The inspiration for this blog came from a discussion I had in the comments section of another F1 blog. Here, we were debating the reasons for Mark Webber’s apparent inability to make good getaways at the beginning of Grands Prix. There’re probably other drivers on the grid who make equally poor starts but Webber’s predicament is highlighted by starting towards the front of the grid thanks to his generally strong qualifying performances. Red Bull’s lead driver, Sebastian Vettel, has made a career and three world championships out of his ability to convert pole positions into race wins by virtue of maintaining his starting position into the first corner and subsequently dictating the race from the front. Conversely, when Webber has started from the top spot, all too often it seems as though he’s left the car in reverse gear and has been swamped by the midfield bandits starting behind him, losing places left, right and centre in a Greg Norman-like display of relinquishing an unassailable advantage.
So what are the factors at play here? In the hi-tech world of F1 there are many technical explanations proffered; clutch slip, engine revs, bite points etc. It seems unlikely that one set of engineers would consistently be at fault here and so, conspiracy theories aside, the one remaining factor is Webber himself. Now given that he is no less fit or physically capable than any other driver, my theory is that like so many other things in the world of sport, it’s all in the head.
If you follow F1 closely enough though, you’ll know that the start line procedure is very well prescribed and on the parade lap each driver is being fed information and told which knobs and buttons to press on the steering wheel to optimise the launch from the grid. Once all of the necessary settings are programmed into the car’s dashboard, the final act is to wait for the 5 red lights to extinguish and then feed in the 740 horse power on tap using a hand operated clutch and a delicate right foot on the loud pedal. As the two dozen or so cars form up the grid, there is a brief moment of relative calm before twenty-odd un-muzzled V8s begin to growl in anticipation of lights out. These are critical moments in an F1 race, and as the symphony of engine noise reaches its crescendo, the engineers and computers have played their parts. It is now 22 human beings conducting the music; muscle, sinew and synapse. Thankfully, in a sport where so much is pre-determined by the laws of physics, there is still a human element involved and it’s just conceivable that with the adrenalin in full flow, Webber is prone to an attack of nerves. In the staring match with the 5 glaring red lights on the start gantry, Webber blinks first. Perhaps a fleeting moment of tightness, to use one sporting parlance; or maybe he just plain chokes, to use an altogether more damning one. Whatever the term used, could it be the pressure getting to Mark Webber? A flinch on the clutch paddle is all it takes to drop the revs, bogging the engine down, a twitch too much of the right foot and the rear wheels spin, losing valuable metres to his opponents.
One response to this thesis was that having started over 200 Grands Prix, Webber would be all but immune to the effects of pressure. Not a bit of it! To completely dismiss the psychological aspect of sport is to miss the point almost entirely. The more there is riding on a single moment in time, the more it matters and the more difficult it becomes to control the emotions and execute the skills performed flawlessly during training or in times of less imposing mental duress.
As I write, the second week of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships has just begun and there is no better time to see sportsmen and women struggle to keep their emotions in check. The scoring system of tennis is such that pressure points can arise relatively often. With a game score tied at deuce, each player can feel safe that there will be at least one more chance whatever happens. One point later though and the game teeters on a knife-edge with one player having the advantage. Still though there is a chance, and the ability to hold one’s nerve and deliver the break-point saving ace when it matters most is something that separates the great players from the merely good.
This is one reason why the appeal of tennis as a spectator sport is almost universal – especially for two weeks in summer in Britain – but it is not to say that other sports do not create such moments. In cricket, a batsman can struggle to rein in his attacking instincts when a more measured approach is called for. Conversely, a fear of failure may prevent the very same batsman from expressing himself as exemplified by the current plight of Nick Compton, who is struggling to suppress his inner demons and express his obvious talent. Then there are the “nervous nineties”, a term which nicely describes how tricks of the mind can cause a cricketer to abandon the mindset that garnered his or her first 90 runs in the pursuit of an almost arbitrary score of three figures. Finally, who could forget the Ryder Cup of last year, where every European putt on that final evening in Medinah had the hopes and expectations of an entire continent riding on it? Time and time again, Ian Poulter found the hole to keep the European victory bid alive knowing the consequences of a mistake would almost certainly entail defeat. The Americans faced a different type of pressure going into the last day, only needing to avoid a complete rout to claim the trophy. The expectation attached to being an odds-on favourite is a pressure all of its own and in the end, the pressure told as Yank after Yank fell short of the mark.
Sport is littered with similar such occasions and they are all the more memorable and enjoyable for the role that psychology played in them. Can you perform when it matters most? It’s no coincidence that those who can are consistently found at the top of the leader board, lifting the trophy, or taking the centre step on the podium.
In closing, we return briefly to Webber. Sunday’s British Grand Prix was a microcosm of Webber’s Red Bull tenure. Plainly frustrated with his team after yet another poor start and another opening lap tangle with Romain Grosjean, the Aussie battler put in a determined drive to come through the field to finish second to a young German driver (Nico Rosberg this time after Sebastian Vettel had retired from the lead). Webber’s performances as a favourite are what we began questioning here, but his efficacy in the face of adversity is undisputed. Never better than with the bit between his teeth and a bone of contention to pick, this was a classic Webber drive and exhibitedthe mental toughness, grit and willpower that he possesses in bundles. If only he could match this underdog determination with the ability to lead from the front – to perform when it matters most – he would be leaving the sport at the end of this season with at least one world championship to his name.