Vettel came in 7th position in last weekend's British GP
“We train our bodies flat out every day yet we don’t do that much for our minds,” says Rosberg
“So I really ramped it up last year and found a way to work intensely with a mental trainer."
"It gave me that bit extra and it’s part of why I’m world champion.”
Mental coaching is common knowledge in sports such as golf and tennis but it remains taboo in the macho world of motorsport.
Vettel says qualifying is more intense than racing
"All the work you’ve ever done goes into an imaginary bag. Then when you’re out there you have to focus to get your routine out of the bag. It doesn’t matter how you were 10 minutes ago, you have to be the best right now.”
This is how Nadia Comaneci became the first Olympic gymnast to score a perfect 10. Having spent her life painstakingly filling her ‘bag’ with the required skill, she knew that nailing it with the whole world watching is a challenge not for the body but for the mind.
Formula 1 drivers race more than once every four years yet they face the same inner battle. They spend their early years filling their ‘bag’ in karts, but the best can empty it all out when it really matters.
That’s why, when Sebastian Vettel sat in his Ferrari during qualifying for the British Grand Prix last weekend, he probably took a moment to shut his eyes and watch a preview of what lay ahead. Just as Comaneci would find a quiet corner to mentally rehearse her routines, Vettel tops up his subconscious mind until it is primed to take over.
“Qualifying is more intense than racing,” says Vettel. “In the race, you have to take care of tyres and think about lots of things at the same time: how long does the stint last? What’s the objective? It’s busy in a different way, whereas qualifying is very raw.
“So you spend time going through the lap. What are the key points? Where do you have to improve compared with the run before? Once you start, there’s no time to think about anything else. So you clear your mind and you really have to be in the moment. Even if you make a mistake, it’s important not to think about it. You just focus corner by corner – and ideally let it flow.”
This aim to ‘clear your mind’ and be ‘in the moment’ is key to spiritual traditions such as Zen Buddhism. It might seem alien to elite sport – and Vettel’s move on Lewis Hamilton in Baku was hardly the work of a Jedi Master – but whenever anyone finds such focus in any field, our nagging inner critic shuts up and lets all our ability out of the bag. NBA basketball teams have been known to meditate before games, while Nico Rosberg, the last man to beat Hamilton in a straight fight to the title, adopted a similar approach.
“We train our bodies flat out every day yet we don’t do that much for our minds,” says Rosberg. “So I really ramped it up last year and found a way to work intensely with a mental trainer. It gave me that bit extra and it’s part of why I’m world champion.”
Mental coaching is common knowledge in sports such as golf and tennis but it remains taboo in the macho world of motorsport. Yet two-time F1 world champion Mika Häkkinen recently revealed the debt he owes McLaren’s former performance coach Aki Hintsa, who succumbed to cancer last year. After watching elite Ethiopian distance runners, Hintsa decided that success is based on holistic wellbeing. He later worked with drivers including both of 2017’s title challengers, Vettel and Hamilton.
“If someone wants to improve, there has to be science behind their progress,” insists Häkkinen. “Just as developing a racing car has to be calculated, a human is the same. Formula 1 has physical demands but it’s a mind game.
“Every lap you need maximum concentration, so there can be nothing disturbing your mind. If you have stress, don’t keep it inside – you need the right people to talk to. Aki understood what drivers need to peak every test, every qualifying session, every race. He made me a better driver.”
These peaks are known as being ‘in the zone’ and they’re accessible to all – even if 1980s F1 racer Derek Warwick reckons some have an extra gear.
“This may be inexplicable to those who haven’t experienced it but that’s because we don’t usually push to the absolute limit,” says Warwick. “The ultimate limit creates that zone. When you get there, it’s a beautiful feeling.
“But I think there are two zones. There are the mere mortals among us at 100%. Then there’s a different zone that only a very few extraordinary people reach. When Roger Federer plays Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, he’s not involved with the crowd or emotionally charged, he’s got his race face on. Lewis achieved that at a wet Silverstone in 2008 when he was phenomenal.”
When two rivals find the zone at the same time, savour it. This is the first year Vettel and Hamilton both have a great car and prior to last weekend's British GP, they had alternated perfect races. Things weren't in Vettel's favour at Silverstone but with the Budapest Grand Prix just one week away, there's everything to play for...