How Formula 1 teams look after their mental health
With its increase in calendar size to 23 races, Formula 1 faces its most punishing schedule yet. Team members face longer stints away from home and family, all of which have a knock-on effect on their mental health. LUKE SMITH explains how the teams cope with ensuring their employees' wellbeing isn't compromised
Formula 1 has built its reputation on pushing all of its aspects to the very limit. At the very core of competing in the series is a never-ending pursuit to be faster. Be better. Be bigger. Do more.
The push for more also applies to the calendar. The World Motor Sport Council is set to ratify a provisional 23-race schedule for 2022 next week, the biggest in F1 history.
Running 23 races in just over eight months will give F1 fans plenty of action to watch, afford the drivers lots of track time and bring important revenue into the series.
Yet it is all set to come at a greater personal cost than ever before, particularly when it comes to wellbeing and mental health.
Drivers and top management at F1 teams may enjoy the luxuries of private jets, swish hotels and slimmer schedules. But for the mechanics and staff committing to a 23-race season, with each race weekend packed with 12-hour days and stints on-site well surpassing the core on-track action, such a commitment can be daunting.
The discussion of mental health in F1 is something that has been gathering momentum in recent years. Lando Norris has been particularly vocal on the matter, admitting to his own struggles through his rookie season in 2019, while the likes of Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton and Alex Albon have also spoken up on the importance of good mental health. For them, talking about the topic is not a sign of weakness, even if all their peers may not agree.
World Mental Health Day marks an opportunity to not only talk about the topic of mental health in F1, but also to shine a light on the practical measures teams are taking to look after their employees as we barrel towards the most testing season in F1 history. Actions speak louder than words, after all.
Mechanics at work in the Mercedes garage
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
Mental health struggles are nothing new. It is the stigma surrounding them being broken and the openness with which they are discussed that has changed. And teams are well aware of the significance of looking after their employees because, as well as being the right thing to do, it can also unlock improved performance on-track.
A lot of positive noises have been made about the 23-race calendar for next year. AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost called it “fantastic” and that “we all should be happy that we are in a position to be in Formula 1 and to have 23 races” when asked by Autosport about the human toll it may have.
Tost added: “If someone doesn’t like it, then he should go.”
The comment may have been flippant, but it also lacked appreciation and empathy for the challenges facing people in F1 right now. As exciting as a bumper calendar may be for some, those carrying the burden of getting the cars on-track and facilitating the racing may struggle to be so enthused when spending weeks on end away from friends and family.
"You have to have really a positive attitude for the team, that everybody enjoys doing this. If that becomes a pain to be that long away from home, then it has an impact on the result" Jost Capito
Williams team boss Jost Capito noted that when he started in F1 in the 1990s, the schedule was also difficult thanks to the copious amounts of testing completed by teams, making it “even harder than it is now”. It’s a view one could contest given testing was largely in Europe and conducted by dedicated test teams, but he accepted that did not invalidate the current focus on mental health.
“It’s not just, ‘oh it’s as hard now as it was then, so don’t worry’,” Capito told Autosport. “I think the world changed also a lot since then. You have to look after the employees.
“Most of them have a family, and they are away a long time. You have to have really a positive attitude for the team, that everybody enjoys doing this. If that becomes a pain to be that long away from home, then it has an impact on the result.”
Sebastian Vettel warned that F1 “mustn’t neglect that we are a group of people and human beings travelling around the world” as it continues to expand the calendar, and the series “must be very careful where we want to put our interests.”
Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, walks the track with members of his team
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
“We are facing this reality now, I would say, with people getting tired and being worn out,” added Haas team boss Gunther Steiner. “We try to do things differently to help them to get along, so we can get to the end of the season with people not worn out and not wanting to leave Formula 1.
“But it’s one of these things, you just have to work at it and try to find compromises which work for the team and work for the people.”
McLaren has been one of the most vocal teams about the challenges of the calendar, which team boss Andreas Seidl said was a “huge burden on our people”. But instead of simply accepting things the way they are and making do, Seidl felt it was critical to discuss the struggles it may bring openly as a team.
“The way we approach it within the team is trying an inclusive approach, to speak openly about the challenges that everyone is facing, which is quite individual as well,” Seidl said.
“We simply try to help our people with the help we can give, with the help we can give for example with partnerships we are having with Mind for example, to get through these challenges together.”
McLaren’s partnership with the charity Mind is an important example of an F1 team directly and openly addressing mental health. Ahead of World Mental Health Day, team members have all been wearing Mind badges, while drivers Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo designed special t-shirts to raise money for the charity that sold out rapidly.
Ricciardo spoke of the importance of fostering close relationships within the team to ensure they could all rely on each other for when the going got tough. “You need to rely on your team-mates to help you out if you're a little a little down or missing home,” Ricciardo said.
McLaren has eight trained mental health first aiders as part of its race team, ensuring that those travelling can get support when required. Its team trainer, Serg, takes a key responsibility looking after the mental health of the team members on race weekends, while it also has a sports psychologist who attends a number of grands prix throughout the year to embed within the team and assist overseeing its internal wellbeing.
Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo designed special t-shirts to raise money for Mind
Photo by: McLaren
For Mercedes, mental health is a subject that is taken extremely seriously, in part thanks to the passion for the subject of team principal Toto Wolff.
It was a subject that Wolff became interested in from his adolescence, while a focus on people and their wellbeing had always been part of his management style and approach. He told Autosport in an interview ahead of World Mental Health Day that while the stigma surrounding mental health was “something very difficult to break”, he hoped it was something he could “have a contribution in reducing”.
Wolff recalled when he once attended the Monaco Grand Prix and that when he looked around at everyone attending, he thought they could not suffer from any mental health struggles. With so much glitz and glamour in F1’s best environment, what more could you want in life?
But Wolff quickly found that not to be the case, making it important to speak up. “We are working in this fantastic environment and you see us all smiley on TV,” he said. “But I think it’s important for us to say not everything that shines is gold.”
"We want team members to support team members, knowing they can turn to each other and have a difficult conversation, and say, ‘I’m not feeling great’. Having that is so powerful" Chris Armstrong
Wolff’s passion for mental health prompted him to establish a company called Instahelp back in 2015 through his venture capital company in a bid to make support more accessible after finding that “Dr Google” was poor for researching such topics.
“We wanted to create a safe place where people get instant help from professionals," Wolff said. “You go through an assessment, and you get an answer within a few minutes, and you’re put in touch with somebody nearby and you can talk to that person.
“That was something that was close to my heart. It’s psychological support, which is a niche that is important.”
When Wolff began to encourage and action mental health initiatives at Mercedes, he was pleasantly surprised to find there was little pushback, with the openness being embraced as the team sought not only support, but additional human performance.
Mercedes has an internal wellbeing programme which focuses on physical health, mental health and recovery. Overseeing the scheme is a dedicated wellbeing manager, Chris Armstrong, who joined Mercedes a couple of years ago.
As part of his role, Armstrong holds weekly meetings with not only the race engineers and senior leaders, but also with the travel staff and a wellbeing working group made up of people from across the team. It helps gauge the general mood of the team from top to bottom, and to get feedback on areas such as travel and workload, as well as seemingly simple elements like gym classes or lunches to offer at the factory. Every team member is also offered mindfulness, while discussions surrounding mental health are encouraged.
The team also places a big focus on ensuring employees can follow pursuits outside of working in F1 - the clearest example of that being Lewis Hamilton, whose ventures in fashion and music have coincided with some of the greatest successes of his career in recent years.
Mercedes operates a confidential and anonymous support system for those requiring a safe space to discuss their mental health if required, and also has more than 40 trained mental health first aiders across the company, ensuring there is a suitable point of contact for those needing support.
“We want team members to support team members, knowing they can turn to each other and have a difficult conversation, and say, ‘I’m not feeling great’,” Armstrong told Autosport. “Having that is so powerful. Silence can often be negative, in terms of performance. Speaking up and having regular conversations can be a really positive thing.”
The challenge for those travelling to all 23 races remains great. Staff rotation has regularly been discussed, and is implemented by a number of teams in places. But it is easier said than done. Some personnel are so essential to teams that they have to do every single race.
To try and ease things, teams will put measures in place such as booking a more comfortable hotel at the end of a triple-header even at an added expense, adjusting travel schedules to reduce time away when possible, or ensuring staff have individual rooms for greater privacy so they can speak more freely with their families.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, is returned to the garage
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
But Wolff wants to see F1 go further and make staff rotation part of the regulations. “From 23 races, being able to take five out, makes a huge difference for every individual that is in the sport,” he said, adding that it would also enable more young talent to gain experience and come through the ranks.
“We need to provide a more sustainable environment for all of these people,” he added. “We are sitting at the table and we can influence that. We have to do it for their benefit.”
Armstrong felt it was significant for Wolff - who himself has accessed the team’s in-house mental health services, so keen was his interest in its roll-out - to be so vocal and open on the matter.
“We’re lucky that we’ve got a leadership that really role models this as well,” he said. “Toto spoke up about it, and there’s also a lot of stuff that the world doesn’t see. Any time the team comes up against hardship, we always look to support team members."
In a title fight as close as the one Mercedes currently finds itself engaged in, marginal gains can be decisive, making human performance a key area of interest. It is something that mental health is intrinsically part of
Wolff felt the sensitivity linked to mental health was in fact a “superpower”: “I think it gives you an edge in understanding yourself. If you understand yourself, it’s much easier to understand others.
“Many of us that you would identify as peak performers or high performers, actually perform because they have this fine sensorium.
“The bullies and the blunt-minded, they don’t have these abilities. That’s why at the end of the day, they will reach a limit that is impossible to overcome.”
In a title fight as close as the one Mercedes currently finds itself engaged in, marginal gains can be decisive, making human performance a key area of interest. It is something that mental health is intrinsically part of.
The discussion surrounding mental health is going a long way to breaking some of the stigma in F1, but it is the action that follows that ensures those working in the industry can enjoy long, sustainable careers, and not be burned out by the ever-expanding calendar.
Mick Schumacher, Haas VF-21, is returned to the garage
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
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