Some days really are ‘your day’. November 28, 2010 was Filipe Albuquerque’s day as this young Portuguese racer emerged from obscurity to defeat a line-up of legends – including Sebastian Vettel, Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost, who have 15 F1 world titles between them – to take the Race Of Champions crown at his first attempt.
Ho hum, not bad. But today was my day. I don’t believe you can ask Nadia Comaneci or Usain Bolt for a piggy back to get a close-up of what they do. Yet here I was lapping the same twisty racetrack inside a Düsseldorf football stadium – in the passenger seat one year later as Albuquerque revved the very KTM X-Bow he had used to defeat Vettel.
I was soon given no doubt about how seriously Albuquerque was taking this. Even on the supposedly gentle run to the start line he ensured the car rarely felt like a car at all. As he put heat in the tyres with a series of weaves and burnouts, the X-Bow would suddenly feel unsettlingly light as if we were on a futuristic hoverboard. By the time we were waved away for the actual timed laps I admit to losing circulation in my knuckles: mercifully this was to be a short run or my typing days were over.
As the lights went out and we lurched forwards I knew I had to suspend every idea I’d ever cultivated about the speed that corners should be taken. The track also featured a specially-built 100-tonne crossover bridge linking its two loops, like a giant Scalextric set. I now understand why bridges do not feature more widely in motor sport: on entry, all you can see is the top tier of the stands. As we launched skywards at full throttle all evidence suggested our inevitable final destination would be Row Z. Yet as soon as the laws of physics overcame any brief moment of ‘air’ my nonchalant chauffeur was on the anchors for the next right-hander.
With the reflex of self-preservation beaten into submission, I focused the rest of my simpering mental capacity on the majesty of Albuquerque’s skill. That was not hard because racing at the top level is an art. He didn’t just hurl the X-Bow round the track, he danced. Every time the back end skipped out this leading man teased it back in line and away we shimmied round the floor, whirls seamlessly blending into reels and pirouettes. Too soon it was over and I let fly with the whoop I’d been stifling for fear of breaking the concentration of the maestro beside me. Some chance…
‘Being a racing driver is all about chasing the perfect lap,’ says Albuquerque. ‘Getting to the limit is what gives us the pleasure. When you put on new tyres you are so much faster everywhere and the feeling is amazing. You go corner by corner and you’re not thinking about the lap. You just push to the absolute limit, almost locking the front wheels. I like oversteer so I need to feel a little slide at the rear otherwise I feel too safe. I don’t breathe on the fast corners to make sure there is no movement at all, I just swerve it out. When all this comes together it’s fantastic.
‘The feeling is unbelievable and really makes you happy. You feel arrogant, like “Damn I’m good” – not meaning no one can beat you, but that this was a perfect lap, one you would like to show your friends. You think, “Wow. If someone beats me I’ll shake their hand because they’re definitely faster than me.”
‘Sometimes I can’t even explain to myself how I could do it. You look at the time and think, “How did I do that?” I don’t know but I’m not bothered. You don’t even need to see the data to know no one will beat you because the car has really gone beyond the limit. The secret is just to let it happen like you think it will. Be yourself in the car, be natural and just do it. If you go faster, awesome, if not keep trying.’
To make it big in motor racing you clearly have to nail this perfect lap when it really matters, preferably with monotonous regularity. Albuquerque, who now focuses on endurance racing, recalls one such lap when he took Nürburgring pole by half a second in Formula Renault. But after he was snapped up by Red Bull’s young driver programme, his results weren’t consistent enough and he was dumped. He was racing in an unglamorous category of Italian GTs when he won a regional qualifying event for the Race Of Champions. That’s when he grabbed his chance.
‘It just felt like my day,’ he beams. ‘I was happy to have a chance to compare my speed with the best guys in the world. I felt good in every car and I nailed it. The races were like qualifying laps. I had many corners when I said this was just perfect, going right up to the wall and sweeping down. I was braking very late but not too late, turning in and flicking the car just right. Of course I made some small mistakes during the event because it’s not possible to do ten races with no mistakes. But you need to make a judgement about how many risks to take.
‘For the final against Sébastien Loeb I just went in thinking I’d do my best and try to perform like I’d pictured in my mind. Then let’s see how my speed compares to him with my perfect lap. He was on it, too. I beat him by a hundredth in the first heat of the final, then made a small mistake in heat two and he beat me by two hundredths. In the decider I pushed very hard, almost crashing all the time, but made no mistakes. So my perfect lap was enough to beat him and everyone in the Race Of Champions.’
Nine-time world rally champion Loeb confirms he was beaten fair and square by this relative unknown: ‘I gave everything and did a good race but he was just a bit faster. He was just flying…’
This extract is from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big. Out now…
The news that Formula 1 personnel from Mercedes and other teams were held up at gunpoint on the way out of last weekend's Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos sadly comes as no surprise.
It is 25 years since Ayrton Senna memorably remarked that ‘the rich cannot afford to live on an island surrounded by a sea of poverty.’ It was Brazil, his beloved home country, that inspired the sentiment. But Formula 1 is an archetype for the world’s polarisation between haves and have-nots.
The increasing isolation of a protected environment like F1 were driven home to me during one attempt to drive home from the 2006 Brazilian GP. The road out of the Interlagos circuit runs past one of São Paulo’s many favelas. Our car stopped at a traffic light when out of the darkness came a group of teenagers carrying guns. This is a common occurrence and locals know to open their doors and give them what they want. But when they targeted us our European driver reacted quite naturally by trying to get away, unaware the traffic ensured there was no escape.
