20101115

Zoning in on where motor racing takes the mind


Sebastian Vettel’s timing could not have been better.  With the Formula One drivers’ championship still open to four contenders as the cars lined up on the grid for the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi, Vettel produced the perfect drive at the perfect moment.

With pre-race points leader Fernando Alonso unable to finish in the first four, which would have denied Vettel the title, the 23-year-old German became the youngest F1 champion, his victory putting him in front for the only time in the championship.

By consensus, he drove a superb race.  But did he find himself in the zone? 

It is not a phrase often recognised as carrying profound meaning.  Indeed, in most sports it would convey nothing more than a sense of focus or concentration, a basic prerequisite to success.

In motor racing, however, to be in the zone is to reach an almost mystical place, or a state of mind in any event, in which the driver and car effectively become one entity, the occupant of the cockpit as much part of the machine as the vehicle is an extension of its pilot.

It is a phenomenon that first prompted wide discussion after Ayrton Senna described his qualifying laps for the Monaco Grand Prix in 1988 and spoke about something akin to an out-of-body experience, in which his McLaren-Honda car went faster and faster until the Brazilian began to believe he was above the car, looking down at himself at the wheel.

It transpired he was not the first to have encountered such feelings during a race or qualifying but it was only after Senna had vocalised the experience in such startling terms that others admitted that they too had known disturbing moments similar to the one Senna described.

The phenomenon is explored by the motor racing writer Clyde Brolin in a book entitled Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone, in which more than 100 interviewees -- not all of them racing drivers -- explain what they understand the phrase to mean and how their experiences compare with Senna’s.

Senna risked ridicule with his public admission, or at least the murmured suspicion that he was slightly bonkers.  Yet many of those quizzed by Brolin could recall moments in their cars when normal conscious thought processes gave way to something else.

Jenson Button, for example, said that he sometimes would drive a qualifying lap in which he could later remember not a single detail, whereas normally he would be able to replay the lap in his mind in exact detail. Usually, the laps in question were especially quick.

And Vettel described moments when everything about the way the car was set up was perfect but that there was something extra. “That’s the magic and it can make a big difference… it is the best feeling in driving. You are always fighting to reach this.”

Brolin touches on a number of possible explanations, or theories about explanations, for the phenomenon, from the neurological and the technical to the astro-physical or spiritual.
He does not attempt to resolve the question by offering his own answer.  Then again, so far there really isn’t one.

Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone.  Click on the link to reach the Amazon website for details on how to buy.

For more books on motor racing, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.

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