s done well and you’re used to seeing how a car goes through a corner when it’s not done so well. So I do still think that commentators who haven’t raced have still got good insight. But I was lucky in a sense that I had a bit of a feel too.

BE: So, when I’m commentating… You’re looking so closely at everything when you’re commentating – you’re so focused on it. You are able to talk to the viewer, and give them some idea as to to what’s going on and what the skill is, I think. Not that I can explain it all, and and say ”well he’s brilliant because of x y and z”, you know.

You get a view from certain cameras, or certain corners, where you can clearly see when you see a Max Verstappen or a Lewis Hamilton go through that corner a slight difference, in line or in sheer speed through the corner…

AD: …it’s hard to describe, because it’s almost like 4D. We write about this in the book: new drivers especially when they start later on in life it’s very much ”braking point – off the break – get on the throttle…” and once you get into a higher level of driving it becomes so dynamic…

BE: As a commentator, it depends who you’re commentating for. Over the years, I’ve sometimes commentated for very specialist broadcasters and sometimes I’ve commentated for very general broadcaster. So when you’re commentating F1 for channel 4 it’s a it’s a funny mix, because you know you’ve got some real knowledgeable [audience].

Particularly British motorsport fans have so much knowledge, and so much understanding of the sport that you can’t you can’t mess it up. You can’t say stupid things. On the other hand, within that UK audience there’ll be a lot of casual viewers. A lot of people who barely know who’s in what car. So as a commentator you have to try and balance. It can be quite difficult to get balance right. It’s between looking after the fans, the real fans, but also encouraging people to come into the sport.

So it’s just interesting, I think, as a commentator you have to have in the back of your head who who are you commentating to, and what is the series. If it’s Formula One, there will be quite a high level of knowledge. Touring cars people watch because of the bashing into each other, you know… So it’s for slightly different audiences.

OL: If you think about the the complexity of the task and that and all the myriad psychological mechanisms that all have to click to get the lap time out, what would you feel that that the the general public is most ignorant about? What should they be educated on?

BE: I suppose I would think it’s the flow of doing a lap, and the flow of the mental rhythm.

Absorbing the target that you have at that moment, understanding what it is you’ve got to do, in a physical sense, with the car – both within the cockpit and in terms of how physically the car is to be situated on the track at any moment. [And] how with the modern formula one cars you’ve got to know when to flick the brake balance, when you’ve got to change the diff setting when you’ve got to maybe change an engine setting… all these sort of things.

All these things have to flow. It has to go through the mind in at an incredible speed, and there has to be this rhythm, this mental rhythm, to make it work work effectively.

OL: Yeah. When we when we interviewed Karun Chandhok he was talking about when he would visualize the lap he would do the full lap with all the settings have to be changed and when. So that he can get all all the bits in in one sequence. So everything flows from one to another in the visualization. And then then you have it kind of pre-programmed, as it as it were, for the track.

BE: Yeah. Yeah, I think it is flow.

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“Everything Is So Subtle” – Numbers & Intangibles

Interview with Ben Edwards, Part I


Ben Edwards has commentated F1 for Eurosport, BBC, and Channel4 – but more than that he has commentated on Champ Cars, Touring cars, karting… his resumé and taste for motorsport is eclectic. That has given him a unique view to the breadth and depth of talent in different areas of motorsport.

We talked with him about what he thinks are the key ingredients that separate the top from the rest.

OL: When you look at drivers coming up through the ranks, how do you make a judgment on the skill or the ability or the potential of a driver? Now, you have this huge data bank in your mind – having seen all these drivers come and go over the years. What kinds of intuitions or judgments do you reckon you make when you see a driver and go ”Okay this one is a bit good”? 

BE: I think there are two elements. Two slightly separate elements to that, in that there’s the pure ability – instinct or trained ability – to drive a car, but there’s also the competitive part of driving. They have to go together. For a superstar racing driver or superstar rally driver, they have to combine.

I do feel that there are some drivers out there that I’ve seen who have incredible ability – natural car feel, instinctive feel that’s developed further and further… [They are] not necessarily always dominant race winners or champions. Because being a champion, or being a regular race winner, you need that competitive element to you. That has to be driving you forward. 

And also the ability – like any sport doesn’t matter whether it’s football, tennis, everything else – to deliver when it counts. You know, competitive drivers, the ones that always impress me, are the ones who are up against it in some way… perhaps the car handling isn’t as it should be or the weather conditions are terrible or there is some element that is making life really difficult… and they raise the game even better! That is more of a competitive instinct, in a way, than a driving instinct. You need that competitive sense, that ability to draw from you this extra element if you like.

