I’m not in the habit of writing reviews of other books on this blog, but Will Buxton’s My Greatest Defeat makes for a worthy exception.
Over the last 20 years I’ve been hunting down the world’s greatest sportspeople in a bid to understand what goes through their minds when they find the magical state of peak performance. But it’s time to admit I may have been missing a trick, because it’s in our moments of despair that we learn the most – and the greats are not exempt.
Buxton has spoken to 20 of global motor sport’s all-time legends about their lowest points. As it happens I’ve been lucky enough to interview all but two of them myself, yet such is the quality of these exchanges I’ve learned something new about every single one of his subjects – from Alex Zanardi to Jimmie Johnson, Alain Prost to Sébastien Loeb.
Each of the drivers opens up about what they learned from their personal disaster, showing how willing they were to buy into this project – not to mention the author’s skills in putting them at ease to talk. And it’s not just about the racetrack, with the late Niki Lauda notably delving into his own darkest hour after one of his Lauda Air planes crashed in Thailand, killing everyone on board.
I’ll resist being the source of any spoilers, but there is plenty of wisdom to be found from Mika Hakkinen, Jeff Gordon et al, plus some surprising revelations along the way from the likes of Rick Mears. What becomes abundantly clear is that every one of these drivers is a human being like the rest of us. And it is a steady diet of defeat that sets each of them up for any eventual, hard-earned, oh-so-sweet taste of victory.
The best part is that Buxton lets them speak for themselves and allows the conversations to flow out onto the page. It’s a throwback to the extended form of interviewing that we could see even on TV chat shows back in the days before it was deemed that we don’t have the attention spans to cope.
Rest assured we do.
To be really picky, we might want to hear from more of the current crop of F1 megastars, because defeat is no stranger to any of us, young or old. But no doubt Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are already being lined up for the sequel.
A final point: the book itself is a work of art thanks to the striking cover design and brooding individual portraits of each driver by DC and Marvel comic book artist Giuseppe ‘Cammo’ Camuncoli.
A man used to depicting superheroes with a dark tale to tell…
My Greatest Defeat by Will Buxton is out now
Thank you very much to Autosport Grand Prix Editor Edd Straw for having me as a guest on this week's Autosport Podcast to discuss my books In The Zone and Overdrive.
We had a very enjoyable hour of chatting about how the greats of Formula 1 find the Zone - and some of the surreal effects that happen when they get there, from time slowing down to heightened senses to the out-of-body experience.
Along the way we talked about Ayrton Senna and two of his biggest fans, who both happened to win the world's two biggest motor races last weekend: Monaco Grand Prix winner Lewis Hamilton (pictured above) and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud,
We also discussed Sebastian Vettel, Charles Leclerc, Nico Rosberg, Jarno Trulli, Jackie Stewart and more. The podcast ends with a special treat for race fans: an exclusive clip from my interview with the late Dan Wheldon which opens the prologue to In The Zone.
Finally, if you can read Italian click here to find my recent article from Italy's Cyclist magazine featuring interviews with Chris Hoy, Nadia Comaneci, Franz Klammer and more...
Ever since I read Ayrton Senna’s words describing his surreal out-of-body experience during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, I’ve been on a quest to find others who have found the same magical place.
Over the years I’ve met many great sports stars who have been there too: moments in the Zone that bend time and space and transcend reality as we know it. Occasionally I get really lucky and the human being telling me the story is still at the absolute top of their game, and the world.
After Novak Djokovic collected his fourth Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award last week, I grabbed my chance to enquire about his description of going into ‘another dimension’ during his near-perfect Australian Open semi-final in January.
Appropriately we were in Monaco so I brought up the similarity with Senna’s words. The Serbian superstar’s reply was as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from one of sport’s true class acts – and definitely, unmistakably Senna-esque. Here it is in full…
‘I actually watched Ayrton Senna’s documentary so I did hear him speaking about that,’ smiled Djokovic. ‘In my case there were several matches where you just feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience. One of them was in the final of the Australian Open in 2012 against Nadal when we played almost six hours. It’s really hard to explain when you feel like you’re present but somehow you’re also not present – because the physical pain is so big that you don’t feel your body any more, but you’re operating on some kind of autopilot that is taking you to your desired places, which you determine mentally.
