Prof Gary Hartstein04 July 2014

Could YOU be a Formula One driver?

Former F1 medical chief Prof Gary Hartstein on the brainpower required…

Is a racing driver’s brain different to yours or mine? And if so, what kind of differences might there be? I’ve been thinking about these questions lately – let’s take a look at some possible answers.

The first difference? Information processing.

Remember when you first drove a car? It was all... too much, right? Steering input, left pedal, right pedal and the one in the middle. Then add to that the traffic, applying the rules – total information overload, right? Everything – everything – needs conscious attention. And, as we are quickly forced to admit, there are significant limits to how much information can be consciously attended to.

So the brain does what it’s built to do – it learns. This way, the various ‘subroutines’ involved in driving become automatic, allowing the conscious brain to focus on high-level tasks, such as predicting the behaviour of other drivers, risk avoidance, etc. (However we probably all know people for whom driving is always a fully conscious, seat-of-the-pants experience...)

Imagine an F1 driver strapped into his car. The muscles, ligaments and joints of his body feel every twitch. His body is shifted by g-forces. All of this information enters the brain and is interpreted by the cerebellum. Then there’s bombardment by visual information. He’s looking at the road and feeding that to the visual part of the brain. All of these areas are talking to each other, at a processing speed ‘normal’ brains can’t achieve. I’m convinced that one of the distinguishing features of a driver’s brain is the speed with which information is transferred between brain areas (like the buses in a computer), criss-crossing through what are called associative areas. It’s here that patterns are recognised and responses are organised. Everyone wants lots of memory and a fast hard disk, but really fast buses help make the processing lightning-quick. Broadband vs dial-up, if you will.

If we look at the inputs to the brain, Sir Jackie Stewart told me how crucial in competition a driver’s ability to have his eyes shift focus from far (the track) to near (the buttons and knobs of the steering wheel) can be.

I mentioned the cerebellum earlier. It would be no surprise to learn that, indeed, race drivers have particularly developed cerebellums. Watch how fast these guys put on just the right amount of opposite lock when the back steps out on a flying lap. That kind of reaction needs staggeringly fast, and accurate, cerebellar function.

Since we’re talking about fast and accurate, how about the constant high-intensity stream of information coming from the driver’s body? All those shifts in position and force need to be managed on the track but also stored and interpreted for later use, notably with the engineers. No doubt, this is another dramatic difference between them and us. It’s also not surprising that most of these guys make good helicopter pilots – their brains are just very good at spatial positioning.

There is some fascinating research data about risk-taking behaviour, and about how the reward areas of the brain are activated. There’s huge variation between individuals, but there’s also significant data that says the young brain assesses risks and their consequences fairly poorly. Now, it’s not a stretch to think that when these guys are starting to race, in karts from the age of four, that early fearlessness allows them to push harder and therefore learn more about vehicle dynamics than someone who didn’t start until later. 

This matters, because you can’t race well if you’re constantly thinking about consequences. The best drivers certainly make an extremely rapid and highly accurate analysis of the success of a given manoeuvre. For less skilled drivers – it’s not a coincidence that the same guys crash over and over again – you might sometimes wonder what on earth they’re thinking. The operative word is ‘thinking’. The same guys do the same stupid things because their analysis is consistently of lower quality.

The top guys make fewer mistakes. This is because they are blessed in all areas of the brain, with the extra advantage of those fast buses. If you or I had the time and resources, we could probably activate much more of our brains’ capacities, but only within the limits of our individual potentials. For a handful of F1 drivers, they put it all together, mentally and physically.

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