Or: it’s composure. It’s the composure in the head, if you like; this is a wet race, you could fall off the track very easily…but you want this win… and instead of over-driving it or under-driving the successful competitive nature gives you just that right balance, of using your talent without overstepping it.

OL:  So, you’re saying there’s (specific to racing) how you feel a car and the technique you have to master, and then there’s the competitive element which is more universal, also in other sports. Then you apply that to your racing ability

BE: Right. I really believe that. 

I mean, as I say I’ve seen some very talented drivers over the years – both on the road and on the track – who either didn’t go racing or they did some racing but never really got anywhere. But they had real ability. You know, I might have sat in a car alongside them and I thought ”Wow! His car control is stunning” – but it doesn’t necessarily mean you deliver. Not everybody has that competitive element. That sharpness of focus. 

OL: And when you say competitive element it’s not just when you’re racing for the same piece of tarmac on the track, it’s much broader than that.

BE: Yeah, the same in rallying.

OL: Exactly.

BE: In rallying you’ve got to be able to push it to nine and a half tenths. If you go ten tenths you’ll probably crash. But if you go to nine and a half tenths…

It’s the same thing. You’ve got to know. And you watch the brilliant drivers like Loeb and Ogier, they always seem to get it right [and] rarely crash – and yet when it counts they deliver incredible stage times.

Sports is all about performance that you can quantify. In  motorsport, the old adage is that the stopwatch does not lie. Lap times, wins, championships quantify success. Science and engineering also trades in numbers, too. To achieve rigor, theories and observations must be expressed numerically. Psychologists even try to put numbers on individual differences in personality.

But what is it in the champion driver that makes those numbers possible? When we make human judgments, we do not base it on quantitative data derived from some standardized measurement.

OL: When you’re working with drivers or interviewing them, or interacting with them – not just when you’re watching them perform on the track – do you then also get some kind of sense of their “right stuff” personality? Or is it completely separate? When they put the helmet on, they become a different person – and that’s when it comes?

BE: Sometimes in meeting people and talking to them, I have felt that I have seen that ability and resolution and determination and strength…and you think ”Yeah this guy really does have what it takes”. But I have seen a few who have surprised me!

And everyone has different lives, different upbringings. I think Lewis [Hamilton] was such a talent from such a young age, that, he was already in Formula 1, I think, by the time he really matured as a person. A brilliant driver all the way through, but living that life it’s a bit like a pop star. A young pop star who doesn’t get a chance to grow up or mature in a normal environment, they have to mature in a very different environment. So, Lewis’s character, I think, when he was in the early days of Formula 1 was different from what it is now. Because he’s matured that much more. And he kind of understands a lot more about other things in life, not just motor racing (which he has always understood incredibly well).

Everyone has a different backstory, everyone has a different life story. You can’t really determine from any backstory or from their personality – really, you can’t determine from personality is this guy or this girl going to be utterly brilliant! You need to see them in the car.

AD: Do you feel when you watch a driver on TV, especially onboard, that you are able to ascertain how good they are?

BE: I find if i’m watching a car for real, by the side of the track – which I don’t get to do very often in Formula 1 because I’m usually commenting from a booth – I get a much clearer picture, to be honest. By standing at the side of the track, and getting a feel for how that car comes through the corner. 

Watching onboard or watching the footage, it’s much harder, I think, to tell. Actually seeing it for real, and hearing it and experiencing it, I think it’s a much clearer picture.

This kind of judgment is a form of pattern recognition, that is fast and automatic. It relies on subtle cues that may be difficult to define and point to, making it what psychologists call implicit knowledge. It is a form of intuition.  This is of course different from the kind of explicit knowledge that science and engineering trade on. One might think that scientific knowledge – based as it is on objective tests, measurements to the millisecond and thousandth of an inch, and mathematical models – would always be the superior form… But there are real limits to what actually can be measured and modelled. In complex performance there are intangibles…

BE: I was talking to one of the leading technical directors recently, and even though they’ve got all the data on braking, turning in speeds, that sort of thing… I was asking “So who’s the best driver you’ve worked with, in terms of on the brakes and so on” and he said ”Well, I can’t really tell! Even though I’ve got all this data, it’s so subtle at that level, it’s so infinitesimal with the differences between the top drivers, that we can’t even on all our data really say ‘You know, this guy is different on the brakes in this way’.“ Because everything is so subtle… So we can give a certain element when we’re commentating, but we can never give the full knowledge, because the full knowledge is never out there. It’s always in the driver!

