The mind of a driver

13th week, time to relax, read and learn some new tricks from the best drivers in history. Here an old and interesting conversation between Ayrton Senna and David Jenkinson.


A discussion arranged between Ayrton Senna and Denis Jenkinson, one of the most experienced and respected of Grand Prix writers, who still active after four decades of Formula 1 coverage interviewed Senna.

‘Jenks’ rode ‘in the chair’ alongside Eric Oliver’s Norton to win the 1949 Sidecar World Championship and later navigated Stirling Moss in the winning Mercedes Benz 300SLR on the 1955 Mille Miglia. Although best known as a writer, he was born with a competitive spirit which he has never lost and much of his conversation with Senna centered on the instinctive mental qualities required by a racing driver competing at the highest level.

Jenks has always been fascinated by what makes racing drivers tick. In 1958 his book The Racing Driver was one of the first efforts to analyse and categorise all the elements that go into the psychological make-up of a top-line Grand Prix competitor.

These were the qualities which, in Jenks’s view, marked out the likes of Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark and Gilles Villeneuve as exponents of the Grand Prix art who stood head and shoulders above their rivals whom he had seen in action. Ayrton Senna continues the theme in precisely the same vein, reminding us that, while the outward demeanour of Formula 1 racing may change from generation to generation, the basic motivating forces of the elite handful of top competitors remain essentially unchanged and unchanging.

JENKS: The basic instincts without which a driver will never be any good; the things you’re born with….. We talked some time ago and I said the most important thing was eyesight, vision, and I reckoned that, after this, your brain had to use what it could see and transmit it to your other faculties. And if it transmitted it 100 per cent all the way through, you had all the makings to be a Grand Prix winner. If one of those parts of your make-up was slightly lacking, but another one was very strong, it could make up for it, bring the average up.

Now when I wrote that book [The Racing Driver] vision I put as the most important thing, then your nervous processes – the things you are born with – which your brain controls, obviously. Provided that all works all right, you will make the right decisions. The next most important thing is anticipation. This is your brain thinking always ahead of your vision. Ifs a natural reflex, not something you sit down and practice. After that,judgement, which is a fairly physical thing. And the fifth one is response. So I have broken the human being down into those five factors. As I said, if you’ve got a weak one…

SENNA: …one can compensate for another in different quantities to come to a final product which is similar. Yes. It’s all theory, of course, and I think you could talk for a long time and “find that your initial analysis is not quite right ~ by the time you get to the end of the analysis…you go, go, go…

What I was thinking was that some things do not have the same value in the scale. But if I take your guidelines, the vision…the ability you have by sensing with the vision, the speed approach to a target. You have a target, the apex there, you know the position of it. You know your car, conditions and so on… It is your ability, through your vision, from a distance, to be able to evaluate the speed approach to that target.

Let’s say there is a target there where you need your maximum speed to be, say 150 mph. OK? You need to reach that 150 mph speed at the correct point…it’s no good if you stop slightly before that, slightly earlier…these are nervous processes attached to your vision. It’s the ability of the distance you can measure by looking…

JENKS: There are plenty of people with good vision and no brain. I’m just talking about people in general. It’s no good having good vision without a brain.

sennaSENNA: Yes, but I’m assuming you have the basics. So the way it works for me…for a 300 meter target, which is a long way, with no reference. It’s much easier with reference points, of course. With no reference. To judge your approach to it, your reduction in speed, in such a way that will match the critical speed you need at that point. This is all visual. From the moment you establish the point, from then on your judgement takes over, which comes from your hands, your feet and your body… how much they are together in that area. It is all automatic from there on because, according to your accuracy on approach from the visual side, you are going to react until you get to the target.

The initial one, the one that has the responsibility to make the rest work properly, in sequence, at the highest level, is the ability to judge. On many occasions, if you are not completely into it, that ability, the vision ability, gets really reduced.
This is something that comes on many occasions with the equilibrium of your psychological side. Because then, if you are in a good state, psychologically speaking, your sensitivity of vision is so much greater, so much more accurate, it makes everything else much more natural and easy. Which takes a lot less energy from you. It all goes together, taking less energy, so the next occasion is going to be easier because your whole system is less stressed, so your judgement is going to be more accurate in an easier way.

