Monaco brought home just what a game of mental strength Formula 1 fundamentally is. It's an often-overlooked but critically important part of the game.
After qualifying, Mark Webber sat in the central press-conference seat, reserved for the pole winner, beaming positive energy. His team-mate Sebastian Vettel sat to his left, only third quickest and clearly deeply disappointed, his whole manner downbeat, the usual sunny disposition just not visible. It was the beginning of his process of rebuilding himself, after a team-mate has taken the same car and - for the second consecutive weekend - driven it quicker.
Vettel's not used to this, he has historically had a small but decisive edge over Webber on raw speed. It didn't compute. He would be poring over the telemetry later, trying to understand. Being the bright guy and ferocious competitor that he is, those lessons will undoubtedly be incorporated.
So next time, Vettel will come out feeling stronger, more confident. Which, if he happens next time to be quicker than Webber, will feed off itself. That confidence will have justified itself, the inner belief reinforced and the building blocks of his performance will quickly reassemble. But that confidence can equally make you vulnerable - because if you come in so full of it, yet your team-mate again goes quicker, then it potentially undermines that whole delicate construct, and it can fall quicker than it can be built back up again.
Webber's been far from immune from the same process in the past. It's as if he has sometimes had so much competitive desire, wants it so badly, that he has put too much pressure on himself. He's not one to sit back and wait, is a formidable competitor and will always want to take the initiative. That combination has sometimes caused him to overstrive and we saw it most recently during his home grand prix, when each impetuous move put him further down the field than the last, until eventually he crashed, furious and frustrated that a winnable race had been taken from his grasp, initially by circumstance, later by his own reactions to that. His focus and control over himself seemed to have temporarily deserted him.
That Zen-like state, where you find the calm eye of the storm that constantly rages between your ambition and possibility, is where the racing driver needs to place himself - right on the edge of it. It seems so natural and easy when you find it - like you couldn't fall out of it if you tried - but infuriatingly elusive when you can't.
The parallels between that state of equilibrium and the one between confidence and overconfidence are not coincidental. They run together, feed off each other and ultimately merge. It brings a state not so much of blind confidence, but realistic acceptance of how you can fail and how you're prepared for it. That's what makes you truly formidable.
After seven years of being quicker than his team-mates, Webber last year finally came up against one who was slightly quicker. But impressively, it didn't destroy him. He calmly accepted the situation, set about rebuilding himself, finding a way in which he could still compete with Vettel. So on those days, like Nurburgring last year, when he did beat him, it was doubly satisfying and strength-giving. He had that experience to fall back upon when he didn't get this season off to a good start. He simply regrouped again and delivered a devastating performance in Spain, with the air of someone who now knows how to win. But he'd never put a sequence together, a significant further step in the psyche of the game. Sunday in Monaco cured that.
If you were looking for the perfect example of a driver effortlessly in that zone in Monaco, it was surely Robert Kubica. Slicing up close to the barriers, committing to that accuracy with his entry speed, he was breathtaking. On his first flying lap of Q3 he was four seconds faster than anyone. The previous day Fernando Alonso had looked almost as good, audacious in his braking, car giving him all the messages he likes, pumping him up yet further, ready to push yet harder, go yet faster. Bang! The clang and crunch of wheel hard against barrier could have been the sound of all that confidence dissolving into the Monaco sky.
To continue reading this feature, subscribe to Autosport Plus today.
Are you an Autosport magazine subscriber? Activate your online account
- Your Autosport Plus subscription includes:
- Unlimited access to Autosport's news - no monthly cap.
- Read the best motorsport features, analysis and opinion.
- Explore Forix, our comprehensive motorsport stats database.
- Choose from a monthly or yearly membership.