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Good Teaching

Interview with Mark Hales (Part II)


dan74 /

Here Alan continues his chat with Mark Hales – racing driver, coach, author. Mark shares some wonderful insights into not just advanced driving technique, but more than that, what good teaching is all about.

MH: When you’re working with racers, actually part of the reason they all want to be measured is because they just want to be faster than the next man. So, you know that’s the easy measure. But generally with what I’m doing, that’s not the only thing. I tend to look at trying to make somebody better and give them a greater understanding. So that they can then take it forward. 

But it is hard. At the end of the day sometimes I’ll just think ‘Ahh… I sat next to this guy at the beginning of the day and I sat next to this guy at the end of it and, you know, I can’t see any difference…’.  [But] sometimes there’s a (snaps his fingers) complete transformation! Or you eradicate a habit which has been holding somebody back. 

And it also depends where they’re starting from. Sometimes it’s just a lack of knowledge, or more often it’s the fact that they haven’t thought about it in that way. Simple things like, I sit opposite someone and say: 

 ‘What’s the biggest difference between public road and the track?

‘No police?


No speed limits?


‘Er, er, mmmm…’

‘There’s nothing coming the other way

Oh yeah. Yeah… Right, right. Okay. Of course there isn’t…”

‘…so what does that let you do?

 ‘Ehhh…Use all the road?

‘Yeah! Okay, so how are we gonna do that?

Well just… just you… you see… you know… you have to just… use all the road!’

‘Well, how are you gonna do that?

You’ve then got to work out where you’re going to aim the car. What most people do on the public road is they stare straight ahead, they get to a corner, they wind an amount of lock, and then calibrate it. Because they wind an amount of lock, then look where they want to go, then take some lock off or add a bit more. The race driver, for all sorts of reasons, tries to establish a program whereby he or she knows exactly where they want to finish up.So you can then hopefully work it backwards [from] where you want to finish up. 

And – this all happens very quickly in your head and you don’t think about it like this – but you know where you want to finish. So, there’s an approximate amount of lock which you put on which is going to get you there. An approximate amount of lock – but it’s much more accurate than just winding the wheel in search of it!

And then you have to get your head around another implication: if you’re going to set yourself to use up to use all the road, you draw the arc that the car will transcribe through a corner, and it flattens out. So, you are steering less, you’re turning the car less tightly. So, therefore you’re applying less steering. But you’ve brought the other thing that happens as you flatten out the curve: the point at which you start moves back, and the point at which you finish moves up the road. So, you have to accommodate. You have to factor that in. 

Here Mark is describing what we in the book call (largely) unconscious inference at the navigation level (Chapter 3). But that is only a fairly high-level internal representation of the race track and the racing line. The even more unconscious, dynamic visual experience and motor control (Chapters 4 & 5) are harder to put into words. (There is a reason for this in the way your brain is put together, which we discuss at length in the book as well).

AD: The way that we communicate driving  is highly gestural. We do a lot of hand movements. Because I guess it’s very difficult – and this is this is why you’re top of our list – it’s difficult to articulate driving. So, how do you think about driving? How do you communicate about it? Because obviously here you’re using a lot of hand movements. 

MH: And I do a lot of noises as well!

AD: And there’s noises, yeah – it’s a language within itself.

MH: How do I communicate? First thing is, I have to smack myself [smacks himself]. You-can’t-do-it-in-the-car!

To a very limited extent you can, but you can’t do it in the car – unless it’s safety critical. Because if you are giving somebody information to process, they can’t be thinking about what they’re doing. So, you can’t do it in the car so I do it in the classroom. And then we go out and research it. What you’re trying to do is to anchor the knowledge that you’re trying to communicate. 

And part of the coach’s job is to decide whether the person has understood what you’re talking about. So I’ll keep asking little questions and they’ll come up with an answer that shows that I haven’t – I haven’t – got it across. Because I don’t know how they think. So, you have to find the language to communicate it, and you have to be sure that the person has understood what you’re saying.

What they then do with it,  how they utilize the learning that you’re trying to communicate… you know, that’s why it’s so fascinating!

AD: Where do you find the use of this hand movement stuff? How much does that come into if the communication you have?

MH: It depends on the student. And again, you have to try and read the student. So, then you have to try and work out what is working – and I might end up doing four or five different ways of explaining the same concept. You keep looking at different ways, and you watch a student. Communicating it will depend. The more important job for the coach is to ensure that the person has understood – however you found to communicate it. 

But, also in many cases you’re trying to change established behavior. If you’ve got a driver who’s, you know, experienced in one discipline or has been driving on the public road [in a specific way] – that’s what they will go back to, especially when you put them under stress.

