2020 F1 season review – a blogging collaboration with Andrew Cohen-Wray, mental performance coach for the McLaren F1 team

These protocols would put massive stresses on the teams as they created their own ‘bubbles’, meaning contact was at a minimum. With many back to back races on the fixtures team members would stay isolated at hotels between rounds, with some countries enforcing very strict rules. This would mean team members were unable to travel home between rounds which must have put a huge strain on relationships and their own mental health.  A massive amount of resilience and mental strength was needed to stay focussed on the job in hand and to perform at the highest level for many weekends on the bounce.

To understand the context in which the teams were forced to operate, let’s dive into the neuroscience behind stress for a bit. There are two types of stress response systems active in our brains. The first one is the acute stress response. Our amygdala, a small brain area in the prehistoric part of our brains, is responsible for interpreting all the information that enters our brain and it does so incredibly fast. Before we know what we’re seeing or hearing, our amygdala has already decided if that information is a sign of threat or danger. If it does label it as dangerous, it sends a signal to our hypothalamus, a different brain area, which is like mission control for our brain: it activates our sympathetic nervous system. This is like the gas pedal of our body, it activates our fight or flight mode using adrenaline.

The second stress response system is the HPA axis. It consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary and the adrenal glands, and it is responsible for the production of important stress hormones. This system keeps you alert, so it keeps you ready to go in case the threat or danger returns. A consequence of this pandemic, which acted a bit like a slow moving apocalypse, is that our brains were stuck on high alert all the time. For months on end. The physical and mental consequences of this stress response are determined by how you cognitively frame stress. One of the core strengths of people active in Formula 1 is that they have a bizarrely efficient (and slightly unnatural) response to stress. They are able to frame the most stressful situations as challenging instead of threatening, which might sound like a small, insignificant difference, but can have a massive impact on the subsequent behaviour. Resilience has always been key in F1, but this season it was made more visible than ever.

Racing highlights

Two race wins really stood out to us this season. Firstly Pierre Gasly’s win in Monza. Seeing Pierre sat on the podium with his head on his hands reflecting after the champagne had been sprayed and confetti had settled, was a pinnacle moment for us. To take that first win in F1 is a huge achievement. Those hours in the simulator, in the gym, pounding the roads running and cycling to be in the best possible shape suddenly all became worthwhile. Even more poignant is that Pierre had been bumped down to Alpha Tauri by Red Bull halfway through the previous season.

Pierre’s win came ultimately because of communication and driver errors.  Lewis Hamilton failed to see the ‘pitlane closed’ sign, resulting in a penalty, and many other chaotic pitstops from various teams handed Pierre that first win. But it is clear that Pierre’s win showed immense resilience, being best friends with Anthoine Hubert who sadly died at Spa the year before. It felt like this win was for the two of them, and rightly so. Pierre had been on a rollercoaster, being demoted the weekend he lost best friend, yet he ploughed on with the same dedication, grit and determination to be the best he can be. This eventually culminated in his maiden win.

The second win that really stood out was that of Sergio Perez who took the chequered flag at the Sakhir grand prix. Sergio’s win came amid what should have been a fairy-tale race win for George Russell. However, a series of events culminating in what Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff described as a “colossal” error put paid to George’s first ever win in F1. It’s the failings of the big teams who show that when humans are involved in a process mistakes can happen, mistakes that cost the team a win and allow the underdog to snatch the victory at the last moment. At the time of Sergio’s win he had an uncertain future as his seat at Racing Point was being warmed for Sebastian Vettel in 2021. Thankfully he has since secured a seat with Red Bull taking Alex Albon’s place. Another great David vs Goliath moment.

Accountability and Responsibility

Imola saw two very similar mistakes made with two very different behaviours towards it shown in the press conferences afterwards. These were fascinating for a number of reasons. George Russell was on track for his first ever world championship points finish in F1, when he spun and crashed into the barriers following the safety car. Alex Albon also made the same schoolboy error of planting the loud pedal a little too hard. The key difference was the responsibility of the actions and being accountable for the outcome.

George instantly put his hands up on the team radio admitting he’d given it the beans a bit too soon on cold tyres. He apologised to the team as, ultimately, he had cost them their first points of the season. Williams, like Mercedes, have an attitude of ‘Win as a team, lose as a team’. In the Red Bull camp however, it’s more of a dog eat dog kind of mentality.

Alex was quick to blame contact from another car, but footage and data showed that he was a good car length or so away from Perez when he spun out. The quickness of the reaction to apportion blame rather than admitting he was at fault was potentially very costly at the end of the season, as he now finds himself demoted to reserve driver for 2021 with no full-time seat.

The circumstances of the two drivers would have played a part, obviously. George’s seat was secure for next year, while Alex’s was at high risk. The approach to these incidents was very different because of the loss at stake.

