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How to make an F1 genius
Posted By:   |  30 Nov 2008   |  9:32 pm GMT  |  11 comments

I read a fascinating article this weekend by a writer called Malcolm Gladwell, whose new book “The story of success” looks at what creates success in many walks of life.

He describes some studies by psychologists into music students and concludes that however much talent someone has at something, what makes the difference between them becoming a stand out or an also ran is practice and opportunity. Amazingly the studies couldn’t find any “naturals” – people whose natural ability allowed them to be better than the rest on a fraction of the practice. It’s talent and practice which make a genius. By the age of 20 all top musicians had done 10,000 hours of practice and those that hadn’t were already doomed.

Delving deeper, he finds that the same is true of sportsmen and women too, that magic figure of 10,000 hours comes up again and again. It is the number required to hit true expertise in a field. It is a huge amount of time, equivalent to twenty hours per week for ten years.

It got me thinking about racing drivers, especially modern ones. Since the rules were relaxed to allow children to start karting at the age of 8, many drivers have been able to focus their lives on racing from a very early on and are hugely practiced by the time they arrive in F1 at 21 or 22. And that is why drivers like Hamilton and Kubica can perform as they do from the start of their F1 careers.

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11 Comments
  1. ed says:

    I’m thinking of Damon Hill here. And Graham Hill, for that matter. People who come to the party late, people who have a different story to tell… they add spice to proceedings, don’t they?

    Formula 1′s driver pool is beginning to look very samey. Half of them nowadays seem to have been racing against each other since their age was a single digit. Part of the joy of Damon Hill’s career – for me, at least – was watching Michael Schumacher come to terms with how this man, who was so much older and so clearly lacking his natural spark of genius, how he could still beat him, fair and square.

    The people who start aged 5 will probably always have the edge over rivals who come to the sport later. But how dull it would be if it were to become a de facto entry requirement.

  2. Gabriel says:

    Very interesting. People always talk about natural talent, and it’s true that genetically some of us may have better innate skills in certain areas, but it is often forgotten how hard the top drivers / sportsmen practice. And even if it is not just practicing in the car, it is how much attention to detail to all aspects of racing that they have. Your book on Michael Schumacher demonstrated this very well, with regards to his relationship with his mechanics and the technical aspect of the car even during test sessions.

  3. JohnSpencer says:

    Malcolm Gladwell has taken a few themes in psychology and made bestselling pop-psychology books out of them (eg Blink and Tipping Point). Here he’s taken the work of the likes of the late Michael Howe, whose ‘The Origin of Exceptional Abiliites’ basically provided empirical confirmation of the quote (attributed to both Edison and Einstein) about genius being 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.

    However, as with all best selling books that make a convincing case, they do so by ignoring some of the counter evidence. Essentially, in any field of serious endeavour, a huge amount of ‘practice’ or ‘training’ is required – and most research has focussed on musical talent. But it’s not clear what part is played by innate disposition.

    The various talents required to succeed in F1 have a number of origins, and while it’s clear that a huge amount of training is required (David Coulthard used to say it took ten years to get into F1 — we needn’t get hung up on the 10K hours figure), it is not evident that this must take place at a particular point in your life. Certainly some skills are best learned younger, but some of the finer points of F1 skill don’t necessarily fit into this category.

    This is a very wordy way of getting round to the point about Bruno Senna. Mark Hughes made the counter argument to yours about a week ago on the itv-f1 site, making the case that because Senna started later, he was now learning faster than his rivals (who were at or near their peak) and he would peak at a higher level in the near future. Or to put it another way, look how good he is already with so little practice.

    The prevalence of sons of famous F1 fathers on the grid does suggest there is a serious genetic component to driving skill, but of this could be as simple as propensity to risk-taking or of course it might be more about opportunity than DNA.

    F1 isn’t like writing – where authors apparently peak at around 50 – but it’s not like other sports (gymnastics springs to mind) that absolutely require youth. It’s still possible to win championships in your 30s.

    Sure, there has been an outbreak of youth related broken records recently. And the age trend for World Champions has been downward, but the story is not that simple. The early years of F1 were dominated by Fangio (in his 40s) but from the late 50s to late 70s, first-time world champions tended to be quite young – think Hawthorn, Clark, Fittipaldi, Lauda. In the 80s and early 90s, the average age of world champions went back up, as multiple champions got older – Prost won his first championship at 30 (I think) and his last at 38. Schumacher bucked the trend again by first winning a championship in his mid 20s, but was still winning them in his mid 30s.

    The question is, will the age of world champions continue to go down? Well, not if the three champions still racing have anything to do with it.

  4. Alex says:

    This is interesting and i’ve often thought how many possible geniuses has sport missed out on; is there someone out there who would have been better than Tiger, Federer if they’d played the game from a young age etc? However for me this study does a disservice to some of the great sportsman. I guess a couple of good british examples would be Ronnie O’sulivan and Phil Taylor, other players in their sports started at the same age, practiced the same if not more (well over 10,000 hours) and yet will never reach the same standard purely because of talent. I would also question the sample size of this study after all the incidence of true genius is pretty low. Talent is always a grey area in f1 because the equipment varies hugely and it is not always speed that gets you a race seat. I don’t think this study proves that practice and opportunity are more important than talent but equally important if you are to capitalise on your natural ability.

  5. Mike Ellison says:

    There’s a saying “Hard work will always overcome talent that doesn’t work hard”. However, talent is always helpful.

    At our local piano school there is a girl that obviously works extremely hard and is very capable. She’s possibly the most technically advanced of those at her level. Unfortunately she doesn’t have talent. Listening to her is like listening to a sequencer that has been programmed in “step-time”. Everything is so precise but there’s no real music in her playing. The expression is all exactly as per the sheet music. There is no nuance, no subtle changes in the way she plays that brings across the emotion of the music.

