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Welcome to Overdrivef1.com
Coming soon... In The Zone

Seven years after Overdrive I'm delighted to announce that I have a new book coming out. It's called 'In The Zone' and it will be published on April 20 by Blink Publishing.

This book delves into the wider world of sport, featuring over 100 interviews with legends of everything from athletics to boxing, football to rugby, skiing to skydiving, surfing to skateboarding, triathlon to the Paralympics. And, of course, motor racing...

Featuring insights from modern day greats Usain Bolt, Novak Djokovic, Lewis Hamilton and Michael Phelps plus legends Nadia Comaneci, Michael Johnson, Steve Redgrave and Cathy Freeman, the book investigates how to perform at the limit when the world is watching.

'In The Zone' unravels the magic that stems from a lifetime of preparation and focus on one dream, using sport’s champions to reveal the untapped power of the human mind. It shows anyone with a dream what it takes to conceive, believe and achieve true success.

To pre-order the book or to find out more, click here...

Nico Rosberg goes out on a high...

Nico Rosberg has made the shock decision to retire from Formula 1 after fulfilling his life’s dream by winning the 2016 world championship.

It took Nico 111 races to win his first grand prix so he's used to defeat. But if he needs a reminder that any ecstasy is fleeting in F1, I’m sure his feet must be placed firmly back on the ground every time he speaks to his Dad.

Here’s what the level-headed Keke told me for Overdrive: ‘You need to be a masochist to come into this sport because there are so few highs and so many lows. The high lasts six seconds after a race, the low lasts ten days because you think about it constantly.

‘When you get a bad result, it keeps going over and over in your head. That’s not just for the drivers but also for the mechanics, the engineers and everyone who works in the sport. So much work goes into competing, but most of the time results aren’t satisfactory. The highs from the good results in no way balance out the almost permanent lows.’

If that’s a world champion talking then pity the guys currently trawling around the back end of the grid. But now, having matched his father’s achievement, Nico can put those lows behind him for good. Maybe, just maybe, this high might even balance them all out.

Pride in Massa exodus

It didn’t take Felipe Massa long to find out about the ups and downs of Formula 1. When I first sat down to chat with him at the end of his debut season in 2002 he was already on his way out of the sport. Despite showing promise, he also made a few unforced errors and was due to be replaced at Sauber by Heinz-Harald Frentzen…

“To be honest in my life everything has always been hard,” Massa told me. “I’m not talking about surviving, of course, but professionally it’s never been easy. I never had the financial support of my father to pay for racing so it’s always been a fight and I had to give everything to find a way to Formula 1. But it’s good to remember the past to be strong again. Maybe this experience can be good for my future too. We learn from good and bad things. Sometimes we think we go down but afterwards we come back stronger.”

Prophetic words as it turned out, because Massa would have plenty more learning opportunities during his 15-year career in the sport, on which he has now called time.

After steadying his raw ability with a season as Ferrari’s test driver he returned to Sauber for a couple more years. Then the big time boomed as he rejoined Ferrari as a full race driver, partnering no less than Michael Schumacher. He took his first grand prix win in Turkey before becoming the first home driver since Ayrton Senna to win the Brazilian Grand Prix. True highs.

Yet Massa’s next Interlagos win was to be the scene of his most famous racing low, missing out on the 2008 title as Lewis Hamilton clawed back the point he needed at the final corner. Even in the face of such monumental disappointment, Massa won admirers for his dignity in defeat, encapsulating the sporting spirit.

Less than a year later Massa had a much bigger reason to draw on every ounce of his mental strength. He narrowly escaped blindness or worse after being hit by a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s car during qualifying at the Hungaroring. Doubling the irony, the older Brazilian used to follow Massa round tracks when he arrived in F1 to offer him tips – just as Senna had done for him.

Massa’s unlikely eventual full recovery was doubtless helped by his understanding of how you learn from “bad things”. Indeed, he is adamant his biggest “down” happened for a reason that he has vowed to discover in time…

Incredibly he was back in a Ferrari within months, this time facing Fernando Alonso, famously ending up on the wrong side of a team order at the 2010 German Grand Prix as he was unceremoniously told “Fernando is faster than you”.

The irony is that Massa held his own against a wealth of superstar team-mates, from Schumacher to Alonso plus a couple of flying Finns in Kimi Raikkonen and latterly Valtteri Bottas. Now heading for his 250th GP appearance, he has made the podium 41 times and taken 11 wins. No slouch.

And yes, Massa found the Zone. Twenty years after Senna’s special ride round the Monaco harbour, Massa made a risky admission, telling the press he didn’t like the track. That served as ammunition for those who thought he had been gifted his prized seat at Ferrari and did not deserve to be fighting for the world title. Monaco is one of the ultimate driver’s circuits and no ‘serious’ racer should talk like that. Yet in qualifying, Massa was untouchable. He went fastest in both low-fuel sessions before taking pole from his reigning world champion team-mate Raikkonen with the last lap of the day. As Massa returned to the pits he couldn’t stop laughing into his helmet.

