Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Psychology of Racing Drivers

With the Toyota 1000 Desert Rally taking place this weekend in Jwaneng Botswana, Laurie Pieters James found herself wondering about the psychology of racing and competitive drivers. What does it take to succeed? In order to glean some insight, she managed to secure and interview with Glyn Hall, the team principal of the highly successful Toyota Motor Sport Team, at their head office in Kyalami, from which they run the team for Dakar.

Glyn explained that the goal of his team or business is to win and perform well within the sport. For this reason the drivers that they select to represent Toyota and their sponsors including Castrol are already Multiple National Champions before they join the team. Although they do try to support and offer opportunities to young and talented drivers, this is not always easy, as without winning performance their business can’t succeed and they lose sponsors. Glyn Hall, as the team principal or manager is tasked with securing the teams financial position, making sure that they have the fastest car and finally making sure that the driver can perform at his maximum capacity in competition. Glyn as a former National Champion himself, with years of experience and associations with the world’s best drivers has come to understand a significant part of the processes involved. So what makes them tick?

How important is the driver to Toyota?

Glyn explained to me how, to Team Toyota, the driver is as important as the engine in the car, the car design, and the strength of the car. As a result he treats his drivers much the same as he would any other important mechanical component. “Without the right car, we can’t win and without the right driver we can’t win, so unless everything is balanced and correct we can’t be successful”.

What types of drivers do you employ?

Toyota has both a rally and an off-road team. Rally drivers are asked to perform optimally in races lasting between seven and fifteen minutes at a time and then take a break. Off-road drivers competing in Dakar, on the other hand, have to maintain optimal performance and concentration levels for many hours at a time. If we take it that a normal person can only concentrate for one and a half hours, or two hours at most, without deviating too far from the general focus period, off-road is particularly difficult and it takes a very special person to be able to do this. So the ability to maintain concentration and focus is key to being a successful off-road driver.

How do you address a driver’s ability to focus?

We train for this by continual analysis of what went wrong in previous events. This is the negative side of the sport. What went right we can simply reinforce, but that is only 10percent of the time. We have to focus on the 90percent of what goes wrong and address the problems. We get our drivers to perform faster and better by making them comfortable in their environment. That means that they have a co-driver or navigator with whom they must have a good strong and solid relationship of friendship, trust and mutual respect. As the team we also play a strong support role! You can’t win with one superstar in a team; the entire team needs to be functioning well. However when you need that superstar, who is the driver, you may really need him.

What psychological traits do you look for in a driver?

The critical trait needed by a racing driver is the ability to multitask. They have to have a strong situational awareness and the ability to make rapid assessments and adjustments. Leroy Poulter, one of Toyota’s superstar drivers and a Dakar veteran, believes that self control is the key to being a great driver. It is important to know when to push and when to pull back. He feels it is critical not to panic no matter the conditions. Assess, react, reassess and correct. He spends up to two hours a day on a mountain bike, assessing terrain and honing his reflexes. Physical fitness is imperative to any person wishing to become an off-road driver and many hours are spent in the gym.

Glyn Hall explains further that, in off-road racing there are four drivers who stand out in the world and Toyota Motor Sport has secured the services of one of them in Giniel de Villiers. In the past ten years Giniel was the second most successful driver in the Dakar. Glyn has worked with and mentored Giniel since he was just nineteen years old. With Giniel, Toyota succeeded in securing four consecutive world touring car championships. When circumstances dictated that Giniel change his discipline from tarmac to off-road racing, he expected it to be difficult, as the two don’t match at all! Glyn as an off-road driver, found that Giniel was not difficult to teach as his talent and skill are supreme!

Why is Giniel de Villiers so special?

He has natural talent and good reaction times. All top level athletes have quick reflexes and good motor co-ordination. However to be truly great, you have to be able to develop that natural ability and this takes dedication and hard work. More than that drivers need to develop their mental skills and the ability to multitask can’t be over stressed. The driver needs to be able to listen to his navigator while fully concentrating on what is ahead of him on the course. Glyn feels that in order to reach the pinnacle as a driver you have to have strong situational awareness and still have sufficient brain power available to compute that and to drive. Additionally Giniel is a professional driver and he, unlike many of the drivers, can dedicate his time solely to driving with no other work commitments.

How important is staying fit and healthy?

It is vital to stay both fit and healthy. If a driver gets ill and his ability to drive is compromised, millions will be lost by the team. The driver’s physical and emotional health is critical to winning. To this end drivers need to be responsible in taking care of themselves and maintaining their health and fitness.

How do you match drivers to co-drivers?

Ultimately the drivers select their co-drivers. It is important for them to trust and respect each other. Because they spend such a lot of time in each other’s company it is important that they have a measure of friendship.

How important is the driver’s commitment to the sport.

If our drivers weren’t committed they wouldn’t be in our employ and they wouldn’t be driving these cars. We have twenty five cars that we built and maintain around the world, each one with a team of technical staff costing millions. We expect total and unqualified professionalism and commitment from our drivers at all times.

What are the fears the drivers face?

The only real fear any of our drivers face is the fear of failure. Glyn went on to say that as the team principal he cannot allow that fear to dictate the performance. If a driver is too fearful of failure it may affect his ability to do his job.

How level headed to drivers need to be?

Drivers taking chances from a mechanical perspective are the last thing the team needs, as causing the breakdown of a car results in that vehicle being unable to finish and no points. There is no such thing as taking a chance. They must view up the situation, make an assessment, a snap decision and then stick to it. They do that millions of times a day! There is no such thing as luck. Its only work, testing and ability! The harder you work the more detail you take in the luckier you appear to be.

What is special about Toyota 1000 Desert Race?

With this race, due to the fact that it is further than most and the terrain is unknown on a new route it is going to be challenging. The terrain in Botswana is harsh and adds to the challenge while keeping the car intact is always a challenge. This race is very important to Toyota as it has double points. The Toyota Motor Sport team performance in the qualifying event on Friday was solid, their cars finished first, fourth and seventh.

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