So you’re changing established belief. And these things can be very hardwired so changing established behavior is very difficult. You have to show somebody a different way to do something, and get them to understand and believe that it will produce results. It may not produce them then, but you have to get them to believe that it may do eventually. And there’s so many things… there’s so much received wisdom. Here’s another little nugget which you pick out: there’s no right and wrong. There are only degrees of. And so I usually do a little speech right at the beginning. I say ‘almost certainly at some point we will talk about something and you’ll go “well that’s not what I’ve been told... orbut I always thought that…'”. Interesting: I watched [Nico] Rosberg… You know, you’re always taught: brake and shift and get it all done before the corner – he would go to a corner ‘’wom-bm-bm-bwmmm’  [makes sound effects] through the corner…and then shift down on the way out!

The answer to almost any question that you ask about driving is: ‘it depends…’.

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The Value of Thinking (But Not Overthinking)

Interview with Mark Hales (Part I)


dan74 /

Mark Hales – racing driver, driving coach and writer – shares some wonderful insights into both advanced driving technique. 

Mark has raced or tested just about any kind of car you can think of, and been teaching race driving for ten years. So he’s drawing on a huge body of knowledge. And as the co-author of a book that does a great job of describing driving technique and the experience of driving (Passion for Speed), we knew he would be articulate as well.

AD: So what do you think makes up the difference between the adequately skilled driver and the elite driver? 

MH: What makes the difference between the two… it’s the ability to process the information. Or to process the information you have at your disposal more effectively, in the shortest space of time. It’s not bravery! It is a product of intelligence. 

I think whenever I’ve sat next to somebody really, really, really good: it’s what they don’t do. It’s the it’s the ability to get the car so close to the limit without fighting it. It’s usually how smooth they are while being super fast. Laptimes never lie. Sometimes you sit next to people whose driving is so elegant and so beautiful and all that – but they’re not on the pace. 

So the [elite] make it look easy – as if they’re not using any great amount of their body or brain power. Then, you know, if you’re in a formula car, a lot of the feel that you would otherwise have has been taken away, because it compromises the aerodynamic balance… so then there’s another thing to factor in. And that’s something you can’t feel – that’s a picture you have to build up in your head. So, then that becomes very, very much more difficult.

So, if they have decided – based on the simulator work, based on what they know about the track, based on what the test drivers have told them, so on and so forth… – they’ve decided that this approach to that corner which incidentally requires that brake balance and that diff setting is a good place to start… The top level drivers will have a way to process what they know, but also to change it. 

But then it locks up the front wheel! ‘F**k! Okay has it done any damage? Okay. Next time I’m gonna have to modify that bit of the equation: either I get closer and press the brake pedal harder…or I start further back and come off it with slightly more speed onboard… If I do, have I transferred the weight effectively?’ So, [this time] the car might push. It might push because they haven’t transferred the weight effectively. It might push because they’ve added two miles an hour. It might push because the road conditions have changed. It might push because the tires are a lap older… 

So, it’s when you’re trying to work out what to do to optimize the performance still further you can have a result, but it may be a number of different causes that produced it. Sometimes I can see people going: ‘pooh’, they’re thinking: ‘What does Fernando Alonso think about that?‘ No, he maybe won’t think about it in those terms, but he will have an understanding of the things he needs to do in order to achieve that. And if you teased it out of him, he would be able to tell you. 

And there are some surprising examples, you know – the top level drivers have a much better understanding of all that kind of thing than sometimes we give them credit for. Because they’ve spent so much time with their engineers, and because they’re looking for the last tiny, tiny, tiny bit.

So, it’s processing the variables on a lap by lap basis. And then, the more modern the car, you’ve got management tasks: diff, brake balance, fuel metering, making sure you know where you shift. [Then] you’ve got to race the guys in front, you’ve got to defend the guys behind, you’ve got a radio the team will be giving you… there’s a huge amount of processing to do!

AD: How do you find doing the coaching work, doing the writing work, affects your approach? How do you think it affects your own driving? Because, from my experience, it becomes a bit of a complicated relationship. Because on one hand you’re obsessing and you’re reading and your studying other drivers…

MH: …sometimes it can make you think about it too much! 

And I do say – and I’ve heard people like David Coulthard say exactly the same – sometimes you have to study it, gain an understanding… and then be sure you let it run in the background. 

Because if you think about it too much, I guess it uses up processing power in the brain, and… it tends to increase your inhibitions. Because you don’t want to make a mistake.