“I’ve heard all about what happened to Ayrton at Monaco,” Massa told me. “And yes, something similar has happened to me. I wouldn’t describe it as ‘flying’ but I prefer to think of it as a ‘bubble’ where you are absolutely on it and you feel untouchable. In my case I wouldn’t say it happens once or twice a year, it’s more a matter of once or twice in your life. One of them for me was at Monaco during qualifying in 2008.”

Come race day, Massa’s ‘bubble’ burst under the Monaco rain just as it began to inflate for his eventual title nemesis Lewis Hamilton, who found the Zone for himself and took a stunning win en route to the title he stole at the death in a later 2008 downpour.

Ups and downs, yes, but that’s always been the Massa way. What a ride.

The day Panis sailed away

Following a wet Monaco Grand Prix, it’s timely to recall one of the strangest races it ever hosted, 20 years ago. France’s Olivier Panis only ever won one grand prix in a career spanning a decade. But he chose a good one, taking a most unlikely victory for Ligier round the cluttered seaside streets in 1996 – on another day when the heavens had opened.

On this bizarre Sunday bike ride round Monaco’s soaking bathroom only four drivers clung onto their handlebars long enough to negotiate the treacherous washbasins and bidets and make the chequered flag. Even the metronomic Michael Schumacher suffered a rare lapse of concentration and didn’t complete a lap. Panis’s win also owes much to the retirement of that year’s champion Damon Hill with an engine blow-up and Jean Alesi’s broken suspension. But that in no way belittles his achievement in a Ligier that hadn’t won a race for fifteen years and, like him, never repeated the feat.

Starting a lowly fourteenth, Panis was sitting a distinctly unpretty twelfth at the end of lap one. Then he began overtaking cars left, right and centre, romping past the likes of Martin Brundle, Mika Hakkinen and Johnny Herbert in a race where, as usual at Monaco, precious little other passing was going on.

‘For that one day, I just felt I was flying and everyone else was slow,’ recalls Panis in Overdrive. ‘What’s more, I felt I was going to keep flying everywhere. Somehow I knew nobody was going to beat me. I wouldn’t say I was a different man but I had the clearest sensation that nothing bad was going to happen to me.

‘That day I overtook seven cars in the wet. You think, “How in hell could you pass seven cars in the wet around Monaco? No way.” But this time I just kept trying things and everything I tried worked – even when I pushed harder and harder. When I saw a driver in front I told myself, “Okay, I’ll pass him on the next lap.” I didn’t even check which driver it was, I was that confident in what I was doing.

‘The perfect example is when I crashed into Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari. I wanted to pass him and I knew there was just one place where it could be possible, at the Loews hairpin. As I was overtaking him I thought, “Hell, this is a big risk. I could ruin everything here.” I tried it, turned in and there was a bang. I had hit him with my wheel but it hit his engine cover flat. The impact caused him to spin, but I didn’t break anything and I kept going. That is the kind of thing that only ever happens to a driver once. Still, even then I didn’t worry about things and I just kept pushing and turning. It was a feeling of total confidence that nobody would beat me.

‘When I saw the video at home afterwards I thought, “No, this is not me.” At one stage I’d gone out on dry tyres when it was still really damp. When I saw how the car was handling, oversteering all over the place, I said, “Is that me doing that?” I was shocked. When I saw how sideways I’d got in some places, I just went, “Bloody hell, it’s really not me…”’

Gerhard Berger in the Zone

You can now hear a clip from one of the original interviews from Overdrive for the first time. Leading driver coach Enzo Mucci (www.theracedrivercoach.com) has put together the below video from my interview with Gerhard Berger about his stunning victory in the 1997 German Grand Prix.

The Austrian driver was returning from an enforced injury lay-off. He was in the middle of an argument with team boss Flavio Briatore that led him to quit the team. Then, three days before Hockenheim, his father died in a plane crash. Then he found the Zone. Big time...



Read Enzo Mucci's blog for drivers about the lessons from Gerhard Berger's finest hour...

Overdrive as a haiku

In the spirit of David Bader's 'One Hundred Great Books in Haiku', here's Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone in rather briefer form:

Out of his body,
Senna flew round Monaco.
He was not alone...

Overdrive available as an ebook

Five years after its original publication, we are thrilled to announce that Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone has now been published as an ebook for the first time.

The new ebook features interviews with all the greats of motor sport - from Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart through to Michael Schumacher and today's superstars Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton - about the surreal state of mind they reach when they're driving at the limit.

Now updated ahead of the 2015 F1 season, the ebook is available via the Amazon Kindle Store at just £1.99 in the UK, $2.99 in the US and €2.99 throughout Europe.

UK readers can order the kindle version of Overdrive here

Head strong not head first

In a week where Stirling Moss took a dig at the ‘mental’ side of women racers and we saw the car that will take Sébastien Loeb up the Pikes Peak hillclimb, time for a bit of perspective by someone who has been there and done that.

France’s Michèle Mouton won four world championship rallies and was robbed of the 1982 world title only by a late technical failure. Even with such a pedigree, as the odd woman out she had to put up with snide remarks throughout her career. By the 1985 Pikes Peak she had heard enough jibes about reverse parking…

‘Because they were so hard with me in the run-up to the event I decided to go for it,’ she says in the book Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone. ‘That sure gave me a lot of energy. At Pikes Peak you have a drop of 2000 metres if you go off the road. At one point you have four left-hand corners, all fast except the second, but I was so mad I just went flat out instead of lifting.