‘It was one of those experiences where you just feel like there is a higher force that is driving you forward. I’m also a big believer in that, and I always rely on my faith and try to be grateful and understanding of a creator and a greater power and a universal help that we always see. So I try to remind myself of that, of how blessed I am and not to take things for granted because ego is a strange opposition at times, and it can play with your mind.
‘In this process of evolution as a human being I’ve learned a lot more about these things because I’ve become more aware of them. Before it was just… I hit a tennis ball and it was in or out, and I won a tennis match. But throughout the years it became much more than that. It became a spiritual journey. And because the tennis court is a place where I’m probably most vulnerable but also very confident and strong, a tennis court is a school of life for me: where I get triggered most and where I can understand myself on a deeper level. That’s because everything I maybe suppress outside of a tennis court surfaces there.
‘That’s probably one of the biggest reasons why I keep on playing tennis. I don’t see too many different places where I can actually evolve as a human being better than on a tennis court.’
Wow. To learn more about Djokovic’s approach to his art, read my earlier interview with him about his 2012 epic against Nadal which is a highlight of In The Zone - or check out the wonderful speech he gave while collecting last week’s Laureus award…
Thank you so much to all the media outlets who have taken In The Zone to their hearts and helped spread the word over the past months all over the world.
The latest publication to feature the work is the June issue of Ukraine's Megapolis magazine, which carried out an extensive and very well researched interview about the mind of sportspeople and how we can all learn from what they are able to achieve. If you don't happen to be travelling through Kiev this month (whyever not?) and your Russian is up to scratch you can see some of it in the above picture and find the entire magazine online by clicking here.
This week I also enjoyed a rare TV appearance on the Motorsport Show hosted by Peter Windsor. We discussed solutions for the widely-criticised 'boring' 2018 Monaco Grand Prix before moving onto a race that is always exciting, the Indianapolis 500, won this year by the aptly-named Will Power (see clip below).
Triple world champion Nelson Piquet likened driving a Formula 1 car round Monaco to “flying a helicopter around your living room” (an extension of his famous line comparing it to riding a bicycle indoors) - and it's 30 years today since one of Piquet’s countrymen became the greatest indoor pilot of all.
It was on Saturday 14 May 1988 that Ayrton Senna went into overdrive, blitzing the F1 field including his great rival Alain Prost in an identical McLaren. In a classic interview with Gerald Donaldson, Senna revealed: “I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”
Most professional racers can switch off their conscious mind – letting their autopilot control the minutiae of driving if they’re in a busy race. But Senna’s experience was something else altogether. This was not easing off but going beyond concentration to the other side. No wonder that as Senna recounted what happened he was shaking, his voice wavered and his eyes misted over – sure signs of his passion for any subject.
Hollywood’s modern classic The Matrix came out after Senna’s death but fans will recognise this kind of experience. “Detached from anything else”, he had unlocked an all-new level of hyper-ability that rendered Earthly pursuits easy. He described the sensation as “between two worlds”. It sounds fanciful, but this was no movie. It was very real and witnessed by millions around the world.
Of those, one had a clearer view of the magic than most. Switzerland’s Alain Menu, who went on to touring car glory, was competing in the F3 race that weekend so his pitpass let him stand on the inside of the chicane, looking back up towards the tunnel exit. What came next remains etched into his memory, as I discovered decades later.
We were talking about Menu’s own career when, unprompted, his mind drifted back to that Saturday in 1988: “There weren’t many people around because it was a private area but I’m so glad I was there. Ayrton Senna was visibly braking eight metres later than anybody else but it was his car that was amazing. All the other cars were a bit unbalanced and you could hear them banging around under braking. For him, nothing. As he braked the whole car just shook. You could hear nothing except for a noise that sounded like phphphphph.”