Now angry, one guy tried to kick the passenger door in before firing shots in the air. It now felt rather too late for the pleasantries of offering our stuff. All we could do was duck and for second after agonising second we sat there like lemons, utterly helpless and simply hoping not to hear another bang. The gang hesitated, perhaps thinking the car was armoured or, more likely, that it would be more trouble than it was worth to shoot these clueless, cowering foreigners and block the traffic. When the lights changed and a gap opened up ahead, our driver floored it.
Lucky? You bet. But I tell that story only to illustrate this is the inevitable conclusion of global policy that continues to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. This has long been the case in Brazil but it is increasingly common in other parts of the world. I can more than understand why these kids, who have precisely nothing in material terms, think their only way out is to grab from someone who has everything. They have been no more misled about what really matters than the grand prix world that believes its own hype about the power it wields.
When Formula 1 meets favela in a power battle there is only one winner. In the real world version of ‘paper, stone and scissors,’ pistol trumps pitpass. Since this incident, the sport’s big players use armed guards and bulletproof cars in Brazil – amply illustrating how perceptive Senna’s point remains decades after his death. The way things are going the rich may indeed end up with ‘everything’. But if they can enjoy it only within a prison of their own making encircled by high walls, security fences and bodyguards, is that really worth having?
Grand prix drivers have a better chance than most to see the world, visiting 20 countries a year, but they rarely have time to venture out of their hotel or the paddock. Even so not everyone is sucked into the sport’s decadent high life. Senna grew up in considerable wealth yet while he was a tough negotiator when it came to his own contracts he was not solely consumed by personal greed. What he saw on his travels disturbed him, particularly in his home nation, where the gap between rich and poor has long been colossal. It may seem odd for one of Brazil’s richest sons to care about those at the other end of the scale but Senna used part of his wealth to found an organisation for underprivileged children, which has become a major force since his death under the guidance of sister Viviane.
Indeed some reckon Senna could have gone on to use his celebrity status to move into a very different world after racing. Long-time friend Jo Ramirez says: ‘I expected him to finish his career with Ferrari. Then I’d have seen him doing something in Brazil to help his people and the children. Ayrton felt he was fortunate, born into a good family with everything on the plate. He made good use of it but he always thought everybody should have a chance. He was so proud of being Brazilian so I would always see him doing something big within Brazil – government, who knows? Ayrton had some very strong views against certain branches of authority so he would undoubtedly have had strong feelings about much of what happens today. He would have succeeded because he was so loved by people…’
It’s not hard to see why - and with such backing, coupled with this healthy disdain for authority, Senna would surely have made a formidable politician. Since this weekend's incidents there have already been calls for even greater protection for Formula 1’s personnel. Where Senna stood out is that he could see the roots of the problem lay elsewhere.
Senna’s former physiotherapist Josef Leberer recalls: ‘During my first year with him we were driving through São Paulo when we saw a favela and I asked how he felt when he saw these people. He said it was very hard for him and it hurt a lot, but that you have to be powerful to effect any real change and he was not there yet. He was already doing things for the children even if none of it had become public knowledge. That convinced me he was capable of great things because he wasn’t doing it for the benefit of sponsors or for photoshoots. He wanted to do it.
‘His sport became a vehicle for him to reach a position to help change the world. That wasn’t the case when he started out as an 18-year-old but he had a driving force that kept him going. The more he did it the more he found out why. He was a sensitive man and a thinker who used to carry a lot in his head. He saw the real world and he could see there was so little he could do to change any of it. So his approach was to change himself.’
This is an adapted extract from Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone
Max Verstappen’s dominant victory in the Mexican Grand Prix serves as a reminder of one of Formula 1’s perennial truths: you don’t keep Adrian Newey down for long.
The brain behind Red Bull Racing’s cars was the man responsible for taking the team to the pinnacle of motor sport with four world championships for Sebastian Vettel. Mercedes have since taken over at the top with Lewis Hamilton, but the word on the streets is that next year’s title might not come so easy - and Verstappen’s Red Bull could be the main challenger in 2018 and beyond.
When I spoke to Newey, the man behind more victories and championships than any driver - starting with Williams and McLaren in the 1990s - I soon found he is no stranger to the Zone.
In Newey’s case rather than the sensation of flying on the track, they come more in the form of ‘flashes of inspiration’ after a long period of pondering over a problem. But the principle is the same: it's about letting go and handing over to the magic of the subconscious...
“You do get those light bulb moments,” Newey tells me. “I usually find it’s when I’ve had a problem – it can be a month old or it can be a day old – but it’s obviously been sundering away in the subconscious and then it suddenly pops out.
“I used to take notebooks with me to bed so I could jot down these thoughts. But to be perfectly honest I do that less and less: I usually find it just gives you a bad night’s sleep… So no, it tends to happen more in the shower – or quite often not at the place of work. I will be away from it all and doing something and then it just pops up.”
For Newey, who has been producing magic for close to three decades, these moments of lightning are instantly recognisable. But they don’t necessarily all lead to half a second of time on the car…
“You know when the light bulb pops up,” he confirms. “But having said that, what fascinates me is that only part of the challenge of motor racing is coming up with the ideas. You obviously have to have an idea to generate something. But you then have to be disciplined to make sure that idea stands up and makes the car go quicker.
“So when you have those light-bulb-in-the-shower type ideas, the success rate of those ending up on the car is, I’m guessing, 10 per cent. Not every single one is going to be a good one. The danger is that you get so enthusiastic about the idea, you’re not disciplined enough to make sure that it is actually a good one…”
Is anyone seriously prepared to bet against Newey striking gold next year? If so it might be worth a quick refresher of the odds with his autobiography out this week...
Clyde Brolin spent over a decade working in F1 before moving on to the wider world of sport - all in a bid to discover the untapped power of the human mind.