Mind you; it’s not all down to sports, as other professions have a similar risk. Think about deep sea diving professionals, skydivers, fighter pilots, commodities and forex trading and, of course, watching a good horror movie.
So, What Is Adrenaline?
Adrenaline is a natural body chemical secreted by the adrenal medulla in response to stress or fear, where it then stimulates an autonomic response, known as ‘flight or fright’. The stress it responds to was initially a life-threatening event, like a mammoth running you down! It’s not often we get to see mammoths in the streets these days, but at a guess, a surfer encountering a great white will know what is being explained. In fact, most of us can identify with the experience; the near miss in the car or an unexpected noise can trigger an immediate response.
The process of adrenaline release
The adrenaline rush that is talked about is how they describe the feeling of excitement, stimulation and the increase in physical abilities that come from a perceived stress situation. The need to release adrenaline or epinephrine is to prepare the body to either flee the perceived risk or fight it. To do so, the body goes through physical changes. Blood is pumped harder to muscles and the brain and your body will produce sugar for extra fuel. Eyesight sharpens, hearing is sensitised and thought processes quicken. This happens so fast that the first you may know of it is the ‘rush’ you feel.
Increased heart rate
Decreased ability to feel pain
Increased strength and performance
Feeling jittery or nervous
How we experience the ‘rush’
Today, stress events that trigger adrenaline have as much to do with perceived risk as with real-life events. Take the psychology of a forex trader. They need to keep calm and make logical decisions. However, in this liquid and volatile market decisions sometimes have to be made fast or risk losing a lot of money. Adrenaline kicks in when encountering these situations, but depending on the experience and personality of the trader, it can be a positive or a negative response.
The same can be said for the F1 drivers; these drivers are not experiencing normal driving conditions. They are functioning in a focused, fast and potentially dangerous activity that is far removed from day to day driving. The driving they undertake would create a terrifying white-knuckle experience for the rest of us, where our adrenaline spikes would more than likely hinder rather than assist us.
Prolonged production of adrenaline can start to harm the body. First off, it’s tiring using all that energy running in top gear. Then the converse begins to happen, the adrenaline low kicks in with tiredness, poor decision-making skills, slower responses to stimuli and raised anxiety levels. Not what you want your F1 driver to be experiencing.
So, how do people control the adrenaline rush in such a high-risk sport? Skill and experience count towards the control. The more a person experiences a fear-inducing event the amygdala, the fear centre shrinks producing less of the fear hormone and subsequently less adrenaline.
While drivers talk about the adrenaline highs in a race, these are not the adrenaline rush or spikes that fear induces, but a result of managing their responses due to their acquired skills and experiences.
It’s all about perception
Some drivers have been known to attribute their bad behaviour to their adrenaline ‘high’, as did Haas F1 Team driver Romain Grosjean when he ranted at rival Marcus Ericsson following an incident at the 2016 F1 Chinese Grand Prix. Others attribute their success to it, like Sebastian Vettel at the 2018 British Grand Prix, where he raced to a superb victory over rival Lewis Hamilton. Vettel, suffering from a neck injury, did not think he would even qualify but says adrenaline got him over the line.
To answer the question does adrenaline give F1 drivers an edge? The answer is yes, but not an adrenaline rush. Through training, management and skill the drivers utilise their body’s response to adrenaline to provide the impetus for successful racing.