Seen from the outside, a racing car attacking a circuit is noisy, exciting, chaotic – even violent. But inside the cockpit, and inside the driver's head, should ideally be an oasis of calm. 2009 Le Mans winner David Brabham appreciates this even more than your average driver. One of the calmest yet most focused individuals you'll find in any racing paddock, he's worked throughout his career to optimise the relationship between mind and body to extract the best possible performance on track.
I drove at a higher level than I ever thought I was capable of, and I ended up winning the race.
His first insight into the effect a driver's mental state can have on his potential behind the wheel came early in his career, at a Formula 2 race supporting the Australian Grand Prix. “That was when it was first highlighted to me, though I didn't understand it at the time,” he remembers. Although young Brabham's star was on the rise, and he was already being talked about as a future F1 prospect, it was a very difficult time for him personally. “I had a massive problem with my family leading up to the event, because I had to tell my parents my girlfriend was pregnant. To my Dad, that was the end of my career. We didn't speak for a month leading up to the race. So I was trying to strike up a conversation with him at the track, and he said to me 'the chances of you getting to F1 are finished'. A switch went off in my head – I was absolutely furious at him.”
This was only one of many things to go wrong for Brabham that weekend. An electrical problem in qualifying had prevented him from setting a time, so he started the 15-lap race from the back of the grid. “After I had that conversation with Dad, I was a different person,” he says. “I had so much anger, which I shifted to a determination and a hunger that I'd never experienced before. I drove at a higher level than I ever thought I was capable of, and I ended up winning the race. It was the first time I'd experienced something being triggered in my head that made me do extraordinary things.”
That was Brabham's first introduction to the psychological side of racing, but he says the biggest turning point came in 1992, when he lost hearing in his right ear. “I thought 'that's it, my career's gone, my life's gone'. I went to a lot of specialists and met a lot of people along that journey. One was a chiropractor, a guy called Steve Carpenter. He taught me a lot about the body, but also about how the mind relates to the body, and I became intrigued by what he was showing me.”
Brabham then began experimenting with different approaches to race meetings, to see how his new-found understanding could improve his performances. “It's not always easy to get 'in the zone' with the amount of distractions at your average race meeting,” he notes. “When I first started doing it, it was a case of just writing things down as I wanted to see them. Racing with Panoz in the '90s, I got to a point where I would write down exactly how I wanted my day to pan out. Then I would visualise it, see myself doing a lap and see a time on my dash. I'd write down that time and give it to my engineer, Chris Gorne. It would frequently be scarily close to my actual time.”
Mind management in qualifying and sprint races is one thing, but it takes on a new dimension in 24-hour events, where a driver must combine total focus during his driving stints with an ability to 'switch off' and rest when he's out of the car. “You only find a routine that works for you through experience,” says Brabham. “I'm sure other people do different things that suit them. For me, it's all about letting go of any pressure. That's very difficult to do when you're young. You get out of the car and you're thinking about what your co-drivers are doing out there and how the race is panning out – you never let your mind have a rest. When you get a bit older, you get a bit wiser and you know there's nothing else you can do at that point. It's in another person's hands, the team have got it under control, you trust your team-mate, and if something goes wrong, it goes wrong, it happens.”
So what comes after getting out of the car? “Focusing on breathing is very important, because it makes me look inwards and forget about what's going on around me,” Brabham continues. “It calms me down and I find it a lot easier to switch off and recharge that way.” And ramping the focus back up in time for getting back in the car is as important as winding down. “I come to a point where I start thinking about my next stint and how I'd like it to go. I visualise it, see it, feel it and smell it.”
Full-season programmes in the Blancpain Endurance Series (with United Autosports) and the World Endurance Championship (with JRM Racing) will give Brabham ample opportunity to exercise these skills in 2012. And he's constantly striving to perfect and refine his methods. As he describes it: “Once you get into using these techniques, they become like a muscle. The more you develop it, the stronger the gets, and the mind is no different.”