Here Mark is talking about what psychologists call ironic effects: if you think too much about the mistakes you have been or could be making, because you want to avoid them, you are liable to wind up making exactly those mistakes. Because thinking about them automatically searches from memory information consistent with acting in the (undesirable) manner, and so this information becomes available for decision-making and control processes. Then, especially in stressful or unclear situations the higher-level, monitoring processes that are sorting the information into “this I should do” and “this I should not do” are compromised – and you do the wrong thing.

This reflects a much general principle of brain design (which we cover in Chapter 8) that memory retrieval is fast, cheap and efficient. But it’s also automatic and therefore out of conscious control. Whereas thinking is slow, error-prone and fragile. But it’s also the more flexible form of human intelligence. It can get you out of ruts and bad habits – and goes beyond simple mindless routine and rote repetition.

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”You Visualize…Everything!”

Interview with Karun Chandhok (Part II)


For our book project, we interviewed former F1 and Formula E driver, and Sky F1 presenter Karun Chandhok. We talked about track knowledge, racing drivers’ visual strategies and developing a “feel” for the car (the topics of Chapters 3 – 5). He had some great insights to share.

In this second interview, we talk about the correct way to use vision in racing, and the visualization techniques elite drivers use to prepare their mind. 

AD: The development of skills is a bit more obscure and hidden away than most other sports. What practice did you do, and you see other drivers do, that helps develop their skills?

KC: Nowadays there’s a lot of mental training things that people do. There’s a lot of exercises for your reflexes to sharpen them. Playing a simulator takes you mentally to a zone. That can be quite helpful. I found go-karting useful. I used to go out in my go-kart two or three times a week. You know, just help me stay sharp and stay race fit…it kept my driving reflexes sharp and awake. Certainly, there are a lot of exercises to keep your reflexes and your balance sharp. Your core and balance is really important for driving a race car. If you’ve got a good sense of balance, then automatically when the car’s moving around underneath you on a qualifying lap, you’re able to judge where the limit of grip is. So, those are all things that people, I think, focus on. 

Cristiano Barni / Shutterstock

Use of controlled mental imagery – visualizing in your mind’s eye what you are going to do, where, when and how you are going to do it – is a way athletes in many sports use to enhance their performance. It may be particularly useful in motor sport, given how expensive and limited actual track time can be. 

KC: I think visualization is a very important tool. And there are certain tracks where it is more useful. A track like Monaco. When you get to Silverstone or Barcelona, you can all do hundreds, thousands of laps of testing, so everybody knows the track very well. But when you have to go to Le Mans, for example, or you have to go to Monaco, or Albert Park – street circuits – you don’t get a chance to practice and test. Then just trying to visualize how you’re gonna drive the lap is a great benefit to just help you once you get out on track.

Some of the ways to self-diagnose one’s track memory is to run a “mental movie” – a visualization – of an entire lap, and see if there are areas that seem fuzzy. That means that those part of the track need to be fixed into memory better. This gives the driver something to work on.  

OL: Would you visualize, like, an entire lap from start to finish?

KC: Yeah… I’d always make sure I visualize the entire lap. I would often try and visualize the lap, or visualize the race. Particularly for qualifying. You really need to spend a bit of time on your own visualizing how the lap is going to unfold for you.

Another technique in driver training is to use what psychologists call mental chronometry: time your visualization of a lap with a stopwatch, and see how consistent and accurate you are. The better your mentally simulated lap times match your real lap times, the better your memory.

OL: And were there some techniques, like timing your visualization – to see if it’s accurate in terms of how long it takes?

KC: Quite often I could do the lap… [the] time to drive a lap with my eyes closed, I could normally get within a second of what my real lap times would be.

OL: And trying to develop a more vivid visualization, or things like that?

KC: Yeah – you visualize… everything! You visualize every gear change, every curve, every reference point, you know: every single input that you make in the cockpit.

In some categories like F1 or in Formula E, for example, you have to make settings to the steering wheel from one corner to the other. So you want to visualize every single input. And know and plan and prepare: ‘Okay when I come up with turn six I’m going to change the differential to position seven and then when I come out of the corner I’m going to change the engine braking map to position eight’, or whatever. You plan every single step that you’re gonna do. And that allows you to really be prepared for the lap, when you have to drive it for real. I think visualizing how things might unfold is a great tool that everybody uses. 

Of course, when you get in the car it could be different. Because, you know, the track conditions change, the weather condition changes, the grip level changes…

AD:  Did you do any work on understanding your eye movements – with eye trackers or anything like that…

KC: There weren’t eye trackers per se. Don’t forget I came up through the junior formulas before a lot of this stuff… But actually, I was coached by Andy Priaulx – he was a really good driver coach! – actually one of the things he spent a lot of time working with me on was looking far enough ahead on the racetrack.

