So, if you were in Jenson Button’s position last Sunday you wouldn’t have crashed into the wall? Likewise I bet that if it had been you in the cockpit of the number 10 McLaren you would have ignored the team, pitted and won the race?
Of all sports, motor sport is perhaps the easiest of all to be the armchair spectator. The cars seem to be on rails, effortlessly circulating at speed, making it all seem so easy. It is only when Button clips a wall or Raikkonen’s tyre fails that the razor edge of moto sport becomes all too apparent.
Prior to the start of my racing career I was under the same illusion, believing that my car would similarly glide round the track. As my damage bills for the past two seasons attest, it is not that easy. I know of very few drivers who have gone through a whole race weekend in the early stages of their careers without spinning or going off the road.
Even Michael Schumacher was famed for his Friday excursions. Likewise I have seen (and made) some unbelievably dumb moves in races, where you can do nothing but think – why?
So what is it that causes unforced errors, and are we, as armchair fans, overly critical?
First, until you actually race a car, it is impossible to realise the degree of mental and physical exertion within the cockpit. A 20 minute Formula Ford race can feel like a lifetime, leaving the driver both physically and mentally exhausted after the race, so imagine the impact of two hours around Monaco.
The physical exertion is easier to explain, with the forces placed on the drivers clearly illustrated by onboard cameras. But in this era of super-fit racers, it is very rare for a driver to make a mistake as a result of physical exhaustion.
Indeed these only usually occur at races of extreme heat and humidity races, such as the Malaysian Grand Prix. Generally when a driver is physically suffering it is marked by a general slackening of pace, rather than a single incident.
Instead it is mental pressure that is the principle force that provokes unforced errors. This is hardly surprising when you consider everything that a driver must process during a race. Even at Formula Ford level actually driving the car is taken as a given, I have done races where I cannot remember making a single gear shift, because I was so busy dicing with other drivers. Put simply if you need to think about driving the car, you are either going too slowly or will overload your brain and go off.
The driver’s mind is occupied by a plethora of different concerns. These include what your rivals are doing (in F1 this is generally strategic thinking, in Formula Ford it extends to whether you can go three abreast into a given corner) which can get pretty hairy in a close dice. Then you must think about the circuit conditions, your braking and turn-in points. These are mostly natural but you are always looking for improvement. To this end most drivers have mentally exited the corner before they’ve taken it – this is why Ralf Schumacher crashed during qualifying at Monaco.
Furthermore, drivers must be thinking about their overall race strategy (this is the same for any length of race) and the state of their car and tyres. To be successful in F1 a driver must be attuned to the tiniest details of car performance whilst out on track. This sounds like a lot, especially at an average lap speed of over 100mph.
Martin Brundle has done well to bring across this dynamic of racing in his commentaries – it is a crucial factor that is often overlooked. Bearing these factors in mind it is perhaps easier to look at the Button incident in a more sympathetic light.
He was struggling with the car which may well have been carrying a gearbox problem, whilst at the same time fending off Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari that was clearly quicker.
(However, at the same time, Jenson Button is paid a great deal more than most people to avoid making those mistakes. If your job essentially extends to driving round in circles 19 times a year, throwing away podiums is not ideal.)
The same extends to dumb passing moves. However, once again, it is difficult for fans to appreciate why drivers on certain occasions make seemingly suicidal lunges from half a kilometre back.
If you are stuck behind a slower driver it is immensely frustrating, but in today’s world of F1 where turbulence from the cars disturbs passing aeroplanes, you are likely to be stuck in position for a long time (or as Mark Webber has ably demonstrated this season, the whole race).
Therefore any driver will be desperately searching for the tiniest opening to exploit to their advantage, even if this means taking a risk. Speaking from personal experience, when you go for a do or die move, you will know within a split second whether it is going to work or not, leaving an unpleasant pause before contact. But at the same time there is the realisation that going for the move was necessary.
A further factor is the notorious ‘red mist’. Although racing drivers are barely capable of coherent thought in any case, when in the heat of battle they tend to take risks above and beyond the call of duty. For example last Sunday Montoya’s decision to drive through the pit lane red light and race Coulthard under the Safety Car is consistent with any hard charging driver. It is very easy to be an armchair pundit, but I guarantee every single person watching the race would have done exactly what Montoya did under those circumstances.
When I watch races, I am among the first to slag off any poor piece of driving on the track. But it is important to acknowledge just how hard F1 drivers work in the cockpit, and why they make mistakes. Nobody ever drives a perfect lap, drivers are always looking to push the envelope just that little bit further. That is why motorsport is as exciting and dramatic as it is. So next time you see a Jordan entering a corner going backwards, just think how well you would do in the same situation?
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