A Spotlight on Mental Health in F1
Almost five months ago, I made my first draft for this post after interviewing F1 journalist and presenter Will Buxton. I kept pushing it aside, postponing, editing through the 2,500 words of quotes I had on the topic, scrapping the work that I had done in pursuit of something better. Mental health is a highly sensitive issue, of course, and I wanted to make sure that the way I portrayed it here in F1 was not only accurate but impactful. I decided to restart this piece after seeing a tweet from Will, which read;
I hope this post is all that it should be. Enjoy and a massive thank you to Rachel Brookes, Louise Goodman, and Will who volunteered their time to talk about this important topic.
Growing up with the aspiration of being a Formula 1 driver isn’t altogether uncommon, but those who commit to the long hours and sacrifices that come with karting professionally (the starting point for most racers) know better than anyone how tough it is. You miss out on lots of childhood experiences, maybe even being at school. Most Formula 1 drivers were put into homeschooling after the age of ten, eleven, twelve. It must be tremendously hard to be so focused on the dream of becoming an F1 driver when all the odds are against you. Will spoke to that point.
“Imagine you’ve been go-karting since the age of 6. Racing is all you know. And then you leave your family, your home, to come to Europe at age 12,13, 14, maybe. You’ve got to live on your own, away from your family, your friends, and grow up in that environment. You’ve got to grow up really fast. Not going to high school, it’s all homeschooling. Racing drivers grow up in a world of massive pressure. It’s hard on them.”
When rising through the ranks of motorsport, drivers must be driven, ruthless. If we look at F1 as the top of the motor racing pyramid, it gets narrower and narrower. Seats are taken, sponsors are given, and your elbows are constantly out. You have to believe you’re the best, that you of all people have the right to be out there, that you are World Champion material. It’s a challenging environment, especially for such young kids. But like Will said, sadly, in racing culture, you’ve got to grow up fast.
Motorsport is dangerous, and that puts a colossal amount of pressure on the drivers too. These drivers constantly face the risk of death or serious injury. Most professional racers have known people who have either passed away or been injured to the point of not being able to drive again. They’ve then had to get straight into their cars and drive on the absolute edge. That has to cause a great amount of mental strain. What I’m thinking of is Pierre Gasly, who lost his friend Anthoine Hubert, on the same weekend he was demoted from Red Bull to Alpha Tauri (then Toro Rosso). He raced the very day after Hubert’s accident. The mental capacity required to do that is mind-boggling and just not normal.
As well as the mental and physical pressures of working your way up the pyramid of motorsport, series by series, it’s also extremely financially taxing. Knowing your parents or guardians are investing so much money into your future, into your talent and abilities could really damage your mental health. And the costs of racing are startling – even if you’re aware of motor racing’s reputation as a sport synonymous with wealth and fame. A 2018 BBC Formula 1 article  read;
“Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff says: “If somebody is very talented, you probably need to spend 1m euros (around £880,000) in karting through junior, senior and international races.”
After that there’s spending millions in Formula Renault, GP3 and GP2, and then F3.
“You are on the verge of getting into Formula 1 but you are not in there,” he says. “You need another 2-3m euros to get the drive. So you are talking about 7-8m euros… let’s call it 8m, (£7m).” “
That is immense and a burden that has increased over time. Stories like Lewis Hamilton’s aren’t as common anymore – racers making it all the way to the top without millionaire/billionaire parents. To put those £7m in perspective, to be in the infamous ‘Top 1%’ of wealthiest people in the UK, you would need to have a net worth of £1.35m, so this is an astronomical sum to try and find to invest.
It makes it so difficult for young talent to emerge. Yet isn’t the point of Formula 1 to have the best racing drivers in the world in the fastest cars, competing against each other? How can we think they are the best when so few people can even afford to get their child through karting?
When I interviewed Louise Goodman, ITV BTCC and F1 presenter, she described another pressure racers face – that of visibility.
“F1 drivers are a lot more visible [than drivers in lower formulae]. With that visibility comes the added pressure from the public eye, the added pressure from sponsors and your team – justifiably so, it’s part of the job of a modern-day F1 driver. . . As it is for any world-renowned sports person, they know it comes with the job. That doesn’t make it easy for them, though.”