Menu’s exclamation is reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter recalling his favourite meal in The Silence of the Lambs, but breathing out rather than in. Spine tingling? You bet: “It made an immediate impression on me,” he adds. “It gives me goose pimples to talk about it and I’m so glad I saw it. I’m sure people who didn’t see that lap would have heard what Ayrton said and thought, ‘He’s crazy.’
“If I hadn’t seen it and I’d heard what he said, I’d have said, ‘Okay, whatever, it was just a fantastic lap, that’s it.’ But something definitely happened that day and I believe it was special because I’ve never seen a racing car do this. Never, ever, ever. And I have no doubt it was the same the whole way round the lap. Ayrton was one and a half seconds quicker than team-mate Alain Prost and two and a half seconds clear of the next guy. Alain was a great driver but when he saw the lap times and the printouts he couldn’t have believed it because it was so far ahead of what he could do.
“I’m very down to Earth and I generally don’t believe in this kind of thing. In my own career I’ve had some very good qualifying sessions but never anything like that, where you almost forget what you’ve done. Later I heard Ayrton had to come into the pits because he was looking down on himself from above the car. That was all so hard to believe but now I believe it because I saw it and I heard it.”
Ready for the next Hollywood twist? During my research for In The Zone I spoke about this sensation to Formula 1 world champions including Lewis Hamilton, Mika Hakkinen and Emerson Fittipaldi plus greats of the Indianapolis 500 and the world rally championship. But it was Prost himself who surprised me when he revealed he underwent a similar experience around the very same Monaco streets, two years before Senna: “I was really flying and I could not see the speed. To me it felt like I was driving at 30mph. The whole weekend was like this. Your mind is still focused but it’s really happiness. It's happiness. And you are fast...”
Monaco has been such an eternal, magical presence in Formula 1 it seems strange that the one thing the principality has always been missing is a bona fide top-line driver.
But amid all the mayhem of last weekend’s manic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, one of few indisputably positive stories was a young Monegasque driver taking the principality’s first points since Louis Chiron scored at home in 1950 in the second ever F1 race.
No motor sport fan was surprised by Charles Leclerc’s drive to an unlikely sixth place in the lowly Sauber. After romping to GP3 glory in 2016, his 2017 Formula 2 season was extraordinary: as dominant as the feeder series’ all-time greats including future F1 world champions Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. No wonder this long-time Ferrari Driver Academy protégé is a clear favourite to end up racing for Maranello.
But Leclerc’s stunning rise has been tinged with tragedy: first he lost his close friend and mentor Jules Bianchi. And there was added poignancy that Leclerc’s first ever F1 points should arrive at the same Baku track as his remarkable Formula 2 win in 2017, just days after the loss of his beloved father Hervé.
‘I’ve had two huge losses for my family and myself over these past three years with Jules and my father,’ Leclerc tells me. ‘It has definitely been hard but obviously it has made me a lot stronger.
‘The only thing I told myself before the Baku Formula 2 race is that I knew that from up there they wouldn’t want me to be completely devastated or do a very bad race. They would certainly want to see me happy and doing great things out on the track.
‘Once I arrived in Baku I just tried to focus 300 percent on Baku and try to think the least amount possible of all this while I was in the car. Somehow I believe they hear me every time I speak to them, that they are still somewhere here, trying to help me from up there…’
Mental strength is a key element of all success in sport and anywhere else, but it takes exceptional poise and determination to make a positive out of the worst things life can throw at us. Still only 20 years old, Leclerc has somehow taken everything in his stride.
Of course it helps that he has spent so much time lately honing the racer’s mentality…
‘I’ve grown quite a lot mentally over the last past four or five years,’ he adds. ‘There are many techniques that can be used. I personally like the one of picturing the perfect lap in my head – especially before qualifying.