‘The car was pushing and sliding and I thought we’d go straight over the edge. I didn’t want to go off forwards so I pushed more to turn in so I would at least go off rear first.

'I pushed, I pushed, I pushed and the car stayed on the road. From that point instead of being afraid I kept going for it. At the next corner I pushed even further than I had in practice. And I won the event.

'It all shows the mental side is very important. It’s all up here in your head. It’s about motivation, determination and wanting something so much.’

Senna the harbour master

Triple world champion Nelson Piquet likened driving a Formula 1 car round Monaco to “flying a helicopter around your living room” - and it's now a quarter of a century since one of Piquet’s countrymen became the greatest indoor pilot of all.

It was on Saturday 14 May 1988 that Ayrton Senna went into overdrive, blitzing the F1 field in an era when qualifying really mattered. In a classic interview with Gerald Donaldson that featured in the Senna movie, he revealed: “I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”

Most professional racers can switch off their conscious mind – letting their autopilot control the minutiae of driving if they’re in a busy race. But Senna’s experience was something else altogether. This was not easing off but going beyond concentration to the other side. No wonder that as Senna recounted what happened he was shaking, his voice quavered and his eyes misted over – sure signs of his passion for any subject.

Hollywood’s modern classic The Matrix came out after Senna’s death but fans will recognise this kind of experience. “Detached from anything else”, he had unlocked an all-new level of hyper-ability that rendered Earthly pursuits easy. He described the sensation as “between two worlds”. It sounds fanciful, but this was no movie. It was very real and witnessed by millions around the world.

Of those, one had a clearer view of the magic than most. Switzerland’s Alain Menu, who went on to touring car glory, was competing in the F3 race that weekend so his pitpass let him stand on the inside of the chicane, looking back up to the tunnel exit. What came next remains etched into his memory, as I discovered two decades later during my research for Overdrive.

We were talking about Menu’s own career when, unprompted, his mind drifted back to that Saturday in 1988: “There weren’t many people around because it was a private area but I’m so glad I was there. Ayrton Senna was visibly braking eight metres later than anybody else but it was his car that was amazing. All the other cars were a bit unbalanced and you could hear them banging around under braking. For him, nothing. As he braked the whole car just shook. You could hear nothing except for a noise that sounded like phphphphph.”

Menu’s exclamation is reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter recalling his favourite meal in The Silence of the Lambs, but breathing out rather than in. Spine tingling? You bet: “It made an immediate impression on me,” he adds. “It gives me goose pimples to talk about it and I’m so glad I saw it. I’m sure people who didn’t see that lap would have heard what Ayrton said and thought, ‘He’s crazy.’

“If I hadn’t seen it and I’d heard what he said, I’d have said, ‘Okay, whatever, it was just a fantastic lap, that’s it.’ But something definitely happened that day and I believe it was special because I’ve never seen a racing car do this. Never, ever, ever. And I have no doubt it was the same the whole way round the lap.

“Ayrton was one and a half seconds quicker than team-mate Alain Prost and two and a half seconds clear of the next guy. Alain was a great driver but when he saw the lap times and the printouts he couldn’t have believed it because it was so far ahead of what he could do. I’m very down to Earth and I generally don’t believe in this kind of thing. In my own career I’ve had some very good qualifying sessions but never anything like that.

“When you are really at one with the car, things can look and feel easy and you do a fantastic lap because you never get out of shape. If that’s what you call ‘the Zone’, I’ve been there a few times. But I’ve never felt like that, where you almost forget what you’ve done. Later I heard Ayrton had to come into the pits because he was looking down on himself from above the car. That was all so hard to believe but now I believe it because I saw it and I heard it.”

Calm Lewis finds the Zone

The difference between Lewis Hamilton’s first world championship and his second could not have been more marked – and it’s no surprise that he enjoyed this year’s triumph so much more.

It’s all in the head: the 2008 finale at Interlagos was a struggle from start to the thrilling last-corner finish. That echoed his failure to convert a similar advantage the previous year, when a gearbox glitch put him to the back mid-race and he missed out by a point. That was all Lewis Mk I: the young charger who found himself at the very top of the world at his very first two attempts.

By contrast this year saw Lewis Mk II at his serene, majestic best. It hadn’t been like that all season – hence his regular public mood swings – or even all weekend. Indeed the night before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix he endured a relatively sleepless night as he played out every feasible outcome, good or bad.

But by the time his family surprised him at Sunday breakfast he says he was already ‘in the Zone’ and he wasn’t fazed at all. It all felt the most natural thing in the world.

Such was his calm heading into the race, he even felt slightly perturbed at his unusual state of mind at such a huge moment. Yet it served him well as he pulled off the start of his life and sauntered to a blissfully trouble-free victory as it was Rosberg who this time had to endure the last-race gremlins.

This is a mark of how far Lewis has come in his five years of increasing frustration and more downs than ups as he watched Sebastian Vettel ease into the distance as the apparently undisputed ‘driver of his generation’.

