This story originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Road & Track

~ by Ross Bentley ~

Watch video of Ayrton Senna or Gilles Villeneuve, and you have to wonder if there really is a limit to how fast a car can travel around a racetrack. Sure, the laws of physics apply, but how do you explain that Villeneuve was 11 seconds faster than the entire field, in the rain, during U.S. Grand Prix qualifying at Watkins Glen in 1979? Eleven seconds! Some of his competitors got out of their cars and walked to Turn 1 to watch him. They must have wondered when the laws of physics were going to kick in.

Senna’s 1993 drive in the European Grand Prix at Donington Park is another example. In the rain, on the first lap, he moved from fifth to the lead, making Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, and Damon Hill look like rank novices. Prost was then a three-time Formula 1 world champion (he would land his fourth that year), Hill would clinch the series title in 1996, and Schumacher would go on to notch seven titles between 1994 and 2004. Senna simply drove around them. The rain is where we often notice the biggest differences between common driving performances and the extra-special ones. (The differences are there on sunny days, too, just harder to recognize.) Wet weather means reduced grip, and reduced grip requires more control and nuance, no matter the car. Rain has been called the great equalizer, though it’s really a differentiator. It separates drivers and influences their belief in themselves. When you watch a driver do something that seems impossible, it obviously wasn’t impossible. All else being equal, it simply happened because they knew they could make it happen.

Is there a limit to one’s beliefs? Physics says yes, of course, but driving at the limit happens in the mind before anything happens with the steering wheel and pedals. F1 is a prime example: The drivers there are some of the best in the world, but a rare few are consistently able to drive faster than their teammates in what is essentially the same car. And while there are other factors at work—how a driver works with their engineer to tune the car’s setup is critical, for example—they aren’t the differentiator.

Stanford psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck defines two basic human mind-sets: fixed and growth. I was fortunate enough to contribute to some research Dweck did early on in this area, specifically with race drivers. Guess what? The best drivers have more of a growth mind-set than others. An attitude best described as “there’s always more.” Even at the top levels of the sport, some drivers curb themselves by believing they can’t go any quicker, while others continually look to improve.

In 1993, Nigel Mansell passed me on the outside of Turn 1 of Michigan International Speedway at something over 230 mph. If I could have moved my head against the 4 g’s in the cockpit of my Indy car, I would have given him a disbelieving, cartoonlike shake. Why did Mansell not realize that he was literally half a mile per hour away from careering into a concrete wall? I’m guessing the fact never crossed his mind. His growth mind-set was looking for more, and he believed he could find it.

Not that believing in limits is all bad. Acknowledging the edge of the possible is the only thing that stops us from trying every corner at full throttle in top gear. But ultimately, what separates the great drivers from the truly special ones is entirely in the head, regardless of reason. For Senna, it was a spiritual belief that he could do the near impossible; Villeneuve just didn’t seem to care. He either totally accepted that “it” would happen to him—that career-ending or life-ending crash—or the idea never crossed his mind.

Of course, Senna and Villeneuve each died at the wheel of a race car. The risk is always there, and you have to balance an acknowledgment of that with your deepest, most extraordinary inner confidence. Isn’t that what most attracts us to our sport in the first place – witnessing the extraordinary? The absolute best hit those heights often, leaving us marveling at the sight. And sitting there, wondering how it happened, as they disappear into the distance.

~ by Ross Bentley ~

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