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How Do Formula One Champions Cope With the Pressure?

Hamilton, Alonso and other Formula One greats on thriving in the world’s toughest sport.

GREY, drawn, wrung out like a dishcloth, Nico Rosberg, who’d just become 2016 Formula 1 world champion, looked a spent man.

He’d prevailed in what’s probably the toughest challenge in motorsport: beating Lewis Hamilton, his Mercedes teammate and three-time world champion, to the world title in an identical car.

He’d only managed it at the final race of the season, in Abu Dhabi, and even at the last Rosberg had been squeezed through the mangle to achieve his goal. The closing laps of the Abu Dhabi GP were excruciating for Rosberg, who found himself between an obstructive Hamilton up front and two fast chasers behind. When he crossed the line in second place, which gave him the points to win the title, the release of tension was palpable.

Pressure is what you feel if you don’t deliver, but as long as you do it’s ok, because then you put pressure on other drivers – and that’s fantastic.

Champion, yes – but how had he suffered for it. Finding it difficult to talk, this exceptionally articulate, multi-lingual German, finally uttered: “I don’t ever want to have to go through that again! I am very, very glad it’s over. The feelings in that battle during the race were unbelievably intense. There was pressure from behind and pressure in front. It was crazy. It will take some time for all those feelings and emotions to settle and come out.”

Nico Rosberg

Nico Rosberg during Formula One (F1) Petronas Malaysia Grand Prix 2016.

True to his word, Rosberg retired less than a week later and has no plans to race again. The pressure of his high-octane sporting pursuit had got to him, some said, despite Rosberg’s deserved reputation as a ‘tough nut’, possessed of exceptional mental resilience.

But what is that pressure for a Formula 1 driver? What’s the challenge of racing wheel-to-wheel at up to 230mph, across the globe, for eight intense months of every year?

It’s certainly not the speed. “When I’m in the cockpit, fully prepared to race, I am at my most relaxed and confident,” notes 2009 world champion Jenson Button. “It’s a calm place for me.”

That said, any F1 driver is under constant pressure to perform, to beat the clock and his rivals, but also to ensure that their much-coveted seat in an F1 cockpit is kept from season to season.

Drivers like Button and his immediate predecessor as top Brit in F1, David Coulthard, enjoyed enviably prolonged careers (respectively 306 and 246 GP starts) thanks largely to being able to maintain consistency of performance and thereby keep themselves in the game. Native aptitude and the ability to maintain a cool focus on their craft were fundamental to their sporting longevity.

“The driving itself is almost the easy part,” says Coulthard, a 13-time grand prix winner, “particularly if you have a good car that allows you to perform at your peak. The challenge comes when you have a fast teammate, as I did with Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen, for example, and you find they’re able to drive faster than you in the same machinery. That’s pressure, because your whole team is looking at you to deliver a time that your teammate has proven is possible… and you think you’re already at the limit.”

It’s at times like these that top drivers, and top athletes in any arena, are able to draw on reserves of self-possession that prevent capitulation. The key, according to elite performance coach Bernie Shrosbree, who has advised motorsport stars such as Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Robert Kubica and Colin McRae, is emotional control. “I’ve worked with many, many top drivers over the years,” Shrosbree says, “and it’s always ultimately the same thing. If they’re able to look in the mirror after every session and know they’ve given their best and been fully dialled in, they know they’ll be in control when the lights go out, so they don’t feel under pressure. Not many can achieve that level – mentally and physically – all the time. But the ones who can, become champions.”

One trailblazing F1 pro, Jackie Stewart, champion in 1969, 1971 and 1973, developed a mantra and method of ‘mind management’ whereby he was able to compartmentalise time and emotions in order to excel during Formula 1’s so-called killer years, from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. During that time, it was common for two or three drivers to die or be seriously injured every season. Stewart’s meticulous attention to detail (allied to a huge natural talent) allowed him always to feel one step ahead of his machine and his competitors. Nonetheless he developed health complications arising from the strain of the constant travel demanded by F1’s global span and a broadcasting commitment for American television. This, coupled with the anxieties arising from the perils of competition and the need to always be fastest, burned him out.

In 1971, Stewart logged 450,000 air miles, chasing his dream, but the pressure told. He developed mononucleosis, a blood disorder that left him too weak to pick up his world champion’s trophy at an awards function. Soon after he developed a stomach ulcer that forced him to skip the 1972 Belgian GP. Britain’s next champion, James Hunt, who won a storied duel for the 1976 title with Niki Lauda, was another to suffer. He would routinely vomit before the start of a grand prix, so severe were his pre-match nerves.

The pressures, then, are manifest. It’s no coincidence that TAG Heuer used F1 icons Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher to promote their product with the campaign slogan ‘Don’t Crack Under Pressure’. But F1’s rewards are significant. A top driver such as Hamilton or Alonso can command an annual salary of around £30m, matching that sum with personal endorsements for blue-chips like Bose, IWC or Hugo Boss. Alonso, furthermore, has used his global celebrity as a launch platform for a fashion brand, Kimoa, leveraging his status as F1’s matador for his own significant gain. Stewart and Coulthard, meanwhile, have both drawn on skills honed by racing success, such as attention to detail, risk management and competitive zeal, to forge highly successful post-sporting business careers.

These individuals, and others of their kind, have proven their ability season after season to deliver results in the most intense environments and when faced with peers whose abilities rival their own, they have prevailed. They have absorbed whatever pressure has been applied and – better – been able to exert pressure of their own on their opponents.

“Pressure is what you feel if you don’t deliver,” says Alonso, “but so long as you do, it’s ok, because then you put pressure on other drivers – and that’s fantastic.”

Anthony Rowlinson is Editor of F1 Racing magazine and Editorial Director of Autosport Network UK.