Lewis finally struck the gold he craved with this year’s Mercedes. Moreover, though 2014 was more of a struggle than expected due to Rosberg’s resilience, he was in the right state of mind at the exactly right time to bank it.

After the Abu Dhabi finale a tearful Lewis told the watching world how it felt like an ‘out-of-body experience’. Of course that echoes his great hero Ayrton Senna, whose similar experience in the car during qualifying for Monaco in 1988 is the inspiration for Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone.

Now Lewis is back on top of the world – and likely still to have the best car in 2015 – if he can now exploit this peace of mind there’s every chance he will take things to the next level. As he bids to match Senna with title number three, what price he’ll emulate his hero and report his next OBE from inside the car?

Belgian GP winner Daniel Ricciardo on the Zone

What does the Zone mean to you?
"It’s basically when you’re able to block everything else out around you, and not have any other outside thoughts interfering with your job. When you’re in the Zone you don’t think about anything else."

Are there different levels of it?
"When you perform absolutely at your best – well, this might vary with different drivers – but usually when I perform at my best I’m not thinking about what I’m doing on the weekend or anything, you’re just there in the moment. That’s my Zone…"

Is it pretty magical?
"Yeah, when you’re in it it’s pretty good. It’s usually only when you’re winning, I guess, because otherwise you’re not performing or something’s not happening."

In Formula 1 winning isn’t available to all. Unlike athletics you couldn’t go out and win in a Toro Rosso…
"Yeah, I guess. But with the categories I’ve experienced in the past few years I’ve at least always had the chance of winning. So it’s usually only been when I’ve won."

Does it come because of the result or does this feeling bring on the result?
"That feeling usually brings on the result, yes. I don’t know. Maybe some drivers get into it a bit deeper. I wouldn’t say I feel like another world – but it feels good…"

Safari so good

Sweden’s Björn Waldegård, who has passed away after a battle with cancer, was the winner of the inaugural World Rally Championship in 1979. But that was not (quite) his favourite memory from his illustrious sporting career.

I once had the good fortune to speak to the Swede about the greatest feeling he ever had in a rally car. It came as no surprise that he should choose one of his seven wins on African soil because there was something about the continent that brought out the very best in him.

‘When I won my first Safari Rally for Toyota in 1984 it just felt nothing could stop us,’ he told me. ‘Of course I had been involved in all the preparation for it so I knew everything about the state of the car and I knew exactly what strengths it would have. With all the testing I’d done it felt like I’d done all the work together with the team, which was more and more fuel for the win.

‘When I started the rally I knew we couldn’t have done anything more so that was a nice feeling. It was a feeling of supreme confidence that nothing could go wrong. And even when small things did go wrong they were sorted out in time anyway. So that was the rally where I had the most confidence and the feeling I could win it from the very start.

‘I was a world champion but this was a better feeling than to be a champion. Because to become a champion you compete over eight or ten rallies but this was a weekend of a pure fantastic feeling…’

Adrian Newey: the brains behind the Vettel’s titles

Now that Sebastian Vettel has completed his quest for a fourth successive world title, it is timely to remember it is not just racing drivers who can find the magical feeling of the Zone.

The main man responsible for putting the German at the pinnacle of world motor sport is the brain behind his car, Adrian Newey. When I spoke to the man behind more victories and championships than any driver I found that the moments of magic come to him too.

In Newey’s case rather than the sensation of flying on the track, they come more in the form of ‘flashes of inspiration’ after a long period of pondering over a problem. But the principle is the same: it's about letting go and handing over to the magic of the subconscious...

“You do get those light bulb moments,” says Newey. “I usually find it’s when I’ve had a problem – it can be a month old or it can be a day old – but it’s obviously been sundering away in the subconscious and then it suddenly pops out.

“I used to take notebooks with me to bed so I could jot down these thoughts. But to be perfectly honest I do that less and less: I usually find it just gives you a bad night’s sleep… So no, it tends to happen more in the shower – or quite often not at the place of work. I will be away from it all and doing something and then it just pops up.”

For Newey, who has been producing magic for close to three decades, these moments of lightning are instantly recognisable. But they don’t necessarily all lead to half a second of time on the car…

“You know when the light bulb pops up,” he confirms. “But having said that, what fascinates me is that only part of the challenge of motor racing is coming up with the ideas. You obviously have to have an idea to generate something. But you then have to be disciplined to make sure that idea stands up and makes the car go quicker.

“So when you have those light-bulb-in-the-shower type ideas, the success rate of those ending up on the car is, I’m guessing, 10 per cent. Not every single one is going to be a good one. The danger is that you get so enthusiastic about the idea, you’re not disciplined enough to make sure that it is actually a good one…”

The major rules shake-up coming for 2014 will give the rest of the field a chance to break this cycle of domination at last. But the rest should beware as it's when the cards are shuffled that Newey is at his most inventive. It's hard to bet against Newey and Vettel coming up trumps yet again.

Lotterer finds the Zone at Le Mans

Audi's Andre Lotterer has brought home the first ever hybrid car to win Le Mans after a faultless 24 hours in partnership with Benoit Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler.

It is the second straight year that Lotterer - who also took pole position - has brought home the winning car. But this year was a more straightforward affair than last year's 13-second margin over the leading Peugeot.