We did a day in a road car at Silverstone one day, when I was in formula 3. And he immediately saw ‘You’re not looking far enough ahead!‘ And, he actually sat in the footwell of the passenger seat. [He] sat there looking at my eyeballs and sort of coached me into looking further down the road, and looking further ahead down the track!

And it was an extremely useful exercise. And that’s something that I’ve never forgotten. It just gives your brain and your eyes more to prepare for what’s coming up. It was a very, very useful exercise.

One of the most common instructions to aspiring racing drivers is to look far enough ahead. As speed increases focus should shift further and further ahead of the car, in anticipation. Exactly what makes the exercise useful is not in fact scientifically obvious. Why is it so important where how far you look? You are not supposed to stare at a single point on the track. But given that you are using your peripheral vision, you could see pretty much all the same things regardless of exactly where you look… So, it may be that higher cognitive processes – “projecting” or “expanding” your attention and your awareness in space – not just the movement of the eyes to change in visual input that is at issue key here…

OL: Can you describe, somehow, how it feels to you? Do you remember these exercises and what the effect felt like? 

KC: It just… opens up the road! I think, you know, if you’re only looking a hundred meters ahead, or let’s say three hundred meters ahead, then you’re giving your brain less time to prepare for what’s coming up. When you are driving a race car at high speed you need to give your brain time to anticipate what’s coming up, then you’ve got confidence to go faster, to carry more speed.

You might also be interested in: (Open Access)

A scientific review paper on some of the drills used by racing driver – including visualization drills – and what cognitive processes they target

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“There’s a Deep Intelligence to What They Do”

Interview with Prof. Vincent Walsh
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London


Another top-expert interview for out book project.

People sometimes treat certain fields of expertise like chess and classical music as ‘intellectually’, and therefore academically, interesting… and other domains like driving or sports (or indeed race driving, which combines the two!) as simpler, and of “applied interest only”.

Racecar image: Cristiano Barni / Shutterstock

Here, Prof. Walsh makes a great case for why they are not simple, but rather some of the greatest challenges for the brain… and for brain science!

His group does research on how neuroscience can improve high performance in sport and high-pressure decision making. He talked to us about the dedication and approach needed to become elite, in whatever field.

VW: I have been in human brain research for over 30 years. I started specialising in functions like vision and memory and in the last 10 years I’ve started to ask: what does this mean in the real world? [What] led me to athletes is that we’ve learned a lot in psychology by studying outlier cases – people with specific kinds of brain damage in neuropsychology. And it occurred to me that elite athletes are also outliers.

And, by looking at human behaviour and how the brain performs at the limits of our abilities we might have something to say about how the rest of us might get better, and benefit. Or we might learn about the functions and the organisation of the brain.

It wasn’t just high-performance athletes I’ve been interested in, but high-performance musicians, creative people, business people and entrepreneurs. Anybody who performs at an extremely high level is interesting to me.

What is required to become an elite performer, say, in a field like race driving? Do you need talent? How much do you need to work at it? Research on the cognitive basis of expert performance in many fields, over the past 50 years, has shown that expert performance is not just a reflection of innately good reflexes, memory or “processing speed”, but relies on a vast store of experience encoded into long-term memory….

VW: I think we often get caught up in barren debates of “nature or nurture”, or people “born or made”. But the truth is that any skill can be learned and improved, and even if you think someone can be super-talent, their skills can still be improved. They can still learn new things.

So, the fundamentals of what go into the skills of a good racing driver are no different of what goes into a good musicians, a good mathematician. It’s finding what the weaknesses are that people need to learn and work on. It’s finding what the fundamentals of the craft are. The fundamentals of music are the scales. I don’t know what the fundamentals of race driving are, but I am sure there are fundamentals. And I think every really good driver, or really good teams, know what the fundamentals are.

So, I would say what goes into the skills and development of a good racing driver is first of all identifying what the fundamentals are. Secondly, finding what the strengths and weaknesses of a driver are, so they can work on them. And thirdly, using good psychological principles to help people learn and develop those skills.

How do people get beyond being merely very good?

VW:  I think what goes into making elites, of any kind, are a number of things. One of them of course is obsession. I don’t think you meet any game-changers who aren’t. The character might appear casual, but all of these drivers, all the best in any field, are truly obsessed.

