Formula 1’s head game

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Formula 1 is ripe with seriously challenging circumstances that can ruin your career or life in a matter of seconds and that’s just in the paddock and hospitality area, on track is a whole other challenge.

Formula One World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart has advocated, for some time now, a mentor program for the young drivers entering F1. As a veteran, he knows the ravages of the F1 grid and paddock and how careers and races can be won or lost. F1 is facing tough economical times of late and paying drivers—some still teenagers—are being considered for drives in F1 but as retiring Mark Webber said, this isn’t a finishing school.

If you look at the careers of Jenson Button or Lewis Hamilton, you can see how the impact of F1 has left its mark on their lives. Button pulled out of his kid-with-money lifestyle spiral and has turned into a top-shelf F1 driver. Hamilton is still facing his demons and struggling to find focus every other year it seems.

The 2008 champion has personal issues and familial strains that have distracted him from the job at hand…winning races. The 2011 and 2013 seasons were years to forget for Hamilton and this is on the heels of what was going to be a meteoric rise past the great Michael Schumacher’s records.

Hamilton would have benefited from a little mentoring from Sir Jackie but many drivers scoffed at the idea including Lotus F1’s Romain Grosjean who was putting together a string of incredibly fast but dangerous accidents in 2012. But then something changed.

Lotus F1 managed to entrench themselves around Grosjean and work with the young Frenchman to raise his game…mentally. Grosjean retained the help of a psychologist and if 2013 is any sign, the move has paid off is spades.

Grosjean was the talk of the town and the reversal of his fortunes should be a clear sign that Sir Jackie is correct. Just as teams watch the impact of changing from wet tires to dry tires on a slowly drying track, as soon as they see a driver set faster times, they all dive in the pits to get dry tires on their cars. So too should Grosjean’s mental wellness coach be taken seriously.

Advocating a sports psychologist isn’t necessarily what Stewart was advocating but you can see how it has impacted Grosjean’s career and mindset. He has also become a father and that, as any father can tell you, has an impact as well. Grosjean told Sky Sports F1:

“She’s used to working with very high-level athletes, almost all the French Olympic champions have been working with her,” Grosjean said of his visits to a psychologist. “Sometimes we speak about some things, other times other (things) – it really depends where you are and what you need to work on.

“That’s why I started – because I was clever enough to think that I needed help. It’s not a proof of weakness; it’s more a strong point. You can always improve yourself and that’s why I still work with her right now once a week. It’s either a phone call or I go to meet her and then we speak.”

The kind of help he has received is something that Stewart feels is important to a young driver facing the pressures F1 offers. Grosjean always had the pace but it was the race craft that was missing—the patience and track vision.

It is often said that Wayne Gretzky had “ice vision” meaning he could see everything on the hockey rink. He knew where the puck was at all times regardless of who had possession of the puck. Formula 1 drivers achieve this as well and I would offer Jenson Button as a guy who does this well. Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso have this as well.

In Grosjean’s case, it worked but perhaps drivers such as Hamilton, Ricciardo, Pic, Chilton, Kvyat, and Esteban Gutierrez could all use mentoring, not coaching, on how to handle life and performance in Formula 1. Grosjean said:

“I don’t think the focus has been a problem but sometimes I’ve wanted to ‘dance quicker than the music’ like at Monaco this year. I missed the weekend completely because I wanted to go too fast for where we are.

“Being in the right time, doing the rights things and managing the pressure sometimes; managing the stress when it comes on for some reason and knowing why and how.”

The key is really goal setting, establishing routines, physical and mental fitness and understanding or navigating team dynamics through coaching and perspective. Developing the whole character and establishing race craft to complement the sheer pace a driver like Grosjean clearly has.

Teams often claim they can do this—McLaren saying as much this week about their new protégé Kevin Magnussen—but there surely is a bias implied in the core of their driver development and help they would offer.

Former McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton is a young man who might benefit from this type of sports psychology or mentor program as his time at the Woking team had plenty of pitfalls. Lewis has struggled with a choppy personal life, familial relationships and focus or concentration on track and some argue it is Lewis himself that beats him on track and not the competition.

Surely a mentor such as Stewart or any one of the former British champions would help? Hamilton’s emotional swings from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows are true signs of extremes and perhaps a sport psychologist or mentor program would truly level those extremes out. Formula 1 is not a place for mental extremes.

Many stick and ball sports in the world have star athletes who seek sport psychologists, that is nothing new, but Formula 1 has traditionally not been a ripe field for these kinds of services. Perhaps Grosjean’s turnaround will send a signal to other young drivers that it’s okay to have a sport psychologist or mentor in the paddock just as they have physiologists for their personal training. The stresses of Formula 1 are massive for even the most hardened and one can imagine how challenging it is for a 20-something.

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