‘You play with the limit and then this new limit becomes normal,’ Lotterer later told me. ‘That’s where you feel in a different world. You’re just flying and you’re thinking of doing even more. There are situations which you can only master because you don’t think and it’s so natural.

‘I’ve had some races like that in Japan when I was fighting for the championship and things happened the way they were supposed to but I definitely got that feeling at Le Mans last year. That’s because I didn’t think of anything else. I was driving as fast as possible and I was in the flow and everything. I didn’t try to force anything. It was the most natural thing.’

Last year’s winning trio did not have it all their own way, having to contend with fun and games last year from Anthony Davidson’s Peugeot, who was several laps back but still trying to upset the German and hand the advantage to his sister car. Even that didn’t take Lotterer out of the Zone, however.

‘I treated them as a normal competitor that was maybe in front of me and that I had to overtake,’ adds Lotterer. ‘I didn’t think they were one lap behind and what they were doing was unfair. I knew it was just a waste of energy if I thought they’re not respecting the blue flags. So I just tried to pass them as well as I could. Then finally when we crossed the line all the pressure drops and you just start to enjoy the moment.’

This year Davidson provided the race's most dramatic moment, suffering a horrific crash in the new Toyota hybrid and breaking two vertebrae. Another racer who features in Overdrive, Davidson faces three months of recovery and we wish him all the best.

You can win 'em all...

The United States of America hosted two of motor sport’s greatest winners yesterday: while Sebastian Vettel was racking up an unprecedented eighth successive F1 win of 2013, Nascar saw its own winning machine Jimmie Johnson return to the top for his sixth Sprint Car title.

By Johnson’s standards he has undergone a famine of late – after successive titles from 2006 to 2010 he has seen glory elude him twice in a row. But now he’s back, sealing the championship with a ride to ninth place at Homestead.

It may seem fairer to share out the spoils a bit more but there’s a problem with greats like Vettel and Johnson: the more you win, the more it helps you keep winning.

‘Athletes aim for the Zone in different sports,’ Johnson told me in Overdrive. ‘But in ours it’s not just the mind that needs to be right, the equipment needs to be right. The driver, team and engineers all perfect the car and when it all comes together it works and you’re in the Zone.

‘But the car’s not always going to be perfect. You have circuits where it’s always challenging and you are never comfortable. So for me it’s more about being at one with myself.

‘As a new driver you’re thinking, “Here’s my braking zone, here’s my apex.” With experience you’re not thinking about that, you’re just focused in on what you’re going to do. When you’re at the top of your game, you’re just trying to get deeper and deeper into the rhythm of the track. That comes with experience.

‘No one can operate to their best when they’re stressed out. By my second championship year I knew what to expect. I knew the games my mind was going to play. I knew the fear, the worry and everything that would come – and once it started coming I had it.

‘I said, “I’m just not going to listen to it. All I’m going to do is drive that car.” I just tried to put it out of my mind and, while it didn’t go away, it worked well – better than the first year anyway.

‘You’re not concerned about the title or other people. You’re just thinking about putting the car where you want. When you have that ability you can place the car wherever you want, however you want. It’s second nature.’

Formula 1 has a light at the end of the tunnel with its major rules shake-up next year: the rest now have a chance to get a jump on Red Bull and Vettel at last. But in many ways the damage is done: four championships down the line, he is now a bona fide winner. Even if they manage to peg him back for a season or two, don’t imagine he’ll lie down forever…

Snapshot of a sporting giant

Following today’s sad news about the loss of rugby legend Jonah Lomu, I wanted to share a quick snapshot of this sporting giant.

During the All Blacks rugby tour of Britain in 2002, Lomu was the only big name who came on the trip. And what pressure he was under. Not only was he already suffering with his kidney illness, coach John Mitchell said it was long overdue that he started to show some form.

Did Lomu let the heat get to him? Well, when New Zealand prepared for their test with England at Richmond rugby ground a few days before the game, it had been pre-publicised and the stands were packed with screaming schoolkids. After a full training session, the players were wheeled out for an autograph session. Lomu, being the undoubted star, was swamped.

I'd read that Lomu had always said he was happy to sign autographs, as he wanted to give something back for all he had, so I decided to follow him and just watch. Lomu stayed, and stayed, and stayed. He was out there for a full hour, in which time I estimate he must have signed his name close to a thousand times. All of it with a smile on his face.

An announcement came over the tannoy, saying the session was over, as the players had to move on. Most stars would take that as a gilt-edged chance to evacuate the scene. But not Lomu. He sped up. He kept signing, and signing, edging his way back towards the now pitch-dark players' tunnel. Even as the doors closed around him, the requests kept coming, and he did not let anyone down.

He appeared out of the other side of the clubhouse for the five-yard journey to the team bus, and there was another gauntlet of shirts, programmes and balls to run. All his team-mates were sitting waiting for him on the steadily overheating bus, but they must be used to it. Lomu just kept at it. No wonder his right arm is so bloody big.

Finally on the bus, he slumped down into his seat at the back, exhausted. But he kept waving until the bus was out of sight, and even managed to raise a smile when a couple of kids jumped up and smacked the window his head was leaning on - millimetres from his ear - as the bus finally made it onto the A316.