‘I do this often because I really think it helps. Every time there is a break and I’m not in the car, this imagery helps me hugely to be fully concentrated. When I get back in the car it feels different but this visualisation helps you readapt quicker to the car.
‘Then for the race it’s about looking at previous races then picturing all the different scenarios to be ready for any of them – like where to be at the first corner because obviously that’s very important.’
Later this month Leclerc will have his first chance to take an F1 car around his home streets at the Monaco Grand Prix. This will be even more special as he grew up with tales from his father about what Ayrton Senna’s magic performances and watching them on video.
Ironically Monaco was the only race weekend where Leclerc failed to score last year, but that didn’t stop him taking a characteristic storming pole and leading until retiring with a tyre problem. So it would be no surprise if he comes away with another strong performance later this month.
‘I really like city tracks,’ he smiles. ‘Last year the speed was amazing at both Baku and Monaco: they take so much focus yet I felt very comfortable in both. Of the two pole laps it would be hard to choose – but maybe Monaco because it was the home race and it felt a bit more special.
‘Of course I can’t say I’ve ever felt something like Senna because that would be very cocky. All I can say is that every time you race in Monaco it’s a different feeling: you have so much concentration, you don’t think about anything else. To be honest when I got out of the car I couldn’t even remember anything about the race. Because we are just on it like in no other track. Yeah, it’s a great feeling…’
It was 25 years ago today that Ayrton Senna passed four cars on lap one of the 1993 European Grand Prix at a drenched Donington Park, ending up in the lead. Legendary commentator Murray Walker classes it as the best lap he ever saw and few disagree.
Senna’s former race engineer James Robinson recalls: ‘Everyone quotes Donington in the rain, but you only have to watch classic examples like that to see what Senna was made of. Even with such self-belief you just don’t overtake four cars on the opening lap of a grand prix in the pouring rain at a track where there are guys who have driven more laps than you.
‘But while the rest were thinking, “If I go any faster I’m going to fall off because I haven’t been round here for fifteen minutes and it’s rained heavily since then,” Ayrton could judge the grip level on the outside. He would say: “I’ve driven Donington in the wet so many times in earlier formulae I know where the grip is. It’s not on the racing line when it’s raining. In this corner it’s here, in this corner they resurfaced it two years ago and it’s here.” He’d just put that information together. That’s what made him special.’
Senna’s explanation was simpler still. That Easter Sunday, hours before golfer Bernhard Langer declared his US Masters victory was extra special, coming as it did ‘on the day my Lord arose,’ Senna nipped in first. When Brazilian TV asked him how he’d managed to destroy the Donington field, he said: ‘God is great and powerful and when he wants nobody can say anything different.’
Einstein was right. God doesn’t play dice; he drives fast cars and plays golf. Moreover Senna had enjoyed another intervention from above a couple of years earlier, as the Brazilian maestro finally took his first ever win at his beloved home circuit of Interlagos…
‘Ayrton finished the last seven laps with only sixth gear,’ adds Robinson. ‘Riccardo Patrese’s Williams was chasing us and they didn’t know. Over the radio I heard a couple of comments in Portuguese and Ayrton was sitting in the car praying.
‘That was a new experience for me but you soon understand that’s him. His thought process led him to conclude somebody could help him through this and sort it out. That’s what set him apart – his sheer belief in his own ability, that he could do what other people couldn’t do. And, though he’d probably hate me for saying it, the belief that somebody else was looking after him. I’ve never experienced that with any other driver.’
This is an adapted extract from Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone
Thank you very much to Race Driver Coach Enzo Mucci for posting the first video review of In The Zone as part of his outstanding podcast series. Enzo is an expert in the field of racing driver training, having worked with many current stars of motor sport all the way up to Formula 1. Now he is working to spread what he has learned from his decades of helping the elite to the rest of us - all via his new project The Striver's Club. If you need a dose of motivation to get going with your own dream there is no better place to get started...
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
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.