So that is what it is all about. It is how to maintain everything very naturally, in a very balanced way, because the amount of energy you have to put into it, corner after corner, lap after lap, is less. By being less you will be able to do it, even easier, being more consistent, for a longer time.

It builds up a momentum. And if you get on the wrong side of the momentum, you can reverse it, but it’s going to take much more of everything to stop that momentum and reverse it to another situation.

Sometimes as a race progresses, you have time to breathe a little bit, because the other guy is backing off a little bit, or his tires are going off a bi t, so in that moment you have time to cool down a little bit, easing the momentum, reducing the pace, and then restarting from there on in the right way. If you’re talking about a very short time – just a lap, which is a two-minute sprint, maximum – then again you have to be very much switched on. But to a much greater degree of understanding, because if you are very switched on you tend to be a bit abrupt, a bit hard, and that is no way. It’s a disaster…

JENKS: You are working too hard…

SENNA: Exactly. You have to be switched on, because all your feelings are to the peak, but at the same time you’ve got to be completely under control. Then you optimice every sensitive point to such a level that it goes so high…the anticipation feeling, the judgement feeling…things that you don’t even know before you’re in it.

Then it’s all perception. The anticipation becomes part of it, like instinct, pure instinct in the right way.

JENKS: I was analyzing instincts. This is an analysis of what they are, or at least what I think they are: the unconscious reflex reactions to any particular situation, governed partly by conditioning to that situation, based on previous experiences. This is directly linked to having the mental capacity, which is beyond most mortals, to select precisely the right option in a given situation, whether it is a question of taking a corner absolutely on the limit, or trying to retrieve a car which is about to go badly out of control.

One such example of this which I experienced at uncomfortably close quarters occurred just after the start of the 1957 Mille Miglia when I was navigating Stirling Moss in the big Maserati 450S V8. This was the occasion on which the brake pedal snapped off as Stirling was slowing the car from 130 mph to around 85 mph or so on the approach to a left-hand corner.

Immediately he felt the brake pedal fracture, he forced the nose of the car into the corner, producing violent understeer to lose speed by tire scrub, and we just managed to scramble round about 15 mph faster than intended, without any braking capacity whatsoever. That was a fine example of an instinctive, sub-conscious reaction to a potentially dire situation. Anybody not capable of such an automatic response would surely have crashed heavily.

fangioSENNA: For a racing driver to gear his mind up to the level of concentration where his instinctive reactions can be relied upon totally can be quite a stressful process of preparation, involving purging the mind of all extraneous considerations. Outside influences are not welcome during this period.

As five-times World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio observed: ‘A driver gets very tense when someone comes to talk to him before a race. That is a time when one prefers to be alone, to think, and to be calm and collected.

I generally tried to leave for the race as late as possible, in order not to have to answer so many questions. When people from the radio come and ask you what you are going to do, and not going to do…well, I ask you?

Do you know what you are going to do yourself? Probably not. Generally speaking, practice gives you a yardstick you can count on. If you’ve managed your practice time with a certain facility, there is not much need to worry, except at the start.

You go out with a good start very much in mind, depending, of course, on the car you are driving and what it is capable of. I always liked starting from pole position whenever possible. The reason for this is that it’s a way of avoiding the product of other drivers’ carelessness when they go too fast into a curve, spin halfway through it and end up sitting in your path.’

JENKS: Following on from Fangio’s observations, its interesting that Gilles Villeneuve once told my friend and journalistic colleague Nigel Roebuck not to come and try talking to him on the grid, because he said he was always busy thinking and programming his brain for every eventuality for what might happen at the start.

A.H. (to Senna): When you were talking about the sheer effort, emotional and psychological effort which leaves you almost drained before the race, what steps do you take from Thursday, say, to defuse that situation; to prepare yourself, reduce the tension, calm everything down in your mind? Apart from keeping away from the press, that is!