Now you may think this is par for the course. You're famous, deal with it. But I've watched a lot of big names sign autographs. If there's a small group, they normally get through them. But there comes a point where the number of people lining up, shoving photographs in your face becomes way too much. At that point it's normally a question of dealing with a handful of the nearest ones, then it's 'adios'.

At one point during the melee, I asked Lomu where his patience came from. He thought for a while, and replied, "Mum". It takes a big guy to give an answer like that in front of a crowd.

But then Lomu was always one of the best examples world sport has of a superhuman - a giant in every sense.

Keep up with the Hamiltons

UK viewers recently had a chance to see Nicolas Hamilton in action with an inspiring programme following his efforts to start a racing career.

Brother of a certain Lewis, Nic suffers from cerebral palsy but he’s not about to let a trifling detail like that get in the way of his driving ambition. After all, he has long been a serious gamer and he has certainly grown up in the right environment to understand the world of racing.

Nic insists he is in no position to offer advice to offer his world champion sibling, but his influence on Lewis has already been considerable. So it’s no surprise that even at this early stage of his own career he already has his head screwed on, as I found when I caught up with him at last year’s British Grand Prix.

“Racing is all about getting your mind in the right place,” says Nic. “Especially when you first get into the car, mentally it’s very important to be prepared for it. You must really focus on what you need to do and get your head in the Zone.

“I’m very hard on myself but if I put too much pressure on myself to try and get pole and it doesn’t happen, it will affect my head. Still, as I’m getting more confident I’m getting more speed and pace, mainly in the races. It’s just about nailing every corner, nailing all the apexes and catching the guy ahead.

“When it works out it’s the best feeling. It gives you a boost in confidence to push on and show yourself you can actually do it. But the mind’s a powerful thing. If your mind’s not set and it’s not in the right place then it’s just not going to happen.”

Alonso finds the Zone

Fernando Alonso produced a sensational and serene drive to win a wild, incident-packed European Grand Prix from 11th on the Valencia grid.

No wonder Alonso was lost for words to describe his feelings afterwards. But he compared it to his first win on home ground for Renault in 2006 before describing this win as the best and most emotional of his career.

The Spaniard was joined by fellow world champions Kimi Raikkonen and the resurgent Michael Schumacher on the podium after the Spanish venue, normally good value for an afternoon snooze, turned into a demolition derby.

In Overdrive Alonso goes into detail about what it feels like to find the Zone: \"You arrive at a point where you feel you're not in a Formula 1 car but a Scalextric. Winning a world championship leads to recognition and is good for self-confidence but inside your heart and your mind this feeling is better."

Of course it does cap it off nicely when a trip to the Zone leads to a trip to the top of the podium...

How Grosjean found his Mojo

Romain Grosjean may have missed out on becoming the eighth winner in eight grands prix in 2012 but his stunning performance in the European Grand Prix at Valencia shows his redemption is complete - exactly a year after many reckoned the bad-old-Romain was back.

Having once developed a reputation of panicking in tight situations, his rivals and critics were quick to pounce when Grosjean triggered a first-lap crash at the 2011 Valencia GP2 sprint race after his victory the previous day. But it actually helped spark a turnaround in his approach. He went on to take five wins and five more podiums en route to the title. Now he has maintained that progress into F1.

“After Valencia I said, ‘Okay, from now on I need to finish both races,’” adds Grosjean. “From this race on I went on to have some really good races. I also won races in GP2 the first time round but it was in a different way. Back then I was going from pole position and disappearing. Maybe I was less good when it was a bit difficult, when the car was not there or when I had to wait a little bit.

“That whole first experience has helped me to be much more patient: to analyse the situation much more, and to make the best of the car I have. You know that you are not going to have the best one every time so you have to make do with it and try to get the best out of it you can – even by changing your style – to get to the end.”

Grosjean claims he isn’t into visualisation but he has developed the ability to access the right mental state to perform at the limit and find the Zone.

“I have my own trick,” he says. “I’ve always done some mental things and I do it much more now because I know myself a bit better. I know what I need before I jump into the car, and which mood I need to be in. If I’m leading a race I just try to make it happen. I’m just focused on driving and I don’t like to think about anything else. When I’m at the limit I focus twice as hard on not making any mistakes.”

The Power of Loeb

While Sebastian Vettel shows signs of reaching a similar level, it is hard to present a serious case for anyone other than his near-namesake Sébastien Loeb as the world’s greatest driver.

Loeb sealed a stunning 8th consecutive World Rally Championship today when the only man who could deny him the title, Mikko Hirvonen, crashed out of Rally GB. Such an achievement may draw yawns from anyone hoping for a title fight but it remains awe-inspiring.

Needless to say, Loeb is a regular in the Zone. As he says in Overdrive: “When you are really feeling good in the car it’s like you are a part of the car and the car is a part of your body. When it’s like this you really feel confident. There are times when you are on the limit and things go so well it feels like you can do anything and it will pay off...”

Rare are those who can keep finding that limit over such a huge length of time. But this year Loeb finally faced a genuine challenge from within his own team courtesy of fellow countryman Sébastien Ogier (what on Earth do they put in the milk of babies called Seb?)