One of the key factors involved in resilience is ownership. You cannot bounce back from a setback if you don’t own up to what went wrong. This was clearly visible in these two drivers’ reactions. Again looking at the way the brain frames stress, these two incidents are good examples of opposite neuropsychological responses. George took ownership, framed the setback and subsequent stress response as a challenge, and promised he would do better next time. Alex tried to save his butt by blaming external factors, showing a treat-response. The results are clear: George continues to grow, while Alex went on a downward performance spiral, ending with him being out of a seat for 2021. This is by no means a way of saying that Alex is less of a racer, or less of a potential winner than George. They are both F1 racers and neither of them bought their seat. This means that they belong to the absolute elite of motorsports athletes. Their opposite reactions do mean that they were likely operating under different circumstances. Perhaps George has had more opportunity for growth, coming up in the Mercedes driver’s program and starting out in a backmarker team with no realistic chance of scoring points, while Alex was in a race-winning car halfway through his first season in F1.

Perhaps individual factors play a role as well. They can’t all be like Max Verstappen, who went from Toro Rosso to Red Bull Racing under exactly the same circumstances as Alex, but won his first race for Red Bull Racing in 2016.

It is possible that George, like Max and probably Lewis Hamilton as well, has something we call an ‘internal locus of control’. An internal locus of control means that you feel a sense of agency over the outcome of your actions. You feel like you have a large circle of influence and hard work beats talent (when talent doesn’t work hard). An external locus of control is the opposite, a conviction that factors outside of your control are stronger than your own influence. Obviously the former leads to resilience, while the latter leads people to give up more easily in the face of setbacks.

Although it is possible that Alex has more of an external locus of control, surely  the circumstances in which he had to function were a contributing factor. He knew how he got the seat himself (with Pierre Gasly being bumped after half a season), so he knew the consequences of failing. The neuroscience behind this is pretty clear: if you want to create a winning culture, you need people whose neuropsychological starting point is to frame change, setbacks, or stress as a challenge, not a threat. These are not static personality factors, but rather factors influenced by team culture.

The ultimate team culture

We know that for any high performing team to perform at the highest level in any sport or business there must be a culture of psychological safety, the knowledge a risk can be taken with no fear of reprimand. It’s kind of the ultimate “No Blame” culture: to make a mistake is ok, as long as you learn from it and move forward.

Mercedes have this down to a tee, they often talk about how they win as a team and lose as a team. This was very evident when George Russell borrowed Lewis’s car for the weekend in Sakhir.

George started the race in P2, by the first corner he’d taken the lead from teammate Valtteri Bottas, everything was going really well, and the fairy-tale win was there for the taking, until… 

A botched pitstop where George was given Valtteri’s tyres, which meant he had to pit on the next lap to get this rectified. The botch came about due to a chaotic pitstop where the drivers double stacked, but a radio failure meant that George received a mixed set and Valtteri didn’t get any. George managed to get back up to 2nd place behind Sergio when a slow puncture was detected meaning another quick pit stop pushing George down to 9th at the chequered flag. There will be an investigation into what went wrong, new procedures will be put in place and the team will learn from it together knowing that no individual will be blamed.

From a neuroscientific perspective it is massively interesting to look at the way Mercedes deals with failure. They openly speak about the no-blame culture they promote within their team, which is one of the most important factors for creating a winning culture. This makes perfect sense when you look at how the brain operates. Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ Team Principal, once said

“When you screw up, you want to identify the person. It’s how the human mind works. But we have a no-blame culture. We blame the problem rather than the person – which is easier said than done.”

This is absolutely correct. Our brains will automatically want to look for someone to blame, because once you’ve found that person then at least you can be sure that it wasn’t you. Our brains are always out to protect us from danger. It wants to make sure we are never vulnerable. Unfortunately, our brains are stuck in prehistoric times when it comes to identifying danger. To you brain, being vulnerable in any way means that you may be eaten by a wild animal lurking behind a bush. Even though the ‘danger’ in this case is psychological (being blamed for something and subsequently being excluded) and therefore less concrete than a wild animal hunting you, your brain’s reaction to these things is identical. It doesn’t distinguish between abstract and concrete threats.

This default setting makes it challenging to create a no-blame culture and yet Mercedes seems to have succeeded, no doubt partially due to the inspiring and motivating leadership of Toto Wolff. He seems to realize that the only way to be truly innovative is to make sure people feel the psychological safety to fail. Progress is built on failure. A fear of failure will lead to a conservative, ‘better safe than sorry’ approach. But better safe than sorry will not win you 7 consecutive constructor’s world championships.

2021 Season.

What will this season bring? Could it be an 8th World Championship title for Lewis? Will Ferrari find the form they have missed these last few years? Will the Ricciardo/Norris Bromance be as powerful as the Sainz/Norris partnership that has seen McLaren return as best of the rest? Will Vettel be a regular on the podiums again, and could we even see the name Schumacher back on a podium? And the ultimate question is: will Kimi Raikkonen ever give up his hobby?

Many unknowns, which may not be comfortable for our brains, but it sure makes us look forward to lights out in Melbourne on March 21st!