Lessons from the Abu Dhabi GP

So, it’s been a few days, how is everyone doing? Apparently the outcome of the 2021 #AbuDhabi GP was such a shock to my system, that I tested positive for covid two days later. This is why it took me a bit longer to write this analysis, but here we go!

Mercedes just came out with their response to everything that happened, and I think it shows their class, and their determination to put the sport first in 2022. What other lessons are there to be learned from the chaos that was the 2021 Formula 1 championship decider?

Firstly, that a support system is essential for performing to the best of your abilities. Michael Masi, the much criticized FIA race director, took over from Charlie Whiting when the latter passed away suddenly on the eve of the 2019 Australian GP. From what I’ve read, he’d only had about 10 races to learn the tricks of the trade. I agree that Masi has been unacceptably inconsistent in his decision making. But if you were launched into a high-profile role, only to have your radio messages subsequently be displayed for the entire world to judge, would you be able to perform at your best? Not exactly the ideal learning environment, from a mindset perspective. So yes, something definitely needs to happen there. If he stays on as race director for the 2022 season I hope he gets some help. And I hope the FIA are able to create an environment that doesn’t set him up to fail.

The second lesson from the Abu Dhabi GP hits the core of everything I’ve been studying for the past 6 years. It’s about how to fail. Sir Lewis Hamilton (through no fault of his own) failed to win the 2021 world driver’s championship. Never, in my entire career as an armchair expert when it comes to elite athletes, have I seen someone more gracious in defeat. Being a winner is, more than anything, about knowing how to lose. About bouncing back from adversity. Lewis has had a lifetime of experience with turning adversity into triumph. He is at his best when his back is against the wall. Feeling robbed of this crucial race win is only going to fuel his fire for the 2022 season. Red Bull and Max better get ready, because I’m convinced Lewis is going to come out swinging in Bahrain.

The third lesson is related to Lewis’ grace in defeat: we are all human. Mercedes have had the toughest season to date. And we tend to talk about Mercedes as an entity. But let’s not forget: this entity is made up of a few thousand individuals. Human beings who give it their absolute ALL every single year to produce the most dominant car on the grid. Take the emotions you feel when your favorite driver wins or loses, multiply it by infinity, and you may come close to the dedication these people feel when it comes to the fate of their drivers and team.

This is the first time in years they’ve had any real competition. That may sound like an insult, but it is a compliment. They are so good at what they do, that other teams simply couldn’t come close. Not even the ones with similarly gigantic budgets. They had it rough, especially at the beginning of the season, but managed to band together, work through some issues, and rise back to the top. They were on fire at the end of the season, and feel robbed of a WDC because of inconsistent stewarding.

This is not to say that Max didn’t deserve the title. He did. As did Lewis. And I will get to singing Max’s praises in my next article. But the men and women at Mercedes put in blood, sweat, and tears, and deserve to have their disappointment and emotions acknowledged. I hope they can take a page out of Lewis’ book, and turn frustration into victory in 2022.

The fourth lesson is about the persistence of bias and polarization on social media. I’ve written about bias in an earlier blog, but the events of the 2021 season have brought out the absolute worst in a lot of people. From personal attacks on Nicholas Latifi, to verbally tearing Michael Masi to  shreds. All online, mind you. In real life these people would be more likely to ask for a selfie with Nicholas than say anything bad about him to his face. From a psychological perspective, this has everything to do with anonymity and lack of eye contact. In the online world we can hide behind avatars, and we don’t have to see the hurt in other people’s eyes when we are mean to them.

Mass behavior, such as collectively rooting for the same team or sports hero, leads to overwhelming emotion, an increase in impulsivity, and basically a complete shutdown of the brain’s frontal lobe, which is essential for critical thinking. It’s a primal reaction, and significantly enhances our susceptibility to biased thinking.

I know all of that because analyzing behavior is my job. And yet, seeing all these concepts play out in this way (confirmation bias, availability bias, in-group/out-group bias, etc.) continues to amaze me. In a very, very bad way in this case. Let’s hope these F1 fans get their act together next season. And, as a Dutch person, I have to specifically mention a (thankfully small) part of the Dutch Max Verstappen fan base, and repeat something I’ve said before: bias is never an excuse for racism.

This brings me to the final lesson from the Abu Dhabi GP. Max Verstappen is all grown up, and fully deserves this championship. I promised a number of people I would write an essay about Max’s career so far, from a neuroscientific (brain development) perspective. So that’s exactly what I did. I’m going to leave you hanging for a little bit longer though. It’s the winter break, so I have to spread out my content 😉 I will share my perspective on Max’s rise to glory next week!