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Pushing to the limit: Yas Marina driving experience Day 2
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Pushing to the limit: Yas Marina driving experience Day 2
Posted By: James Allen  |  29 Sep 2010   |  10:48 pm GMT  |  34 comments

Today was the final part of the Yas Marina Circuit’s two day experience, aimed at giving a deeper understanding of what it takes to be a Formula 1 driver.

After physical tests, karting and a 2 seater F1 ride yesterday, today we went through a series of mental tests devised by Dr Riccardo Ceccarelli of the human performance company Formula Medicine and drove F3000 cars.

Although the rides and drives have been fantastic and insightful, for me the most interesting part of this programme was Dr Ceccarelli’s work. He has been honing his research and methods over 20 years working with F1 drivers from Jean Alesi, to Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso and Robert Kubica. Yesterday he took us through the physical tests, today he put us through the same mental tests he uses for F1 drivers and young drivers to assess whether they have the mental capacity to be a top driver.

I’ve always believed that the really top drivers use only perhaps 75% of their mental capacity to drive a car on the limit, but have 25% spare to think about the tyres, the tactics and to converse with the pit wall via radio.


Although this capacity is something you are born with, Ceccarelli’s conviction is that by understanding the brain and how it works under stress, you can train it to perform tasks at a high level while conserving mental and physical energy and this means that, although you cannot make a driver capable of using only 75% of his brain, you can improve the performance. It is all about the brain’s capacity to take in visual cues and process information.
“A driver must be fit to last the race without fatigue, but after that if I want to improve the performance of a driver, I have to make his brain run faster for a longer time,” he says. “This we can achieve from trying to teach him how to do the same exercise with less energy. And in this way he can perform at a higher level for a longer time.

“Drivers have something different in the brain, because they have to be quick, clever, able to react and make decisions. When I started in F1 I was the same age as the drivers and I was surprised at how much better they were at everyday decisions, clearly their brain is faster than mine.

The driver is different from other athletes in that he has the capacity to take control of many things and make decisions in the right time.”

The mental tests ranged from a simple test of reaction time, to visual memory tests, concentration and stress tests. The most tricky was a fast moving concentration exercise where words come up on a screen written in colour. If the colour is the same as the word, you click true if not, false using clickers in the left and right hand. One appears every second and to make things more difficult, the true and false changes from left to right hand at random. I got 85 out of 100 in 100 seconds.

Ceccarelli said that the record is held by Robert Kubica, who did 100/100 in 65 seconds. And even more mind blowing, Kubica did 300 correct answers in a row. This indicates not only intense concentration, but also a fast brain able to process information very quickly.


Reactions are a part of it and drag racer Rod Fuller, who was with us on the programme, showed us the portable device he uses to practice his reaction times.

Nicolas Todt sends all his young drivers and prospective clients to Formula Medicine and Ceccarrelli is able to tell teams if a driver has what it takes mentally to be a top driver.

Fan Ambassador Neil Donnell with the F3000 car


The driving progressed though Radicals, two seater sports cars, to
F3000 cars, which are the culmination of the programme. These cars have paddle operated gearshift and are very enjoyable to drive. We followed behind 1989 F3000 champion Jean Alesi for 10 laps as he got progressively faster. Trying a bit too hard to keep up with him, I spun on the exit of a slow corner.

One of the unique things about this programme, is its scope, no other track could put on an event like this with the breadth of cars, two seater F1 car and even a 3 seater dragster!

Rod Fuller races in the NHRA’s Top Fuel class in the USA under Yas Marina colours. Drag racing is big in the Middle East. I went out in this thing and the acceleration and the sensation of tunnel vision as we hit 240mph in just a few seconds over a quarter mile were the strongest impressions. The 1000hp Yas 3 seater car has been specially built to give people an impression of how it works. Fuller’s real car has 8,000 hp and hits 500km/h! Amazingly he makes 25 steering corrections in a four second ride.

Bruno Senna and Johnny Herbert have been mentoring us for the past two days and decided they would like to go together in Rod’s dragster.


We also drove the new F1 2010 Codemasters game for Sony PS3, using an arcade set up connected to six other machines. GP2 driver Jules Bianchi proved very fast on this.

All in all it’s been a very insightful and tiring two days. We’ve learned a lot more of what it takes to be a driver, both on the physical and mental side and we’ve had the chance to see the experts at work close up.

Our Fan Ambassador Neil Donnell has been there every step of the way, enjoying the opportunity to get closer to the sport and to meet drivers like Jean Alesi, Johnny Herbert and Bruno Senna. Neil was lucky enough to have his two seater ride with a very fired up Alesi, who admitted afterwards that he had been “pushing.”

We’ll post Neil’s content and thoughts on the event tomorrow.