SENNA: That’s one of the things, certainly. But to be honest with you, it’s always on the limit. Sometimes over the limit, psychologically. It’s a difficult thing to maintain. It’s really hard to cope with it in the best way. I think you can only get these things minimized to a level where you have so much time racing already that you’re not really that committed to it any more.

The moment you pass the chequered flag boom! – your mind goes down. You’re just holding your mind, holding it, holding it, to the chequered flag. Then it falls to the ground. At Francorchamps this year, where we all had to go through the stress of three starts, when I saw the red flag come out for the second time, I had to suppress a desire to jump out of the car and walk away for the rest of the afternoon. It can be that intense!

JENKS: A lot of our friends in the press don’t appreciate that. I’ve seen you after a race; the last thing you want to do is go to a television studio and have people talk to you all the time in four different languages. I don’t think many members of the press understand that its not simply the mental stress of the race, but the build-up since Thursday.

SENNA: Always the objective is the chequered flag. Everything is pre-established to produce the optimum up to the chequered flag. When you get there that’s the end.

A.H.: When you analyse a race during the following few days, do you ever feel that you could have put more effort into it?

SENNA: Sometimes when you make a mistake, you think you could do things differently. From Thursday to Sunday you establish this target to achieve, and you have so many steps to go through, so many barriers to go through. They all drain you, they are all problems. You are just doing your best all the time; whether you get it right or not, if you are committed to it, you’re giving your best all the time. There’s nothing else.

JENKS: You’re not always thinking about, of, I’ve got to keep it up to one hundred per cent?

SENNA: No, no…there are spots where it’s going a little bit down and you have to say to yourself, keep cool, give a moment, think positively. Just go for it. Sometimes there are different reasons which tend to push you down, to compress you.

As strong as you are, when you are on your own in a corner, you tend to have a feeling that it’s just a bit too much, then you have to bring from somewhere…

JENKS: Is that the point that you start to think in Portuguese?

Ayrton admits that he thinks in English when he is considering ways in which to improve the performance of the car, knowing that he will have to communicate in English with his engineers. But when simply pressing on hard during qualifying, or relishing a clear track in front of him on the opening lap of a race after a clean start from pole position, he thinks in his native Portuguese.

SENNA: Yes, that’s right…you are getting to the point where you are becoming a bit vulnerable.

‘Tho vulnerable, let’s say. So in order to close that door, you have to go back to basics.

Performing at the very highest level, the greatest exponents of the sport have all been characterised, over the years, by the ability to produce performances where they perhaps exceed the limits of what they believe they are capable of. Fangio at the Nurburgring in 1957, Jim Clark at the same circuit five years later and Ayrton Senna during practice at Monaco in 1988 all produced performances ‘out of their skin’ which serve to underline the difference between the average and the outstanding driver.

Jenks himself also had a unique opportunity to witness such a performance when he was riding in the chair alongside Eric Oliver during the 1949 Swiss sidecar Grand Prix at Berne. They had calculated that they would need an auxiliary fuel tank in order to run throughout the event at the anticipated speed, but officialdom intervened and forbade them to use it, with the result that they started the race in the knowledge that they would have to make a stop for fuel. It was a challenge which brought out the best in Eric Oliver.

d jenkinsonJENKS: Having proved we could lap one second faster than our rivals in practice, we set ourselves the task of pulling out at least four seconds a lap on them all, in the race, in order to build up a 50 second lead by lap 12 in order to come in and take on a gallon of petrol. This estimate allowed for slowing into the pits and getting out again and back up to full speed. We came in with a 48-second lead, were stationary for 12 seconds and back in the race before anybody was in sight.

That first lap from the standing start, on a clear and pristine track, is something I will never forget, and the next 11 laps were mind-blowing as Eric Oliver surpassed even himself. Afterwards it was described as ‘inspired’. It was certainly ‘unreal’ and we never rode like that again. Somebody was clearly looking after us that day. It was like Fangio at the Nurburgring in 1957, Clark at the Nurburgring in 1962 and Senna at Monaco in 1988.

