Driver Reaction Times

The news that Pastor Maldonado has lost his seat at Renault came in the same week that the BBC Radio Four series The Infinite Monkey Cage broadcast a programme called What is Reality?  This programme for those yet to hear it is a discussion programme hosted by scientists and comedians described by the BBC as “Witty, irreverent look at the world through scientists’ eyes. With Brian Cox and Robin Ince”.  In this particular episode they discuss how our different senses are processed by different parts of the brain and combined to produce a model of reality which is how we perceive the world.  There were several facts that I found interesting:

Your eyes only really see detail in a small area, in order to build up a comprehensive model of the world around us they keep moving to look in different directions.  In order that we don’t get dizzy from our eyes moving all the time, the visual cortex shuts down while the eyes are moving (and while we blink).  This gives us a nice stable view of the world, but does mean that we are functionally blind for 15% of the time.

The time taken to process the different senses (sight, hearing, touch etc.) is different for each sense.  As a result the brain delays the information so that the world appears in sync, so when you clap your hands, you feel your hands coming together at the same time as you see them and you hear the noise.  To do this, our model of the world lags about half a second behind reality.

This allows you to hear what people are saying in time with their lips moving, but it does mean that for certain activities requiring fast reactions (the example given was hitting a baseball, where for a fast ball the time from pitcher to batter was four tenths of a second), there is not enough time for the brain to process the information, for your model of the world to be updated, to think about what to do, and to take the necessary action.  These actions have to be performed unconsciously.

I recall how as a young driver I first experienced a car skid (spilled diesel on a wet road), and although I knew what to do the car ended up fishtailing down the road for several hundred yards.  I was too slow in applying any corrective steering, and too slow in unwinding the steering once the car started to straighten up.  I was certainly thinking about what to do and then trying to do it, rather than reacting unconsciously to the feel of the car moving.  I like to think that I have learned over the years what to do, and react now without having to think about it.

I recall a quote from Sir Stirling Moss, when he said he was a more of a born driver than Graham Hill (who he believed had to work at it harder to get to the level he achieved), but more of a made driver than Jim Clark (who didn’t need to work at driving fast).  It would appear then that these necessary unconscious reactions can be learned over time to allow drivers to improve.  So why the reference to Pastor Maldonado at the beginning of the article?  Well he is undoubtedly fast and can control a car when driven o the limit, so has learned the unconscious reactions to be able to drive on his own around the track better than a significant majority of the population.  However he seems to still be lacking the reactions required when wheel to wheel with others and occasionally reacts in a way that causes a collision.  Others have also had this issue (e.g. Romain Grosjean) and have learned how to avoid such incidents.

This could also explain why it took Sebastian Vettel so long to adapt to the banning of exhaust blown diffusers.  He was undoubtedly the master of getting the most out of this technology, opening the throttle earlier and further than any other driver to generate the extra grip required.  However this must have been a purely unconscious reaction, as there wouldn’t have been the time to think about it.  So when the exhaust blowing was banned it took time for his unconscious reactions to change.   Vettel’s suppression of his blink reflex when diving may also be giving him an advantage if it significantly reduces the 15% of the time he is functionally blind.

Some drivers in earlier eras had to deal with far greater differences in car behaviour than the banning of blown diffusers.  I am thinking of someone like Sir Jack Brabham who started in front engined cars on narrow treaded tyres with no aero and ended with rear engined bewinged cars on wide slick tyres.  It must be possible for the best drivers to constantly update their unconscious reactions through their career.  It is just a question of how fast they can do this which will determine how long they can stay in the sport.  I suppose this is one benefit that those who progress rapidly through the junior ranks will show when compared to those who take multiple years in each category before winning the title and moving on.

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If i had to pick which drivers had the best reaction times I would have to say it would be the WRC guys. They deal with constant grip changes, unexpected elements and pace notes. Sure F1 guys go faster and incidents can happen in a millisecond but I still think gally drivers are the masters of quick reactions.

As for not blinking, heck watch any Loeb on board footage and you’d swear he doesn’t have eye lids.

Paul Charsley

Very interesting piece as ever Dave. There is a lot of truth to this and the All these things are all added together to build the rhythm of a lap and allows the driver to be consistent within a couple of 1/10ths over a given lap barring any outside influence. There are times when running wheel to wheel with someone that you know where they are and where they are going to be without physically being able to see they. Pastor of course didn’t have this gene, because he could never take blame for incidents he was never able to… Read more »


It sounds like you use the Force.

How do you go about teaching reactions that have to be faster than the pupil can think?


If you can snatch the IPA cap from Paul’s hand the student will have become the master.

Negative Camber

When it comes to Paul and an IPA, his reaction time is that of a microprocessor in a Cray computer.