This is a sport where so much of the best stuff is hidden. Sometimes it can be so because it's too complex for an easy understanding in the quick-fire, headline mentality of today. Other times it's because of competitive secrecy. In this data acquisition age there is more hard information than ever before, but ironically less access to it from outside.
But there is some stuff even the teams, with all those megabytes of data at their disposal, cannot really know. Stuff that is locked deep inside the driver's head and which he may not even be able to explain to himself.
Variation in the performance of drivers is a fascinating subject and one that is not widely understood. You see the question most obviously in team-mate comparisons that don't tally.
Damon Hill beat Jacques Villeneuve at Williams in 1996 and Villeneuve thrashed Heinz-Harald Frentzen at Williams in '97-98. So when Hill and Frentzen were paired at Jordan for '99, logic would have said Hill would be comfortably on top - except that Frentzen annihilated him. Yes, you can put forward theories to explain the anomalies: '96 was Jacques' rookie year; in '99 Damon wanted out. But you can do it with any number of case studies and for each one make up different explanations. It is clear that for a driver to access his best stuff he needs very specific conditions - and even he may not know what they are.
What you rarely witness, even at F1 level, is two team-mates operating at 100 per cent of their personal potential throughout a season. Therefore Driver A beating Driver B over one season in the same car does not tell us definitively about the potential of each. Which is why it's usually much more instructive to look at the peaks rather than the averages.
As recounted in this column a few months ago, medical understanding of the processes going on within the driver is still at a primitive level. But in a fascinating new book, Overdrive: Formula 1 In The Zone, Clyde Brolin takes a more intuitive look at the subject. He searches out those who have experienced that magical feeling in a racing car where they can do no wrong, where driving absolutely at the limit is the easiest thing in the world.
It's a feeling of invincibility rarely attained even by the top guys, but is generally accessible by anyone. When a driver reaches this zone, that is when we see pure, undistilled, 100 per cent of his potential. It's the place of which Ayrton Senna famously and mystically spoke when describing his laps at Monaco in 1988.
Brolin has interviewed many of the sport's greats, as well as lesser lights and sports people from outside motor racing, about the phenomenon and the consistency of themes is striking. Whether we assign neurological, technical, astro-physical or spiritual explanations to the experience is open for debate. And it would inevitably be fruitless debate, because of the fundamental intransigence people with expertise in each of those fields tend to have about accepting theories outside their own area of knowledge.
The book doesn't try to reach a resolution on this, but it does record the views of those who have them. Ironically, it is those with open minds who have ready access to the phenomenon. The only real conclusion the book reaches is that the zone is 'free to everyone with the correct decoder' but it ventures no theory on what that decoder is - and is all the better for that.
Giving some idea of the commercial world's reluctance to engage with such esoteric stuff, Brolin, having taken years researching the book, spent just as long fruitlessly finding a publisher. So he simply went about publishing it himself.
It would be nice if he were rewarded for such dedication to a complex, ultimately unresolved but fascinating subject. Buy it: you'll have spent a tenner but gained a fascinating insight.
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