Invisible skills cloak Formula One drivers' rare ability to multi-task

Force India driver Nico Huelkenberg during first practice, as seen from Swissotel The Stamford. F1 drivers are the most prolific jugglers in any sport, handling 25-odd buttons, knobs and an LCD screen on their steering wheels, while listening to thei
Force India driver Nico Huelkenberg during first practice, as seen from Swissotel The Stamford. F1 drivers are the most prolific jugglers in any sport, handling 25-odd buttons, knobs and an LCD screen on their steering wheels, while listening to their engineers and constantly processing their own flow of race information.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

It is Wednesday night at Marina Mandarin and Nico Huelkenberg is a fast man at a standstill. He bends, he signs, one sponsor cap, then 30, then 100. The athlete on corporate duty. Soon he will leave and press the public flesh but really he'd rather be rubbing skin with another carbon-fibre car at 300kmh.

Huelkenberg, a Force India driver, is articulate, personable, cool, lean, his jeans ripped, a half-smile lounging on his face - there's no immediate visual evidence that he belongs to a peculiar tribe whose brain circuitry is foreign to us.

Till you investigate further.

Huelkenberg's resting heart rate - his performance coach Mika Salminen tells me - is "50 or slightly below". Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardio says that in a bid to strengthen his neck muscles and deal with tough conditions he would run around with his "race helmet (on) and bicycle in heat chambers". And all of them make Ben Hur look like an epic wimp: He controlled four Hollywood-trained horses, these fellows have 850 screaming ones locked under their chariots.

Most athletes are sweaty studies in concentration, performing multiple tasks even while locomoting. Lionel Messi, for instance, controls a ball, steers it through a moving forest of legs and is peripherally aware of the goalkeeper's position. But F1 drivers are sport's most prolific jugglers: They've got 25-odd buttons, knobs and an LCD screen on their steering wheel, engineers gabbing in their ears while their brains hurtle from instinct to calculation.

GUT FEEL CRUCIAL FOR DRIVERS

If you're a good racing driver, you don't actively think about it. It just happens, it's just instinct.

NICO HUELKENBERG, Force India driver, explaining why drivers' split-second reactions are intuitive

Huelkenberg has been in motion since he was seven, storing experience and assembling what Dr Kerry Spackman, a cognitive neuroscientist who has worked with F1 drivers, calls "a library of different solutions built up in the cerebellum they can call on". When a problem arises, or a risk has to be taken, they pick the right answer without thinking. "If you're a good racing driver," says Huelkenberg, "you don't actively think about it. It just happens, it's just instinct."

NO IRONCLAD SAFETY

We're aware of the risk and that racing will be never 100 per cent bullet-proof for a driver.

HUELKENBERG, on risk assessment

But, says Spackman, other things "demand conscious attention", for the driver is also appraising his rivals, evaluating his tyres, adapting as the brakes heat up. Combine all this, says the neuroscientist, and the driver's "brain is under serious, serious load. It's like a fighter pilot in a dogfight".

And to err can have a cruel cost.

If Roger Federer flubs a trick shot only his pride is injured. "If you're going to do something super silly (in F1)," says Huelkenberg, "it's going to hurt." This is a sport, after all, which has its own Wiki page called "List of Formula One fatalities".

So what about fear?

Doesn't it trickle in, nibble at the edges of the brain, hang around like a bully? Maybe the brain is too busy to consider fear or, as Force India's Sergio Perez says: "Once you jump into the car you don't think about it." Like boxers who learn to compartmentalise pain, perhaps drivers have dealt with risk for so long that fear doesn't even register when they're flying.

But aren't they scared?

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"Not really," says Huelkenberg. "If I start to be worried about fear then time has come to retire. When we sign up for racing Formula One, there is always some risk involved. That's in the DNA of the sport and that's also good the way it is because that's some of the attraction as well. We're aware of the risk and that racing will be never 100 per cent bullet-proof for a driver."

These mechanical jockeys are tuned athletes, but Huelkenberg warns against overstating their fitness for that is trainable; it is their skills, "what we can do with four wheels and a car", dancing at 300kmh among a crowd on the cliff of chaos, a sort of finely-balanced ballet between man and machine, which is astonishing.

And also mostly invisible.

Formula One's impenetrable quality is its greatest weakness - its technology beyond easy comprehension, its nuanced skill beyond normal understanding.

When Serena Williams whips a forehand cross-court, we see her skilful synthesis of wrist, hip, feet, eye, racket. We know it's a great shot. If we've ever played tennis, we even know what it feels like. But, says Huelkenberg, if he takes a corner perfectly, a fraction of a second of judgment and timing and poetry on wheels, "it's much harder for people to recognise and understand what we have done". We cannot feel his genius.

We cannot, as the engines howl, discern the delicacy required to manoeuvre these land rockets. Spackman tells a terrific tale of being in a car with the three-time world champion Jackie Stewart. They're going round a track, into a big corner, the car slides, and Stewart's hands are "delicately moving backwards and forwards" like a pianist at work. Stewart is calmly controlling the slide and, adds Spackman with awe, "he's also talking to me at the same time".

From the tips of their finger to, well, their bottoms, drivers have a sensitivity to their machines we cannot quite fathom. As Niki Lauda's character put it bluntly in the movie Rush: "God gave me an okay mind, but a really good ass, which can feel everything in a car." Drivers also flit between calm and emotion and we cannot see this struggle. When I ask Perez his heart rate during a race, Huelkenberg, his team-mate, quips "280" and Perez laughs: "I told you I am an emotional person".

And since there is so much we cannot see, this evening, as they slalom across the city, we have to not just watch the cars but imagine the men within - the heat they feel, the risk they manage, the processing that occurs in the multiple chips that operate simultaneously in their brains.

And while we do that, let's consider this. In cricket, fielders discuss dinner menus in the slips. Football strikers stand and breathe as the ball is fought for at the other end. Tennis players read notes and peel bananas at changeovers.

But these drivers, wrapped in intensity without interruption, probably don't get more than a few second's respite over roughly two hours. Which only makes you think the men who choose this life must be as freakishly wired as their cars.

To put it very respectfully, are they crazy?

Huelkenberg: "Er, probably a little bit."

Perez: "Yeeaaah. Otherwise we wouldn't be here."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'Invisible skills cloak drivers' rare ability to multi-task'. Print Edition | Subscribe