The new era of Formula 1, spare capacity, and the benefits of focus

Formula 1 is back! We’ve all been anxiously awaiting the introduction of the new cars. And boy did they deliver. We’ve seen two quite dramatic races (engaging drama, not polarizing drama like the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP), with Ferrari finally being back in the mix for the championship this year. Mercedes have a ways to go when it comes to fighting their way back to the top, which is going to be an interesting journey. They have been the team to beat for eight years straight. This means that, most likely, many of the people working for Mercedes will have gotten used to winning. From a culture perspective, this is where it gets interesting. How will they deal with being on the back foot? Will their no blame philosophy hold? Only time will tell, but they are certainly lucky to have two of the best drivers on the grid on their team. George and Lewis will surely wring every ounce of performance out of that car.

People often say that a race win is more attributable to the car than the driver. Obviously, the performance of the car is an incredibly important factor. If you don’t have a race winning car, no amount of driver skill will get you across the finish line first. But neither will a race winning car in the hands of an unskilled driver. One neurological phenomenon that has always fascinated me, is driver spare capacity. Spare capacity refers to the fact that the best drivers have brain processing capacity above and beyond what is necessary to drive the car. This means that they have processing capacity left to deal with unexpected events. Like the steering wheel getting stuck at an angle, which happened to Max Verstappen during the Bahrein GP. Like ending up in a game of DRS chicken with your competitor, which is what Max and Charles LeClerc found themselves doing in Jeddah. Or like your competitor’s visor tear-off getting stuck on your car, prompting you to battle him one-handed at 200+ kph on a street circuit with no run-offs and walls on both sides.

Spare capacity is one of the factors that distinguishes great drivers from OK ones. Nikita Mazepin famously wasn’t able to do what his engineer asked of him during the 2021 Monaco GP, clearly due to lack of spare capacity.

The fact is: the less time drivers have to spend thinking about how to drive the car, and the better they are at blocking out irrelevant thoughts and distractions, the more brain capacity they have left to deal with chaos. Not having to think about driving the car is related to a combination of driver talent and practice. The more time they spend practicing, the stronger the neural pathways related to driving become, until it is second nature.

Blocking out irrelevant thoughts and distractions though, is purely psychological. One of the four pillars of psychological wellbeing is mindfulness. Although this is often discussed in the context of mental health, mindfulness is a significant contributor to high performance as well. The main goals of any mindfulness routine are self-awareness, focused attention, and non-judgment. There are different ways to reach these goals. One is meditation, something we know Lewis Hamilton has been doing to help him focus, and Nico Rosberg used to help him secure the 2016 world championship. Another is visualization, which Sebastian Vettel and Charles LeClerc use to help them clear their minds. It doesn’t really matter what you do exactly. Mindfulness isn’t necessarily about sitting cross-legged repeating ‘Ohm’ for 90 minutes straight. It can be, if that is what works for you, but it doesn’t have to be. Any routine that helps you focus on the present moment, whether it be through movement, music, or stillness, is mindful.

With all the changes to the cars, and the related challenges with reliability and unexpected chaos on track, focus will definitely be crucial. To drivers, but also their mechanics, engineers, strategists, and everyone else involved in trying to get their car to finish first. So far, the new era of F1 has not disappointed. I can’t wait to see more fights for the lead, epic midfield battles, and on-track games of chess!