SENNA: It’s all becoming slightly theoretical driving incautiously is the wrong word, not the right word. 1 just believe, in that situation [Monaco ’88], 1 was able to experience something that 1 never did before, to a level never reached before, with a final result that was my maximum. Out of that day 1 could not have told myself, ‘I could have done a little bit more here or there.’ That was the maximum for me, no room for anything more. 1 have not really reached that feeling again.

Fangio underlined this theme with his account of the 1957 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. He started with a light fuel load, opened out sufficient lead to stop, refuel and change his rear tyres, but it wasn’t enough. By the time he resumed, Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn had gone by in their Ferraris. Fangio then proceeded to drive his Maserati 250F like never before, repeatedly smashing the lap record, to catch and pass the Ferraris and win the race.

‘That day I had everything turned on and firing on all cylinders,’ he recalled. ‘I was ready to do anything. When it was all over, I was convinced that I would never be able to drive like that again, never. I had reached my final limit of concentration, and will to win.

‘I was trying out new things during those last laps of the race, pushing myself further at many blind spots where I had never before had the courage to go to the limit. On ‘that day, I made such demands on myself that I couldn’t sleep for two days after­wards. I was in such a state that whenever I shut my eyes it was as if I was in-the race again, making those leaps in the dark on those curves where I had never before had the courage to push things so far.

‘For two days I experienced delayed action apprehension at what I had done, a feeling that had never come over me after any other race, a feeling that still returns to me to this day when I think about that time. I had never driven as I drove then, but I also knew that I’d never be able to go so fast again, ever!’

clark lotus 25At the Nurburgring in 1962, Jim Clark accidentally knocked his fuel pump off at the start of the German Grand Prix and was left on the grid as the rest of the pack surged away in the pouring rain. His recovery drive to fourth place was something to savour.
As Jenks wrote at the time in Motor Sport: ‘Time and again, he was in almost uncontrollable slides on the wet and slippery surface, but always he was master of the situation, until on his 11 th lap when he got into two really big slides while in fifth gear, and he was lucky to get away with them. Until this point he had been driving in one of those inspired trances that are brought about by being niggly with oneself, but after nearly losing the car completely; at very high speed, he decided to ease off…when trying absurdly hard there often comes a point where a driver knows he has chanced his luck far enough, and this point had come to Jimmy Clark…’

Senna characterizes his concern over what he achieved during qualifying at Monaco 26 years later in only a subtly different fashion. He recognizes he had strayed into an area he had not previously explored but, being in qualifying rather than a race, his reaction was to stop and not go out onto the circuit again that day.

SENNA: Monte Carlo, 1988, qualifying…what happened was that we had race tyres, not qualifying tyres, so it was lap after lap, not just one lap. We had the turbo car. I went out, had a good lap, another lap. I was on pole, then the next lap with a bigger margin, and I was going more and more and more and more.

I got to the stage when I was over two seconds faster than anybody, including my team-mate who was using the same car, same engine, everything. That was the direct comparison and over

Senna blurs through Eau Rouge and up the hill to Les Combes: ‘the risk implication of getting it wrong and having a big shunt, and the risk implication of doing it right and how much you’re going to gain.’

two seconds. It wasn’t because he was going slow, but because I was going too fast…

JENKS: You weren’t going too fast, but you had everything correct…

SENNA: No, too fast..I was doing it in such a way that it was like as if my car was in a railway track, you understand? There was not that much left here [pointing to the left] or here [pointing to the right]…

JENKS: But it was enough…

ayrton-senna-su-vuelta-perfecta-y-su-mayor-pifia-gp-monaco-1988-201416746_1SENNA: Yes, but in Monte Carlo, enough is sometimes not enough, given the fact that I was driving a light car in a high-performance condition for speed, not for consistency. I felt at one stage that the circuit was no longer really a circuit, just a tunnel of Armco. But in such a way that I suddenly realized that I was over the level that I considered…reasonable. There was no margin whatsoever, in anything.