I think what also makes a difference is that they are ruthless in reflecting on themselves. I’ve never met a real elite in any field who is happy with where they are. They are always working on something. I think if you compare that with people who are merely ‘very good’, they’re often satisfied with something they’ve done, or pleased with themselves. But the elites are always looking for what they can improve on.

Competitive sports is one of the toughest things for the brain to engage in. Not just in terms of physical challenge, but from the point of view of cognitive processes that you need develop to a high level as well. (We discuss this in Chapter 3 which draws some interesting and perhaps surprising parallels between the use of memory in racing driving… and chess!)

VW: The sport is often underrated in this sense. You need to be good at everything. You need very fast motor coordination skills, you need very fast ability to scan visual scenes. You need a great memory to remember the turns, remember everything that goes on about the conditions, to remember things about the other drivers.

So, you know, when I see sports people – this isn’t for just motor racing drivers – when I see sports people who might not be “academically intelligent”, I still think that there’s a deep intelligence to what they do. And we actually underestimate it.

One of the things I have written before is that I think in many senses there’s a good argument to be made for sports being the most difficult thing the brain does. Let me give you an example. When people play the piano, a concert pianist, we somehow credit that person with intelligence, but when we see sports people we kind have this dichotomous thing between ‘jocks and intelligent people’… but no one’s trying to stop them trying to play the piano during the concert, no one’s trying to play it better than them, no one’s trying break their concentration. Everybody there is helping the pianist to focus on what they do. So, sports people have to execute the highest level of skills under conditions of people trying to stop them doing it. And I think that’s phenomenal and underrated!

And in most walks of life, we just don’t get that kind of brutal feedback which sends you all the way back [and] then you’ve got to do it all over again. And I think that kind of perseverance, that kind of ability to recover from losses, is something again that we underestimate is sports people.

One challenge for the cognitive and brain sciences is that it is particularly hard to do translational research. Research where you try to develop theories and ideas that can be rigorously tested, but which at the same time translate to “the real world“. Research that develops genuinely new knowledge, but at the same time addresses things that are meaningful from a “real world” perspective, or from the perspective of those with a more applied interest (e.g. driving coaches and engineers).

A big reason for this is the inherent complexity of expertise as a phenomenon: you are trying to understand the human brain – one of the most complex systems on the planet – operating at the very limit of physiological and cognitive performance…

VW: That’s one of the things that makes sport and music so fascinating and fulfilling. It’s that human performance always seems to be a little bit ahead of what we can explain. One of my favourite examples is Usain Bolt, who they thought kind of too tall, and had a too rangey a running style to be the sprinter that he became. So, people often surprise us.

It’s not particular to psychology. You see it in strength and conditioning as well – how do you [tell if] squatting translates to speed on the field? There’s some data, but there’s always a difference between the gym and the real world.

So, there’s always going to be that gap. I don’t think it is anybody’s fault. It’s really hard to do behavioural and psychological studies properly, and you want to control things. The problem with the real world is that things are not controlled.

I am almost pleased there’s some gap. We can close some of it, but I am almost pleased, because it means that there’s always an unknown, and for God’s sake, we want unknown in sport. We want some mystery!

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How Do You Learn a Racetrack?

(And What You Know When You Have)

Interview with Karun Chandhok (Part I)


Karun Chandhok – Former F1 & FE driver, and Sky F1 Presenter

For our book project, we interviewed former F1 and Formula E driver, and Sky F1 presenter Karun Chandhok. We talked about track knowledge, racing drivers’ visual strategies and developing a “feel” for the car (the topics of Chapters 3 – 5). He had some great insights to share.

In this first interview, we look into the most basic of questions: what is it really to know a racetrack?

What makes a driver fast on a particular track? Why is it that some drivers, when they go to certain circuits they are just able to extract the maximum from it, whereas at others they struggle? Are differences in track knowledge a performance differentiator between drivers at the elite level? Maybe some drivers’ success at some circuits simply feeds on itself, giving them an emotional boost when coming back to the circuit that makes them do well again. Or are some tracks a better “fit” for a driver’s memory or style?

AD: What’s your strategy for learning a circuit? What do you feel you need to remember of a circuit, to be fast?

KC: The devil’s in the detail, I think. You know, you can look at a piece of paper and see the track map in 2D. But that doesn’t tell you much, really. Then it’s useful to go out. I always found it useful to take a bicycle around the track, and ride multiple laps of the race track. 

That allows you to visualize the track a bit more. It allows you to understand the track in terms of: Is there any camber in the road? Are there any bumps or undulations? You can feel that through the pedals as you pedal around. You know, you can ride on kerbs…I could spend an hour walking the track, or, yeah, I could spend an hour riding six, seven, eight laps of the track. I’d much rather do that. Because I can see more of the track then. So, to me cycling the track was always the most efficient way to learn a circuit, really.