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34 Comments
  1. Luke T says:

    Sounds like a fantastic two days – thanks for the insightful account of what you guys got up to.

    James, out of interest, what did you make of the F1 game?

    1. Lee says:

      I wouldn’t mind hearing what others have got to say about f1 2010…Personally, I think they’ve done a pretty good job considering the limited resources a console has for handling such a data-rich subject.

      A bit buggy though!

    2. DerangedStoat says:

      F1 2010 is a good game, but my feelings is that it could and should have been so much better.
      It’s quite buggy at the moment, and is missing a lot of features one would expect in an F1 game, some as simple as it not displaying sector splits for the drivers around you. As it stands, it looks good, and is a lot of fun to drive (which is no small point), but as for the single player racing and features, Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix 4 did it much better in my opinion.

      Also I’ve mentioned it here before, but if you have a PC and a steering wheel, the recently released Ferrari Virtual Academy is the most realistic handling F1 sim I’ve come across, I highly recommend giving it a go.

  2. Anthony says:

    Hello James,

    how do you rate the F1 Game, the quality of the physics feels like the real thing or is it more like an arcade game?

    1. James Allen says:

      I’m not super qualified to talk about the game, but I certainly found the graphics very real. The drivers said that the car behaved very realistically. Seems a big step on from the 09 game

  3. Pete says:

    Hi James, Wow! Fantastic Article, thanks for bringing us so close to knowing how F1 drivers train, think and practice! One of the most insightful articles ever, and i’m super jealous of you!

    I had read earlier about physical exercises, but hadn’t realized how drivers also practice mentally (and how it can be a cut off point for drivers!). I am still confused about how F1 drivers train to conserve mental energy. Is it a mental exercise they do, or is it something like meditation etc.? Could you elaborate on that a bit more please?

    Oh, and congrats on doing so well on the tests! Fancying your chances as a driver any time soon?

    1. m00bie says:

      I suspect its more a case of exercising their brains when they are not racing! by reguly doing the kinds of mental activitys that stimulate areas of the brain that they use for decision making when they are driving the brain will optimise those areas.

  4. auski says:

    hi james off topick
    hamliton has been quoted he only had a puncture at singapore. If that the case why did he stop?

  5. LAK says:

    Very interesting second day. I hear pilots go through rigorous training to train their brain reaction time, I guess F1 is no different maybe even worse because of the speed. Would love to try out those exercises one day, 85/100 doesn’t sound bad at all! :)

    It’s great that you finally get to experience what the drivers go through after a long career in F1. I’m a 100% sure that you’ll look at them differently now. I now have more respect for the drivers who don’t necessarily perform well on track, because they are really talented to just be driving an F1 car!

    Looking forward to hearing from Neil Donnell…

  6. Matt says:

    This whole exercise is fantastic. Can’t wait to check out the videos.

  7. JohnBt says:

    There was an article about Schumacher taking a test similar to fighter pilots. Have always been curious about the simulation he went through.

  8. Williams4ever says:

    For all their mental faculties, sharp and responsive brains, F1 drivers turn out to be slow individuals with lack of articulation skills the moment camera and mic is put in front of them.
    Maybe the Commercial rights holder and sponsors need to ask Dr. Ceccarelli to put some tests in place to make witty individuals with better communication skills. Or maybe JV needs to be hired as consultant/mentor to these corporate Robots…

  9. Jay says:

    the results from the mental tests are amazing, i always thought Kubica was one of the more ‘special’ drivers in the field, it’d be interesting to see how the rest of the field score in the same tests.

    1. Williams4Ever says:

      I think Heikki was the top scorer before Kubica.
      Heikki also has run full marathon in 3hrs 30 mins and after Singapore we also know, he can keep calm if his car catches fire, walk out of car and work as fire marshal. Amazing Talent I should say

  10. Luke Osborne says:

    I look forward to the video’s :)

  11. Galapago555 says:

    Very interesting post, as usual.

    Re the mental tests, I always tell my children that F1 drivers are not only fantastic drivers, but also must have some special mental skills – an so most of the people working on F1, such as engineers. The pressure of time and results they have to afford, the stressful conditions…

    Could be interesting to know what the IQ of these guys is. I bet that they all are well above “average citizen”, don’t you think so?

    1. James W says:

      I’m not qualified to answer this, but I suspect that their IQ would probably be “average”. I think you’ve confused intelligence with mental capacity, motor neurone responses and reflexes

      1. Grabyrdy says:

        Depends how you measure IQ. The jury’s still out on that, and the measurements it comes up with don’t always seem related to either success or skill.

        But one thing the brightest people usually have is the ability to organise their thinking. The best drivers obviously have that too.

      2. Galapago555 says:

        I’m not qualified either, but I think that I have not confused IQ with anything else. I meant what I said.I mean people not only more mentally strong or with better neurological reflexes, but also more intelligent that the average.