When I had that feeling, I immediately lifted. I didn’t have to – because I was still going. I immediately lift. Then I felt that I was on a different level. I didn’t fully understand that level and I still don’t. I understand it a bit better, but I’m still far away from satisfying my own needs as to ; how it works in that [mental] band. So I backed: off, came slowly into the pits. I said to myself, ;

”today, that is special. Don’t go out any more. You are vulnerable … For whatever reason. You are putting yourself in a situation where you are almost doing it more in a sub-conscious way.’ I could not really cope with that in a manner that I could find easy.

JENKS: You can’t really trust your sub-conscious.. .

SENNA: Exactly. That’s why I stopped. I never said anything to anybody, not until months later.

A.H.: Have you ever experienced that again?

SENNA: ‘To that intensity, no. But in a lower level.

JENKS: Perhaps you can feel it arriving now, so you recognize it more.

SENNA: Yes, there’s no need to go in there [into that sub-conscious area] any more. I know some of the reasons that I went to that limit, because I wanted so much to do more and more, and bet­ter and better, which pushed me further and further. The desire to go further was so big… I have, as a basic feeling, always to go further and further.

JENKS: On that day you were beyond yourself and did some deep thinking about it.

SENNA: When I was doing it, I realized what I was doing was not quite… it was a wonderful feeling, because I had experienced something I had never experienced before and, doing something that I love doing, in a way that I love even more doing. Which is pushing, pushing, pushing…

JENKS: You were doing the impossible.

SENNA: No, nothing is impossible… if I did it once, it means I can do it again…

JENKS: But you haven’t done it again.

SENNA: No, no, I haven’t done it at the same level, but at a lower level. But the experience I keep getting all the time is making me have a more cautious approach to certain situations.

JENKS: Is that a product of experience?

SENNA: It is a product of the experience of bad moments, and a product of experience of that feeling, that day. Once you have it, even if you don’t understand, if you have the recall ability in your memory, it’s there. It is on your conscious and on your sub-conscious. Somehow, and I don’t quite understand how it works, that becomes a limit.

JENKS: You have that mark that you now know…

SENNA: Sure, but before that I had experiences when I was always going, going, going…and on some occasions I was then getting it wrong. This time it was right all the time; and I stopped before it went wrong.

A.H.: If you are focusing on a car 300 meters away, for example coming into Eau Rouge at Francorchamps on a qualifying lap, and it’s a slower car in front, do you take the corner automatically because your concentration is focused on that car?

SENNA: No. If you do that you, for sure, are going to be at a lower level. The moment you see, you have to determine instantly whether it will be a factor or not. The moment you determine it is not going to affect you at the critical place, you forget it. Completely forget it. Like it isn’t there. For you have to commit yourself completely, like you are on your own.

So you come back into your own world, and are not going to let anything on the exterior touch your feelings. So it’s an instant reaction again. Judgement and reaction. You just put it away. If you’ve really a feeling that he’s not going to be there [by the time you reach the crucial point]

– just put it away, out of your mind, and go for yourself.

Once you get to him it doesn’t matter anyway, for he’s not at the critical part. Hit is, if you know clearly that it is going to be at the critical point, then comes… the anticipation.

JENKS: Because your brain has absorbed the information that, in three corners’ time, you’re going to catch him in the wrong place.

SENNA: Yes, but there’s a big difference between qualifying and the race. I’m talking qualifying here. In qualifying, in that situation when you think it’s just possible to get through without having to disturb your equilibrium, then it’s a question of commitment, whether you’re totally into it. Everything. Or whether you are 90 per cent into it.

The race is a completely different thing. In the race you’ve still got to have such an instant reaction. You know which driver it is, which car it is when you see it and instinctively you have a feeling about its performance. You know how quickly you’re going to catch him, or how much time it’s going to take for you to judge where you are going to get him.

At that stage you should push a bit more to catch him before that critical point where he’s going to make you lose a second, or two seconds, or if it’s not worth pushing, just carryon at the same pace, or even slow back slightly until you come to a suitable place where you can pass without any difficulty . It’s very relative, but comes into the equation: which car, which driver, the condition of your own machinery.