It was snuffed out late on by a Citroën team that has an undying debt to its leading Sébastien but maybe the signs are there that he is finally approaching his limit too. After all, even the greatest champions meet their nemesis in the end. For now, the achievements of this truest of motor sport 'greats' should be savoured.

The present of racing

The Formula 1 circus arrives for this weekend’s inaugural Indian Grand Prix in inevitably pensive mood following a tragic week in motor sport. After the fates that befell Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli, the world’s race fans will be praying there is no truth to the old French saying: ‘Jamais deux sans trois’.

But the racers themselves won’t even give it a second thought, let alone a third. One thing that never changes is that drivers like to talk about the prospect of getting hurt in their car about as much as the rest of us like to talk about our chances of getting run over by a bus – and they consider the odds about the same.

Michael Schumacher has always been typically pragmatic on the subject – and he became the spokesman again today. “While we drive, we don’t think we are putting ourselves in danger,” he said. “When we take the cars to the limit, that's what we feel comfortable with. Therefore our ambition is always to take the cars to the limit and it will be the same here this weekend.

“To have total safety is absolutely impossible to call, in any part of life. Yes, there is more risk involved in motor sport and yes, F1 is probably the quickest motor racing in the world. At the same time, safety has been hugely improved. If you look at a new project such as this track, there are lots of huge run-off areas and it certainly has a very high standard of safety. If on top something happens then that's what I would call fate and fate is something we all have to face sooner or later.

“I'm certainly very touched by what has happened to both the drivers that we have lost but unfortunately you have to say that's life.”

He’s right. Indeed, the main life lesson race fans can take from the past fortnight is one that features in the great spiritual traditions of F1's home this week. We all waste so much energy focusing both on the past and a future that may or may not await us, when the answer is to live fully in the present.

Racing drivers do that naturally – at 200mph there is no room for anything other than the ‘here and now’. That, surely, is why they love the sport to death.

Mapping Senna’s journey to God

Condensing any life into less than the time of a grand prix is a tough ask, but especially a life of as many layers as Ayrton Senna’s. Quite apart from his sheer speed and passion for racing, there’s his spirituality, his humanity, his intelligence, his dignity, his disdain for authority and his abundant, overflowing charisma. No wonder the first cut of new movie Senna was seven hours long.

Incredibly director Asif Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey have pulled it off but it has taken me two screenings in their company to grasp just how much they have squeezed in. My first audience also included Professor Sid Watkins, Terry Fullerton and Jackie Stewart: rather like watching Star Wars alongside George Lucas, Obi-Wan Kenobi et al.

As for ‘the Force’, substitute ‘the Zone’. Gerald Donaldson’s famous interview about Senna’s 1988 epiphany – the inspiration for Overdrive – makes the cut, overlaid on in-car action of him owning the Monaco streets.

“When we started out there were a few things that the film – for all its deletions – had to include and that lap, for me, was foremost,” Pandey told me. “We knew it would have huge power on a big screen with surround sound. But what makes it work are Senna’s own words about ‘that place’ he reaches when he touches perfection. When I listened to those words, it’s no exaggeration to say I had goosebumps throughout. That is what the film is all about: man touching perfection within himself, on his own terms. Walking on still water.”

After walking on water at the harbour Senna went on to tame the Zone, regularly returning to “that place”. But this mystical area of ability is not limited to the track and when I pushed, Pandey admitted even he had found hints of it during seven long years of work on the movie.

“When we were working on the very first outline the story wasn’t working out,” says Pandey. “Then I was on a treadmill in the gym, which had a rhythm to it. I had stopped thinking about the film when suddenly: bang. It just hit me. Why does he drive? He drives to be with God. That was it. That was the ‘big bang’ moment for me. I realised what the film was really going to be about: a man’s journey to God.”

It’s not an easy voyage, of course, dominated by the rivalry with Alain Prost. Race fans know the twists and turns of the plot along with its desperate dénouement. But it’s wonderful to be transported back to understanding why we all share this knowledge, mostly through the words of the man himself. Senna’s magnetism and spirit sparkles from every shot en route to this journey’s inevitable terminus.

Senna’s other one-time nemesis Nelson Piquet provides light relief in the previously unseen footage of driver briefings. Before the 1990 Japanese GP he chides the powers-that-be for the previous year’s “f***-up” that saw his fellow countryman’s title hopes dashed for cutting the chicane after he was taken out by Prost. It’s far more dangerous to turn round and head in the opposite direction to speeding F1 cars, says Piquet. McLaren’s Ron Dennis gleefully joins in, asking if all the drivers agree. They do. But it’s too much for Senna, who walks out declaring: “I can’t stand it… Last year was really bad for me.”

After a fruitless fight to have pole position switched from the dirty side of the grid comes the first corner retribution which indelibly stained Senna’s reputation to all but his die-hard fans. Those included my teenage self, who would bore sceptical peers with tales of his heroic one-man fight against Jean-Marie Balestre’s Machiavellian power complex. This video evidence is welcome, but sadly a bit late for my cause. The two decades since have finally mellowed my attitude as the interview below about Prost’s own Monaco peak experience shows.

