An old theguardian article describing us how a young Hamilton was preparing himself to solve every possible situation on track, the importance of the racer environment and the capacity to recognize and adapt to any track event.
Lewis Hamilton’s brain is sitting on the table, while Dr Kerry Spackman explains how it operates and what he has done, over the four years of their collaboration, to improve it. He points to its various modules, comparing them to the parts of a computer – the hard drive, the CPU – as he talks about the work that has gone into producing a driver capable of leading the world championship only four races into his grand prix career.
“We didn’t evolve to drive racing cars,” he is saying. “Our brains have developed over millions of years and in some ways they’re incredibly sophisticated, but in others they’re very ill suited to some of the tasks we want them to do. In most sports now, the modern athlete is pushing his brain to the limit. Today’s formula one car does things almost instantaneously, and the brain can’t keep up. The idea is to rewire its circuits, to supercharge its processes, so that it’s more suited to the task. To turn it from a computer into a supercomputer, if you like.”
It’s not actually Hamilton’s brain on the table, of course. It’s a model. In that sense it could be yours or mine. But the effect of Spackman’s work on the real thing has been to expand the 22-year-old driver’s mental capacities to the point where he is able to stay calm and analytical in the highly pressurised environment of a formula one race. In particular, his useful habit of picking up places in the first corner of a race demonstrates a phenomenal level of alertness and tranquillity in the midst of what most drivers experience as uncontrolled mayhem, and it comes as a result of learning to be calm.
“The engines are revving, the red lights are going, all these cars are slamming into the corner – natural anxiety alone would make you absolutely petrified,” Spackman says. “But that’s not the state you need to be in to react correctly or intelligently. It’s like a fighter pilot in an emergency. ‘A missile’s coming in: if we don’t do this right, there is no tomorrow.’
“Instead of panicking and going out of control, they have to stay calm and relaxed. That’s the way they’re trained. So you practise over and over that process of how you respond.”
Driving a racing car, he says, is like being chased by a tiger. “It’s a life-threatening, emotionally charged, very exciting, completely unnatural environment. Everything about you goes into overdrive, naturally. But what we’re saying is that we want you to be like a chess grandmaster, playing three steps ahead, nice and relaxed, in a state of calm, focused attention. Then the right parts of the brain will be doing the right sort of things. If you physically slow the body down, the brain gets the message that it doesn’t need to be in this highly anxious state. If you take some slow, deep breaths, the process of turning the body down for a moment does actually help to calm the brain down.”
If there is a key to Hamilton’s success, other than taking slow breaths on the starting grid, it is the countless hours spent inside the super-simulator that sits in a high-security area at the McLaren team’s £500m technical centre in Woking, Surrey. The device is operated by Spackman, a 50… year-old New Zealander who began life as a mathematician and astrophysicist but took a PhD in neuroscience after a chance encounter with Jackie Stewart 15 years ago got him interested in the functioning of a racing driver’s mind. Now he works with athletes in many fields, applying his belief that managing the mind is as important as training the body.
Spackman isn’t allowed to talk about the McLaren simulator, but there is little doubt that it allowed Hamilton to arrive in Melbourne for the first grand prix of the season and perform on a track he had never seen before as if he had known it all his life. Now, sitting at the top of the drivers’ world championship table after four podium finishes in a row, the rookie gives the impression that nothing about grand prix racing comes as a surprise to him.
Was he simply born with the ability to go fast? Spackman doesn’t believe so. “What he has is what Michael Schumacher had. It’s a structure and a process for how they learn and how they improve. Schumacher had a filing system in his mind, and every experience was a learning experience. It wasn’t like a load of random things happening to him. That enabled him to improve every day. The same is true of Lewis. He obviously has talent, but he’s a vastly superior driver now because he’s learnt how to learn, which most drivers don’t do. Every experience has a way of being analysed, understood and filed away. He doesn’t just pound around a race track, repeating the same old habits.”
Which, in Spackman’s view, is definitely not the right way to go about joining the formula one elite. “The analogy I use is that if you take a 100m sprinter, he doesn’t train just by doing 100m sprints. That may have been good enough in the old days, but it’s not good enough now. Now we understand how muscles are built, and so the sprinters go to the gym. The exercises they do are very different from what they do in their sport, but they greatly enhance it.”
With a racing driver, Spackman aims to increase the brain’s muscle-power, and in particular its storage capacity. “Memory is a critical aspect of the modern racing driver,” he says. “When you go into a corner, you do a number of things and the car will respond in a number of ways. You need to store all that in your brain, because unless you can store the consequences of everything you’ve done, you won’t be able to analyse them and know what to do differently next. When Schumacher’s car went into oversteer, he probably had 10,000 options filed away, and he knew which one to choose without thinking about it. Other drivers just go round and it’s all a blur. So if you want to increase a driver’s memory for motion, there are certain things you can do to build up those parts of the brain and help it to identify ever finer detail. And what you do is give him a process that helps him develop it.”
That process can be carried out in the simulator, or it can be reproduced with no equipment at all, creating a virtual reality through a process of verbal reconstruction. Either way, Spackman starts by giving the athlete two versions of the same experience that are initially far apart, so that he can easily recognise the difference.
“That gives the brain a structure to work from. Then you bring them closer together. If you do it straight away, he can’t learn anything. But if you bring them together slowly and provide him with feedback in a learning environment, gradually his brain will start to build circuits that can take these nuances and store them, building up a mental library of solutions.
As a result of this training, Spackman says, when Hamilton faces an emergency “he probably has 25 solutions in his mind. He’s exceptionally well prepared. Most people turn up and drive and just deal with situations as they occur. He has the structure to handle it”.
Spackman is keen to distance himself from the conventional world of sports psychology, but his work – with tennis players, motorcycle racers and other athletes, as well as racing drivers – is also about dealing with the hidden factors that can impair performance. When Hamilton, who had not put a foot wrong this season, ran wide and hit the barrier at Sainte-Dévote in Thursday’s practice session for tomorrow’s Monaco grand prix, it was the moment for which sceptics had been waiting.
“Again, he’s relatively well prepared for something like that,” Spackman says. “He had a tough season in 2004 and he bounced back. He’s learnt how to do that. What has really surprised me is how a number of world-class athletes build up troubles for themselves because they’ve got things lurking within them that they haven’t understood properly. You find things that just stop them in their tracks. And because it’s an emotional thing, it’s hard for them to talk about.
“For a driver, your on-track performance is so incredibly affected by what happens off the track – by your private life, by how you go about life. Other people in F1, things trigger them into a downward spiral pretty quickly. But Lewis is very good at that. He’s got a pretty well-rounded emotional system.”