    Some of the other children play expressively without even having to be taught, they wouldn’t think of playing any other way and would actually have to switch-off to play the music exactly as written. Unless the girl in question learns to connect her emotions to her playing, all her effort will be to no avail. Hard work has given her the skill but it doesn’t seem to have given her the talent to be musical.

    I think the same applies here. Lots of hard work can get a driver to F1 but to get to the very top takes more than that. In Schumacher’s case, I believe his natural talent combined with years of passionate hard work provided the platform for all those other things he brought to bear to maximize his advantage. I was always fascinated in the mind games he’d play. In particular the way that he got Damon to lose focus on his driving and instead focus on his status and monetary value. I still believe that’s what lost Damon the drive at Williams.

  6. speedmerchants says:

    JA writes: Some interesting ideas here. Don’t misunderstand me though, Mike, no-one’s talking about so-so drivers who have done lots of practice, I’m talking about guys who tick all the boxes. This is Formula 1, the best drivers in the world and the point is that if you get a kid with huge talent and give him the opportunity to do unlimited practice, then you should have created something world beating. If there happen to be a few others with that background around at the same time, then it’s an exceptional moment for the sport, but what will be the decisive factor that gives one of them the edge? Will it be mental toughness, which is very hard to teach, or just sheer desire? Being F1, the car will have a lot to do with it, which is a shame, but that too is part of the game. I think it’s an exciting time as we have some talented youngsters with great expertise.

    As for John’s point about writers peaking at 50, that’s comforting. I’ve still got 8 years to go!

  7. Paul says:

    Very interesting, and it ties in with a theory expounded by Frank Dick OBE, former British Olympic head coach in his book on coaching entitled “Winning”.

    In this book, he states his belief that the “naturally talented” progress faster early on in their careers, but when they age and hit stiffer, more senior competitors and not being used to losing, become disillusioned.

    Meanwhile, the less talented have already been through the downs and through focussed coaching, training and competition, eventually attain the highs and even overtake their more ‘talented’ peers.

    Good things books!

  8. Stephen says:

    I am a psychologist and I have done research on the difference between the truly elite and the “merely good” Elite athletes, and I found that the key ability – outside of all the practice – is the ability to listen to your ‘coach’ / mentors and apply the learning in a direct way, understand that application and realise what you have done, how you have done it and what results it brings.
    I think this can be seen in F1 especially, you look at the past “raw talents” in F1 (if there can be such a thing) for example Montoya whose attitude doesn’t allow him to listen to others and hence learn – and you compare him to Hamilton or Schumacher (the good one) and you can clearly the see the chasm of difference – while Hamilton and Schumacher have the attitude they realise that they are not too great that they don’t have anything left to learn – key example when Rubens got his Ferrari working better than Schumacher – Schuey would say “thank you I’ll have that”
    Any good athlete will understand that there is always further to strive for.
    And if it just so happens that it results in the greatest F1 season that I can remember, we’ll so be it, I think we can all live with that

  9. Akshay says:

    What about Raikkonen? Began at 10. Doubt if he’d have had the time to do “10,000 hours”, what with all the partying and all.. :P

  10. Lady Snowcat says:

    I’ll bet Kimi has spent more hours driving and sleeping than he has ever spent partying….

    Back to the main theme…

    Interestingly this is a nurture theory….

    If you nuture your talent by practice you’ll make the most of it …

    However if nature hasn’t given you a talent to nurture you’ll probably give up before the 10,000 hours, as you won’t get the reinforcement of success enough whilst you are following the regime to keep you at it….

    You would have to have extreme determination to continue if you actually had no natural talent…. or extremely besotted parents….

    Steve’s point is also related to the nurture principle…. albeit an athlete’s own ability to accept assistance to hone their talents….

    On a related point though who do we most admire?… someone who has a completely natural talent or someone who works diligently to make the most of what they have….

    Steve would argue that the true elite hit both aspects ie natural talent and a high work ethic …. and such people we should surely be drawn to….

    So why aren’t we?……

  11. Dan Clegg says:

    I think it’s interesting if you take into account the Damon Hill scenario, because here was a man who only got into F1 properly at 33, and then went on such a steep learning curve that he had the full measure of his talent by the time of his Championship in 96, at 36 years old. He was Schumacher’s toughest rival along with Hakkinen, and we all appreciate their talents. Damon has always been underestimated because he was older and in a Williams… Like with Lewis Hamilton you still need to be a top driver to win, whatever car you’re in (example… Heikki Kovalainen), and Damon was a winner (he’s still in the top 10 all-time winners list!!!)…

    If we compare him to Bruno Senna, we can only assume that both Damon’s and Bruno’s inate talent inherited from their champion relatives (Ayrton was the greatest we may ever see, and Graham Hill was Jim Clark’s biggest rival) meant that once they reach/reached the top level in F1, they embarked on a learning curve greater than any of the karting youths you see nowadays… Damon in particular had determination and the humility to learn from the benefits of having legendary teammates in Prost and Senna… What was most amazing about Damon was the way he emerged as a top driver in his own right after only a full season as an underling, once Ayrton died… maybe if Bruno gets a similar chance in a top team with an experienced teammate, we might see a similar rate of growth…

    All I see really from a young start in racing is learning of racecraft and exposure to bigger things within racing… winning junior titles gets your name out there for the future, and only a few actually realise their talent… Hamilton, Kubica, Vettel and Rosberg (with Keke for a dad he was helped certainly!)

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