JENKS: It comes back to vision again. You explained to me after the 1988 Belgian GP that you could see which car it was and who was driving it, almost before it came into view, and that you knew exactly where you would pass it. The whole race you were doing that. You were very tired because you had to spend the whole time using the knowledge your eyes were giving you to decide when you were going to catch them up.

ayrton-senna-mclaren-spa-1988_2811551SENNA: Physically, you know, you can be the best trained guy in the world, which is important, of course. But the tension, the stress, the brain work throughout a weekend goes to a level on some occasions that, by Sunday, if you are not careful you are compromised. Your judgement and everything is a bit compromised for your race performance when you have to bring everything together, and react to it quickly, properly. So it’s a consistent fight with your own mind, with your equilibrium. That equilibrium is fundamental for triggering the right momentum.

JENKS: You said in. the press conference after qualifying at Francorchamps this year that you didn’t take Eau Rouge at full throttle, but that you knew you could have. What was it that told you not to do it on that lap: the feelings, the feedback?

SENNA: My self-preservation!

JENKS: That’s most important. But I mean the actual feedback from the car.

SENNA: It’s true. Oh, it’s simply the speed. You know you’re going to get there really quick. You know that your car is such that, at a given moment in that corner, it’s very tricky…

JENKS: Do you get feedback through the steering? Through the balance of the car?

SENNA: Yes, but it happens so fast. It happens so fast. From the entrance to mid-corner, everything is there. Before you get to the entrance, the anticipation is also linked to the fact of the reason for doing it. What you can gain, what you can lose, on that bit [of track]. The risk implication of getting it wrong and losing time, the risk implication of getting it wrong and having a big shunt, and the risk implication of doing it right and how much you’re going to gain.

So that it [involves] thinking from the lap before, from the morning, from yesterday, all the times you’ve been there before……… Already, I had a target to have so many revs leaving the jump which was something I achieved over the weekend. I was into an area, and I said to myself, I can get into such a rev band that from then on I’m going to be in a good rev band for the engine and it’s going to go, go, go…

JENKS: You’ve worked this out before with the engineers on the engine. knowing which revs I was coming out yesterday, this morning and so on, I said to myself, OK, if I am about those revs, anything over that is enough. If I can get more, that’s better, but it’s enough to go on the positive side of it up to the top.

Again, it was a kind of understanding of the situation linked with the pure instinct offeeling before actually knowing what was actually going to be there. And funny enough, by the jump I had it. Spot on. No more than I thought would be good to have, but exactly the revs. In fact I had a little bit more wing than Gerhard, so I should have been slower than him at the top of the hill, but I was actually quicker. Because the speed at the top of the hill [Les Combes] is determined by the revs you have on your engine at the jump.

That’s the speed at the top of the hill where the difference of the wing shows. He should have been 3 km/h quicker than me, but was in fact 1 km/h slower. I then used a bit more wing to benefit myself on other areas of the track, so it was really satisfying.

JENKS: Do you spend a lot of time studying the Olivetti times?

SENNA: It helps you a lot. Since we had this system, it helps you not only to understand your own things that you change, but also some other people. It confirms your feelings, yes, but on many occasions also tells you what you feel is not right. So then you go deeper into it, understand differently and react accordingly.

For some drivers I think it helps a lot, some drivers less. If you don’t have that information, in a way it’s much better [so long as] you know where you’re standing [without it]. Understand? That information helps more drivers to understand what’s going on. If they didn’t have that information…

JENKS: You would have an advantage.

SENNA: Exactly!

JENKS: Now we’re coming back to the brain behind the vision…

After Senna had left us:

JENKS: That was quite remarkable. It was like listening to Clark or Fangio twenty-five or thirty years ago. The basic requirements of a top Grand Prix driver have not changed and the motivation is still the same.

The natural instincts and the faculties you are born with still mark out the true ‘racer’, and they compete because they are born with this incredible competitive spirit and, above all, the will to win.

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