For many fans around the world, Formula One racing is the turbocharged embodiment of cutting-edge engineering. But − from those employed in the design and building of the cars, to the pit crews and the drivers themselves – the whole enterprise is dependent on human effort.
As part of the UK's Year of Engineering, the Science Museum in London recently held an event titled The Science of Formula One. Addressing the attendees, James Allison, technical director for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport spoke of how, a few days before, Lewis Hamilton had won his fifth world championship title.
Even though he had just achieved something only two other individuals had before him, Mr Hamilton was apparently “devastated” at his team’s poor performance and spent the following hours not celebrating, but debriefing with his colleagues and trying to understand what went wrong during the race.
While F1 teams and drivers are household names, the coaches in charge of the physical and psychological training of the drivers and their teams are largely unknown. The current leader in this market is Hintsa Performance, a coaching and digital wellbeing company, whose affiliated drivers have won 13 F1 world championships and achieved 96 per cent of the podium places over the past four seasons.
A few years ago, I joined the science board of Hintsa Performance, where we use personalised neuroinformatics to better understand the brain dynamics of high-performance sportspeople and workers.
The company was also at the museum event. There, it revealed that it starts working with drivers as young as 13 years old, helping them to optimise their lives for success with training that includes physical activity, nutrition, biomechanics, sleep and mental preparation.
F1 is a high-pressure environment. Drivers have to make split-second decisions while travelling at speeds in excess of 370kph, in a cramped cockpit, where the field of view is limited, G-force is extreme and the temperature can reach 50C. They can lose up to 3kg in a single race and have to communicate with their teammates while executing multiple of complex commands at any one time.
For an average worker, multitasking can reduce productivity by up to 40 per cent. A good F1 driver, forced to multitask in a race environment, can lose up to half a second per lap. Champions, however, can keep their decision-making, reaction and lap times relatively unaffected, thanks to exceptional skills, honed by hours of physiological, biomechanical, cognitive and emotional training.
As they approach the final race of their season in Abu Dhabi, F1 drivers will have spent on average 172 days away from home, flown at least 110,000 miles, and visited 21 countries where the Grand Prix takes place.
According to James Hewitt, chief innovation officer at Hintsa Performance: “The Formula One season is a feat of endurance. Stress and effort can be positive if they are managed within an acceptable range, with adequate time to bounce back and switch off.”
Many executives travel as much as the F1 drivers. They also have to manage significant amounts of stress and physical and mental fatigue. Earlier this year, we compared the cognitive performances of some of the top executives attending the World Economic Forum event in Davos to that of F1 drivers.
Unsurprisingly, the drivers have higher accuracy and alertness levels, but when it comes to speed of response, there is barely a difference. Fundamentally, the brains of top performers in sport and in business operate in similar ways. They also have another thing in common − their ability to select an optimal work-rest ratio, which often means learning how to say no to certain opportunities, in order to recover better, and prepare for the next bout of peak performance.
There is much to learn from the way professional athletes and high achievers manage their wellbeing and optimise their levels of focus and competitiveness over long periods. Sustainable high performance, in sport or the workplace, is only achievable if people manage their efforts in a rigorously scientific manner. Knowing exactly when to push on through, when to celebrate and when to rest can put us all on the right track for success.
Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