Indycar ace and F1 champion Nigel Mansell was known for tooting his own horn and never shied away from boasting. However, the man knew how to hustle a racing car, and was quite good at deconstructing some of the excitement and putting it in appropriately dramatic language. Famously, Mansell once said, “If you’re going at 200 mph, the best drivers in the world are probably able to slow down the parameters, the things going past us and the corner approaching, probably to a relative speed of forty or fifty mph.”
Resist the urge to write that off as an expression of conceit. Anyone who’s spent much time racing realizes how, as they gain experience on the track, they’re able to relax. Some of this has to do with their improved car control, but it’s also because of their ability to process a greater amount of information. They may not be able to articulate this realization, though; the track just seems to approach them at a slower speed. Like the great Gerhard Berger said, “When you do a quick lap, you try to see everything in slow motion to do all the fine things right.” What Berger is referring to, in his scattergun English, is drivers’ ability to ingest huge quantities of visual information so that they can paint and plan.
That acquisition of information, whether it be through the shape of an apex curb, the cracks which surround it, or a small sheen at the exit which suggests a stickier line, allows them to paint a detailed picture of their environment and react accordingly. Ingesting that information requires plenty of cognitive effort, but also relies on rapid eye movement. Drivers of a high caliber constantly flick their eyes from point to point as they’re entering a corner or driving down a straight, absorbing the relevant information as soon as is within their visual field.
As a driver approaches the corner, they’re looking for braking points. That braking point might be a sign beside the track denoting 150 feet until the corner, or it might be a small crack in the road. Once they’ve hit the brake pedal, they don’t waste any time; they’re already searching out for the apex. It’s because the pace of the cornering process is so quick that the best drivers are often one step ahead of the car. While the hands can react to the small slides on entry almost subconsciously, they’re dedicating the bulk of their focus to what’s approaching next, anticipating, and letting their skills handle whatever’s actually occurring at a given moment.
This sort of high-level multitasking relies on sharp visual acuity and strong hand-eye coordination, but also quick processing speeds. Racing drivers, having spent so much time in high-stress situations that require complete concentration, are able to train their brains to recognize stimuli faster than your average driver. Whereas your typical driver will usually take a few seconds to observe a sign and react, a skilled racer, admittedly with plenty of familiarity with said signs, can absorb the relevant information in a tenth of a second. It is for this reason that racing drivers often talk about developing a sixth sense once they’ve spent a few years in the demanding world of karting; they’re able to envision the track and their competitors in their mind’s eye without having to rely on long, lingering glances.
But as developed as their processing speeds are, they’re limited by their anatomy. During long-distance races or night racing, the driver needs to show some modesty and admit that the human eye was never designed to see well at night. Especially with highbeams blazing all around, it’s often tough to get a sense of exactly where one is on a dark racetrack.
The darkness brings on other problems,too – like limited depth perception. Drivers cannot use their eyes to anticipate where their braking markers are, for instance. To keep their pace up as the evening presses on, a clever driver will learn to let the engine note determine where to begin braking. For example, a driver might arrive at the 150-foot marker at the top of fourth gear. When they get a sense they’re nearing the corner based on their peripheral vision, they listen for the specific engine note to act as their braking cue – not a board next to the circuit.
One of the first things taught to an eager driving student regarding oversteer is to look where one wants to go, and the hands will begin to naturally follow. Therefore, it pays to keep the desired piece of asphalt as the focal point, even if it requires craning the neck to look through the side window to view it. As the car’s nose is pointed towards the wall mid-slide, it’s important to remember that with the right hand movements, that nose will be directed away from danger.
Once a car spins off ahead of a driver, it’s easy for them to get concerned with where the car is going instead of where they ought to be going. As it briefly represents a threat, the tendency is to try and react to its movements, but at high speed, it’s often better to try and focus on a path around. Though it seems sensible, the act of observing the car for more than a few split seconds at speed actually increases the chance of making contact. It’s for this reason that drivers will often lock their brakes up when a driver ahead does so; they’re transfixed by what others are doing, not what they should be doing.
What it’s indicative of, at the end of the day, is a lack of eye movement – the driver should always try to ingest new and relevant information and not dwell on any particular point for too long. As they move through the track, a driver’s eyes need to constantly scan for new information so they can plan ahead and forge their own path while keeping their opponent’s position in the back of their mind. It’s for this reason that the great racers turn their heads into the corner well before they’ve arrived and need to begin steering: they’re planning a path for success.