        Of course, this does not imply that, seeing many F1 drivers and how they behave, both in and off track, you could think that their IQ should be below the average… :-D

    2. DL says:

      One of the most replicated findings in cognition is that all of your faculties such memory, reasoning, processing speed etc, all correlate with one another through the “general factor” of intelligence (simply, g).

      Given their remit, it’s quite possible that F1 drivers have very high specialisation in processing speed, but it’d be interesting if the other domains were still correlated as they are in more typical people. Maybe the F1 drivers with the fastest responses also have the best reasoning – and that helps dealing with sponsors or thinking about different factors of a race weekend.

  12. benno says:

    Really interesting stuff James. The comparison between fighter pilots and F1 pilots is made again and again, but it is so true. I’ve some experience of military flying from 15 years ago, and one saying was that ‘you lose 1/2 of your brain capacity when strapping the plane on, and another 1/2 when you started it up!’ Why all flying is based so heavily on learning repeatable checklists. Similar to the F1 guys practicing setting changes without seeing the steering wheel.
    People who made it to fighters are the ones who most quickly learnt to put all the ‘basic’ flying activities into the subconsciousness, providing extra capacity for decision-making – again, as you said, talking to the pitwall, strategy, etc.
    Would love to see comparison data of pilots against top F1 drivers.

  13. Grabyrdy says:

    Fascinating stuff, James, which raises 2 questions about the current crop – I’d be interested to know what you (and others) think :

    MS – Always used to be one with plenty of mental capacity in reserve. Is this what he has lost ? And if so, is it because of lack of practice (not enough mental exercises during his 3 years off) or just ageing ?

    Lewis : he’s talking again about driving his heart out, which always seems to be his excuse when he’s done a silly. He seems to think it gives him an extra push. But would his mental processes work better with a bit less ‘heart on sleeve’ ? How much does emotion cloud your judgement at this level ?

    1. James Allen says:

      I’m sure that when Schumacher is driving he’s more on the limit mentally now than before because he’s older and that is inevitable. As for Hamilton, he’s a very aggressive driver who thrives on that. In Monza he tried too hard to try to make up for qualifying behind his team mate. In Singapore I think he thought Webber would back off and he’s now realised how much this title means to Webber! Emotion is something Ceccarelli and his team work hard to keep out of the equation

      1. I think that is spot on James, Im a massive Lewis Hamilton fan, so of course Im going to err on his side, but maybe Lewis should have watched the interview with Jake Humphrey before the race, Mark was very honest that he will win this championship on all costs….

        But what your doing here is fantastic, I’m so envious and shows just how tough it is to be an F1 racing driver….

  14. SuperOsnola says:

    James, ¿is you who’s playing the game at the photograph? Well done for choosing Fernando. ;)

    1. James Allen says:

      Yes it’s me. I didn’t choose – the Codemasters people just put me in that car. I later had a go at Spa as Trulli.

  15. Jason C says:

    Wow, thanks again for posting this. Can’t wait to see the video and hear what Neil thought about the whole thing.

  16. Mike says:

    James,

    Thankyou again for a very informative article. What a great opportunity to see the inner workings of F1.

    Providing this type of information at this level of detail makes this web site unique.

      1. Clem says:

        oh, and you’re a lucky, lucky boy :)

  17. Tyler says:

    Great article James, so interesting to hear more of the “behind the scenes” type stuff in F1. So much more interesting than the run of the mill F1 reporting which is just regurgitated press releases. Keep this type of content coming, this is what makes your sight unique! And yes…you have a great job :)

  18. Ralph says:

    Hi James,

    Fascinating stuff, many thanks for that. I have a small private F1 forum of about 40 members and pretty much every article you write ends up getting linked to on there with comments such as “seen the latest on JA’s site?” and we are all regular followers of your site.

    I will link this page to let everyone else come here and read it (although someone has probably beat me to it already!) and if you want to sign up and have a read you are most welcome, just let me know and I will send you a link.

    Many thanks for a great site James, keep up the good work

    Best
    Ralph

  19. Masher8 says:

    Regarding the mental capacity, I believe it’s not how much of the brain that’s used as much as which part. I’ve seen some fascinating brain scan data performed on Go players (the japanese board game – bear with me), and the very best players actually have pronounced brain activity in their brain stem when considering a move.

    This means that there are completely unconscious elements going on they’re not aware of that help them choose – what we call instinct, but mapped and detectable. Weaker players just don’t have it.

    In F1 this could manifest itself in the driver appearing to have much more high level thinking time, to consider strategy and championships while racing. Their instincts, either developed or god given, take care of more of the driving than their lesser rivals.

    I’d love to see something similar done with drivers although I’m not sure about the practicalities of having the gear strapped onto an F1 car. Maybe touring cars?

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