Vettel, Red Mist And Brain Chemistry

By Tom Martin

June 28, 2017

You, who are on the road

Must have a code

That you can live by

If you watched the 2017 F1 race in Azerbaijan, you saw an incident between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel before one of the re-starts. In case you missed it, or would like to review, here is some video footage:

Niki Lauda, who may not qualify as an independent observer, said what was in many people's heads: "Vettel is a decent guy, normally; this I don't understand, because he's crazy." Christian Horner said that Vettel "had a Tourette's moment". Lauda also said "It's strange – he freaked out."

But is it hard to understand? Abnormal? An exceptional moment?

We think not. This happens to drivers all the time. It is so common that we have a term for "a feeling of extreme anger that clouds one's judgment temporarily" -- red mist.

The origins of the term red mist relate to a 19th century hypothesis that increased blood flow to the head during exciting activities led to anger. It is now more commonly related to elevated levels of the hormone adrenaline (epinephrine) in the blood, which are part of the body's response to stress and exercise. Research shows that adrenaline heightens your sense of fear and that it also increases memory retention for the events that trigger the fear as well as setting off other physiological responses (e.g. elevated heart rate and vasoconstriction). We often summarize this as the "fight or flight" response.

Since racing is stressful, and pretty much every driver experiences elevated adrenaline levels (often on pre-grid), and we know that the hormone affects emotional response and memory of events, it is hard to say that Vettel's response was "strange" in the literal sense of "unusual". Was it stupid? Yes. Was crashing into another car an extreme move? Yes. But having an angry "fight" reaction? Par for the course.

As it happens, on the weekend of the Azerbaijan GP, one of our drivers was subject to multiple incidents in which other drivers freaked out and had "Tourette's moments". Our support staff, ever desirous of driver development, reviews each incident in the hope of learning. From this recent analysis, and many others, we suggest two iron rules that drivers abide by:

  1. Rule 1: If you are upset during a race, wait a minimum of 1 hour after the race before speaking to another driver about the incident (or ramming his/her car). This gives time for your hormones to go back to normal.
  2. Rule 2: Assume that you don't know everything about the incident, and that you may never know because there may not be video of the whole event.

 

Rule 1 is pretty obvious. You just have to practice it until it is a habit. But we have often been surprised by the drivers who do not follow rule 1 and set off a long, involved, colorful stream of profanity directed at others. This isn't helpful to paddock culture and generally isn't met with open arms. It is embarrassing when Rule 2 bites you.

Rule 2 comes into play with surprising regularity. Racing is a complex activity, and what you see from the cockpit often is't more than a fraction of what is going on.

As an example, we recently were part of an incident with five drivers. They were in cars A, B, C, D and E, running closely together (1-3 feet apart). We were in car E. Entering a high speed turn, car E bumped car D while slightly offset, and car D spun and lost a few positions. The driver and crew chief of car D were very unhappy with the driver of car E. Unkind words were said. But upon further review, we see that car B bumped car A, causing him to start a spin in front of car C. Car C braked to avoid the spinner, and car D hit the rear of car C. Car D then bounced back into car E, was hit and then spun.

Without understanding this sequence, we can understand why driver D was upset with driver E. And yet, driver E is really not at fault in any way we can think of (it is not a fault to be on the track driving normally). Not following Rule 2 led to hard feelings between two drivers who were both caught in an incident not of their own making.

"Wait an hour, you don't know everything" is a pretty easy code for drivers (and crew) to memorize. Those who try, and sometimes fail to remember, are human. They apologize for over-reacting. Those who don't try are likely to be blamers who need to find another sport. On another planet.