On questions of bias, Kapadia says: “The rivalry is still going. French journalists will never agree with Brazilian journalists about what happened. But the clue is in the title. For a movie you have to take a view. To be passionate you’ve got to go with the story you’re telling. That was his story. I wasn’t the world’s greatest Senna fan so I started quite impartial. But having done as much research as we’ve done, having spoken to everyone and seen everything, I think we’ve been quite straight with what we’re showing and what was actually going on.”

There’s plenty of joy too – and of all the great Senna moments that ensue, both Pandey and Kapadia’s favourite is his long-awaited first Brazilian Grand Prix win in 1991. He finished the race manhandling a car with only sixth gear working and the bloodcurdling screams on the radio as he crossed the line trounce recent imitations. On the podium his pain is plain and his struggle to lift his trophy is a mark of the determination that sets apart the truly great.

Behind it all is a beautiful score by Antonio Pinto, who aptly also wrote the music for City of God, set in the favelas of Brazil for which Senna felt so much affinity. The film touches on the subject of poverty but his actions were never for the benefit of the cameras – and stories of unseen generosity are still being uncovered. What does shine through is the mutual love between Senna and his home people.

The compassion he showed for his fellow drivers in accidents is amply illustrated by footage of his reaction to Martin Donnelly at Jerez and – over the credits – his run across a live track of F1 cars to check the stricken Erik Comas at Spa. We also see him wince at the coverage of Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal accident before he again went to check the scene for himself on the eve of his own demise. But then this was a man with a genuine thirst for knowledge and understanding of all kinds.

That approach is echoed by director Kapadia: “For me film-making is a learning process,” he says. “With each movie I normally start knowing very little. By the end of it I know a lot. If there’s a spiritual element it’s great but you can never guarantee that. I come from a religious background so that part of making the story doesn’t scare me off. It’s just another layer. But it was a big part of Senna’s life.”

All the more poignant given what was to come next, Senna describes his own daily craving for learning new things on and off track, recognising his career had dominated the “first half” of his life: “Of course I shall have a lot more to learn as a man than as a racing driver because my life will hopefully go on for a long time. There’s a lot still to do in life. Happiness will come when I feel complete as a whole, which I definitely don’t feel today.”

As Imola unfolds, tears are inevitable as we wonder just how much he could have gone to achieve. A family, certainly, but perhaps the real tragedy was for the rest of us. Senna had the charisma to take politics by the scruff of its neck. Brazil lost a great leader.

The movie is topped and tailed by a moment cinema fans will recognise as purest ‘Rosebud’ involving one of the figures mentioned above. I won’t blow the ending by revealing which, but suffice to say you leave with a spring in your step.

‘Never meet your heroes,’ they say. Next up must come ‘never watch a movie about them,’ but not in this case. I admit my heart sank years ago at reports that Antonio Banderas was to play Senna in a biopic. Great actor as he is, why make fiction out of a non-fiction story that tops it? Now, thanks to Kapadia and Pandey’s Senna, my heart is soaring again.

Vettel gets his confidence back

Racing drivers really don't look or sound like they ever revel in self-doubt. Rightly so, because if they did it would be the end of their career. But racing is all about feel and 'confidence' in how you are working in combination with the four pieces of black stuff keeping you on the ground.

Sebastian Vettel tries to stay chirpy but his poker face is not yet the finished article. He was stung by what happened at his home grand prix and he was determined to put it right. That was the reason why the Red Bull mechanics broke their curfew to work through the night and overhaul the car belonging to the runaway championship leader.

Lo and behold, this afternoon he strung together a magical lap to claim yet another pole position. Yawn? Hardly. Mark Webber could not understand the gap to his team-mate - and he may have good reason to doubt if such extreme measures would have been taken on his behalf. But when Vettel looks back over his increasingly large selection of pole positions this will be right up there.

In words that will be ominous to those hoping for a miraculous comeback in 2011 he declared: "I felt much more comfortable in the car. I've got my confidence back.

"Finally overnight I think we released the knot and it was much better today. Then you gain the confidence back on top and you just go faster everywhere. Straightaway I noticed the difference and I was happier. If you are happier it is usually because you think the car is better and if you feel confident then you are also able to get more out of yourself. You are more consistent. It is not just one particular place where you find the time, it is just all around the lap a little bit everywhere. So I think that is a good sign and very important for tomorrow's race."

Senna knew winning isn't everything

Truly great drivers, it is said, have spare mental capacity. The concentration they need to find the limit is not all-consuming and they have brainpower left to devise tactics or pester the pit wall for information about action elsewhere. Such ability will be crucial for the 2010 title challengers in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

But Ayrton Senna took it a step further. Away from the track he found yet more cerebral volume available - so he filled it with his passion for the wider world and despair at its injustices.

To see my new column visit http://www.grandprix.com/ft/ft22800.html

Overdrive makes the top ten of 2010

British newspaper The Daily Telegraph (Dec 10) has listed Overdrive among its top ten sports books of 2010.

Reviewer Simon Briggs described Overdrive as 'eccentric but stimulating' while declaring it the 'Best Metaphysical Quest' of the sports books released this year. Okay, so admittedly there may not have been much competition for that particular category but we'll take it, thanks...

 
 

 
 
 
     
       
     
 
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