Now you’ve got the world of simulators, and all that, which has come into play. But, you know, I still think that the best way to learn a circuit is to pedal around it in real life.

The huge amount of work the brain has to put in to encode the racetrack into long-term memory – in enough detail to give the driver the confidence to start “pushing to the limits” – is not perhaps so widely appreciated and celebrated as car control skills. But it is one of the most scientifically fascinating aspects of the psychology of the expert racing driver.

Doing track-walks or (laps on a bicycle, in Karun’s case) is a traditional technique some racing drivers use to get the “positional fix” of every reference point and landmark, and also see the 3D geometrical layout from different directions and angles. This can be useful for piecing together a more coherent “cognitive map” of the track in memory – how different locations and directions and distances relate to one another, beyond the field of view of any particular single vantage point. How all the different pieces of the track “fit together”.

Now, while this might sound a bit like the driver having a 3D scale model inside their brain, obviously this is not literally the case! And it is not how a racing driver experiences the track – rather, they experience dynamically, flowing, in both space and time.

OL: If you think of a clear example of a track where you’ve always done really good, and then maybe another track where you’ve struggled, do you find is it like more an emotional thing, or do you feel you know about certain tracks…

KC: I think a lot of it is getting to a rhythm. Getting into a flow, you know. Driving a track has to become second nature. To become something that you can do on almost autopilot.

So, for example I’ve always been good at Silverstone. It’s a circuit I enjoy driving at, it’s a circuit I’ve always been fast at, you know. Or Monaco, for example, I always get into a very good rhythm and in very good flow – I have a good feeling around there always. I’ve always been able to just get into a good zone, you know.

Tracks I didn’t like… for example, I was never a big fan of Barcelona. I just never… I felt that I was having to think too much about it. It wasn’t just flowing naturally. I think that’s part of it. Yeah, I don’t know why – for whatever reason I never clicked with Barcelona as a track, for example. That’s the first one that comes in my head. Abu Dhabi is another. It’s just too stop-start for me – it’s never really a circuit that I got into a good flow around, I think.

So, a lot of it comes down to… it’s hard to describe! But it’s whether you get into a rhythm or this, as I said, this zone… of being on autopilot.

You know, if you know a track really well, the driving part of it just flows naturally. And then you have this spare brain capacity to think about the tyres and the setup and all these other things in strategy. If you were to track where you don’t have a good rhythm, or a good feeling, then you’re spending too much time thinking about just driving it.

OL: So, when you look back on tracks where, for some reason, it just clicked – you were able to get into a good rhythm or a good flow, and you were able to make the process unconscious – you don’t have to think about it…

KC: Yeah…

OL: Do you feel that’s more to do with you – and for some reason a track just suits you – or do you feel it’s…maybe you didn’t have the car under you at those tracks? Where you couldn’t have the confidence or that comfort?

KC: Ultimately it’s both, right? Because this is a sport about man and machine, this is not just a sport about drivers. So, you know, you can go to your favorite track, but if your car’s not handling the way you like, then you cannot deliver performance…But… at the same time, if you factor in the car…

There are certain circuits, I think, a driver just gets into a flow. You know, I think of Damon Hill and Budapest, for example. He was good there in a Williams, he was good there in a Jordan and he was good there in an Arrows! It’s just a track that he’s always been good on. I think of Lewis Hamilton in Austin, and that’s just a track where he’s – yeah, I mean, he is very good on a lot of tracks! – but I think, you know, there are certain ones where he’s absolutely exceptional… Montreal! Normally for him a good one.

 So, you know, you have to consider that this is a sport about man and machine, and of course you need the car to work for you. But even within that: some tracks feel better…depending on how you feel!

Pat Lauzon / Shutterstock

Lewis Hamilton tends to be ahead of the pack in Montreal. Is it just that good memories about the place bring confidence and a good feeling? Or does he have a knack of developing a “trick” set-up there? Or does the track layout play to his particular car control skills… or perhaps even the way his brain likes to organize things into memory? Racing drivers develop sophisticated internal maps of the track, which is a remarkable ability of the brain – science has only begun to scratch the surface.

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Photo credits: Karun Chandhok photo: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY 2.0 | Bobby Fischer photo: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0 | Violinist photo: Wikimedia Commons CC0-1.0 | Racecar images: dan74, Cristiano Barni, Pat Lauzon / | Michigan T1 photo: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0