With a quick YouTube search, I can find a video of Lewis Hamilton karting in ‘98 (when he was just 13) and Max Verstappen in ‘09 (when he was only 11). Attention is on drivers from an early age. Cameras filming them, their best and worst moments on track, and even off track, from an age younger than my own. It’s something I can’t even comprehend.
Once drivers make it to Formula 1, the pressure is worse than ever. So is all the envy and jealousy directed at them. Some people look at the lives of these F1 drivers and think they couldn’t possibly have any “real” worries.
When speaking to Will, he said, “. . .to understand anybody, you have to walk a mile in their own shoes. No one’s going to walk a mile in an F1 driver’s shoes. They’re going to see the house in Monaco, they’re going to see racing fast cars, traveling the world, and think that it’s all perfect. They’re just humans beneath those helmets and fire suits, they’re just flesh and bone. They’re just people. We stellify them and put them on a pedestal as being these incredible gladiators who don’t feel things, who just get in a car and drive fast. . . we should never lose sight that behind the helmet and under the visor, they are just people.”
Will’s right, in that from the outside, the lifestyle seems lavish and glamourous. But beneath that? These drivers are humans, just like you and me.
But F1 is about more than just the drivers. Each race team has hundreds (for some even thousands) of people who dedicate their lives to the sport, too. F1 is demanding for them as well, especially for those who travel as part of the race team. Unfortunately, they don’t get to visit their friends, families, or homes much due to their hectic schedules. Rachel Brookes, Sky F1 presenter and commentator, covered the issue well in our interview.
“I’m lucky in that I think I’m only doing 16-17 races of 23, this year, which is definitely manageable. I’d done the full year before in 2016, I did all 21 races. That was a lot, but, you know, I managed it. I think we’re [the Sky F1 crew] already there from say, Wednesday to Sunday. We’re quite lucky if it’s a European race to be flying in on a Wednesday and flying back on a Sunday night straight from the race.
“For the teams it’s not the same, they might be there from Monday to Monday. I think that’s a heck of a lot to ask of people. This year it’s maybe 25 full weeks plus testing. That’s a huge amount of time to be away from home and away from families. I don’t know how they do it. I think some teams have brought in a rotation system this year, which I’ve noticed, to help their staff. I think 23 races is probably the absolute maximum before you have to start having two race teams in order to keep people happy and healthy. As well as working at their best, which is what you want from them.”
Rachel speaks to the truth: F1 employees who travel to each race and testing are abroad for roughly half a year. It’s difficult. With next season containing a record-breaking 23 races, I can’t see how it’s going to get better, unless F1, its teams, and the employers of the sport make an active effort to prioritise their employees’ mental health.
Every job has its own set of pressures and F1 is no exception. But the immense commitment that is required by those involved at this pinnacle of motorsport, engineering, broadcasting, and so many other disciplines, and the magnifying glass that they operate under, really make it a special challenge. Whether you’re a press officer, competing to be the first to turn in your race report; a member of the pit crew or race strategy team with your team’s race fate in your hands; an engineer or mechanic with the drivers’ safety in your hands; or the driver itself, hoping to succeed in F1 but also knowing the financial and physical risks involved – these pressures should be acknowledged, understood, and mediated.
F1 must take steps to make motorsport a better environment to voice those struggles and have them listened to and acted upon – instead of being dismissed as a weakness.
Of the many posts I’ve written for On The Pit Wall, this has been the most challenging by a mile. Mental health is something everyone struggles with, but it’s a topic that carries a lot of stigma. Approaching this post made me ask myself questions like “how would I feel if. . .?”, especially to try and wrap my head around the upbringing that racing drivers have – one with which I have little in common. It opened my eyes to the many pressures of working in F1. It encouraged me to think in more detail about the effects of such a high-pressure environment. So, while this piece was incredibly difficult to write, it’s one I’m very proud of. Because it caused me to step back and think about what it would be like to be in somebody else’s shoes.
Thank you again to Will, Louise, and Rachel! Another thank you to everyone who took the time to read this post – it means a lot to me. Be sure to support On The Pit Wall by following @otpwblog on Instagram!
Cover Image From: F1 eyeing 24-race calendars in future says Carey (grandprix.com)