Data analytics and biometric technology help scientists understand how race car drivers keep their cool, even at 200 mph.
Shortly after 3 p.m. on June 14, Johannes van Overbeek climbed out of his custom-built Ligier JSP2. He’d just finished his team’s 339th lap around the 8.5-mile, 38-turn Circuit de la Sarthe at 24 Hours of Le Mans, France’s famous round-the-clock endurance race.
Averaging 137 miles per hour, van Overbeek and two Extreme Speed Motorsports teammates had, in a day of racing, covered the distance between San Francisco and New York.
24 hours of Le Mans is one of the world’s greatest tests of physical and mental stamina. Teams of three drivers trade shifts of up to four hours behind the wheel.
Racing conditions, such as temperatures north of 120 degrees, a steady stream of carbon monoxide, 4 g’s of pressure against the body and suits filling with pounds of water weight — along with the very real risk of a fiery crash — test their fine-motor skills to the limits.
Yet experienced drivers like van Overbeek usually keep their cool, darting around obstacles and passing rivals as if unaffected. Technology, in particular sensors that help capture driver data, is shedding light on how they do this and how they can improve.
“Athletes are interested in physiological data so they can gain deeper insights into all aspects of their performance — be it while they are competing, training, or recovering,” said Damon Miller, director of marketing at Intel’s New Technology Group.
“These metrics, like heart rate and perspiration, can help them understand their exertion levels, fitness levels and stress levels, as well as the quality of their sleep.”
And the devices aren’t just for professional athletes.
“We do not monitor just people, but people and their environment,” said Marc Smith, managing director of Yellowcog, a company that builds performance-monitoring systems that help people improve their performance in various ways.
“Whether this is a racing driver, a cyclist, or someone with disabilities living alone, it is about monitoring them and the world they live in — and using that data to help, to improve.”
This year, Yellowcog monitored drivers at 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500. Its system, called Pilot, uses chest strap devices to track pulse, body temperature and breathing, as well as oximeters to gauge oxygen levels in drivers’ blood and muscles.
“Since a lot of cars already have car-to-pit telemetry, our system means that people on the pit wall can see the driver data without having to invest in more track-side infrastructure,” Smith said. “The driver data is just treated like car data.”
Pilot found that drivers’ heart and breathing rates were highest at the beginning of the race, then settled down. Complicated parts of a course like turns consistently resulted in elevated rates.
“We could map where a driver was on the circuit from their heart and breathing rate alone,” Smith said.
A recent study using electroencephalograms, or EEGs, of race car driver brain activity suggests why this is.
Lene Harbott, a Stanford University researcher of car-racing psychophysiology, attached electrodes to professional drivers’ scalps. The electrodes picked up small voltage changes from the outermost layers of the brain, which perform higher-level cognitive functions such as focused attention and emotional mental workload.
Harbott found that in race-like conditions, drivers use the parts of the brain associated with fine-motor skills and conscious decision making only when encountering unfamiliar situations, such as a new part of a course or a new car to pass.
Otherwise, they use gray matter associated with rote memory.
It’s a much less energy-intensive way of thinking, Harbott said. “Part of what makes [racers] incredible is that they’re able to drive almost reflexively rather than worrying about every little decision they’re about to make.”
Calm and Focused
To prepare for a race, van Overbeek visualizes how he thinks it will go and watches video of a track, trying to anticipate any situation. He goes for long bike rides to improve his cardiovascular fitness and practice concentrating while doing solitary exercise.
“Driving, when done well, is a Zen experience,” he said. “Things are happening, you’re controlling what’s happening, but you are so focused, so in the present.”
On race days, van Overbeek talks extensively with his crew about the car and track conditions, and carves out 5 to 10 minutes to sit quietly and clear his mind of any distractions.
Between race shifts, he changes into a fresh uniform, eats something easy to digest, and replenishes his fluids. He checks in with his crew and, after about an hour, heads to the team trailer to nap.
New wearable technology can also help monitor things like stress level and exhaustion, so that athletes can better train to avoid these conditions.
“For controlling stress during competition, they can look at metrics like heart rate or perspiration and then implement mental and physical relaxation exercises to help ensure the proper focus,” Miller said.
“One big trend is looking at improving sleep quality as athletes realize that physical and mental recovery is critical for their training and competition improvements.”
Restful sleep or not, a team member usually wakes van Overbeek up a few minutes before his next turn to drive.
“Two minutes later, you’re going 200 mph,” van Overbeek said. If his mind were to wander for just 1 second at that speed, he could blindly travel the length of a football field.
Maintaining focus is often the difference between winning and crashing.
More often than not, the winning driver is the one who “can remain the most calm,” said Jacques Dallaire, a performance consultant who has worked with many professional drivers, including van Overbeek.
Dallaire trains drivers to tune out distractions, encouraging them to visualize all aspects of a race well ahead of time so they don’t have to think too hard during the race itself.
In other words, he helps them avoid situations that trigger the active part of the brain and cause their heart rate to rise.
Everyone is susceptible to it. The best drivers are “simply using a smaller-caliber size gun to shoot themselves in the foot,” Dallaire said.
At last year’s Monterey Grand Prix, van Overbeek was stuck behind a rival near the end of the race. He began to drive more aggressively, getting on the driver’s bumper or right side.
His goal was to get the other guy thinking, get him looking in his mirrors to check what was happening behind him.
Do that, van Overbeek said, and “inevitably, he makes a mistake.”
On a tight corner, with just a few laps to go, van Overbeek made his move. The driver in front of him tried to cut him off as they approached a straightaway, but his wheel slipped, and he lost speed coming out of the turn.
“We left him in the dust,” van Overbeek said.
Additional reporting by Heather Sparks and William Harless.
Photos: feature by Tequila Patron ESM.