Mark Wil­liams


The ex-lola and Mclaren en­gi­neer on the cor­re­la­tion be­tween sleep and lap time

How many times have you thought that sleep­ing for around one third of your life, eight hours per day, is such a waste of op­por­tu­nity?

That was be­fore you ma­tured and un­der­stood the huge range of ben­e­fits that sleep brings. How many times have you gone to sleep with an un­solved prob­lem, only to wake up the next morn­ing with the so­lu­tion in your head? Con­sider how re­freshed you feel after a full eight or nine hours’ sleep as op­posed to re­quir­ing reg­u­lar in­fu­sions of caf­feine after an all-too-short night.

Yet, in spite of all this per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, we still be­lieve that a race week­end is a great op­por­tu­nity to pull a few all-nighters.

You are prob­a­bly won­der­ing why this piece should ap­pear in the En­gi­neer­ing sec­tion of the mag­a­zine and what has in­spired me to write it.

Firstly, I be­lieve it to be true: sleep does make faster cars. And se­condly, some tar­geted mar­ket­ing by Au­di­ble got me to read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. I’ve now learned that all an­i­mals that live more than a few days sleep, and that if you don’t sleep you will die. Sleep helps you con­sol­i­date your learn­ing and hone your mo­tor skills; it washes your brain of all the de­tri­tus pro­duced by the day’s think­ing… the list goes on and on.

So send­ing your driver back to the ho­tel early for a good night’s sleep rather than por­ing through data for hours on end at the cir­cuit just might win you a few more places on the grid the next day.

It al­ways did when­ever I en­gi­neered Mika Hakki­nen, and he knew it. He would si­dle up with that cheeky grin on his face and say, ‘Do you still need me here?’. ‘Of course not, Mika, time you went home, I’ll sort ev­ery­thing, see you to­mor­row’, would be my re­ply. I now won­der, when the sleep­ing driver’s brain re­plays vir­tual laps, do they ever crash? If so, it’s a good job your mus­cles are made in­ac­tive dur­ing REM sleep. After the Aus­tralian Grand Prix in 1999, Ron Den­nis was giv­ing his usual post-race up­date to the fac­tory. The week­end hadn’t gone well. The me­chan­ics had worked through the night pre-race. Ev­ery­one was ex­hausted and some­one sent the car to the grid with­out un­plug­ging the um­bil­i­cal, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions ca­ble that’s plugged into the car when­ever it’s in the garage. The car pulled the over­head power and light as­sem­bly and most of the garage with it. Even Ron was try­ing to stop the whole garage from crash­ing to the ground. He vowed he would never let that hap­pen again. All-nighters were to be con­signed to the his­tory books. Well, I think that pol­icy lasted about two weeks. This was the pe­riod of cars re­quir­ing more hours of main­te­nance than they ran for on the track. I was with the MP4/13 for its pre-sea­son test pro­gramme in 1998. The cov­ers never went on the cars be­fore 0300 and that would be an early night. Then you had a 40-minute drive to the ho­tel to grab a few pre­cious hours of sleep be­fore re­turn­ing to the cir­cuit for an en­gine fire-up at 0800. Clearly we were short on man­power, but get­ting more me­chan­ics was an up­hill strug­gle. After a year of this, Dave Ryan fi­nally agreed to take on one more me­chanic per car, and as each year passed we got an­other me­chanic. After four years we fi­nally got back to the ho­tel be­fore mid­night. In­ter­est­ingly, I’ve now learned that, while we were still at the cir­cuit at two in the morn­ing hav­ing left the ho­tel at seven the pre­vi­ous morn­ing, our brains were in the same state as some­one at the UK le­gal limit of al­co­hol for driv­ing,

“A good night’s sleep just might win you a few more places on the grid the next day”

80mg/100ml. Now that’s a scary thought.

I re­mem­ber my first day at Lola for two rea­sons. The first thing I was asked to draw was a floor stay. I was puz­zled as I couldn’t un­der­stand why it hadn’t been de­tailed from the de­sign scheme, the mas­ter draw­ing of the whole car. That was my in­tro­duc­tion to Lola’s chalk-on-the-floor ap­proach to de­sign. That had to change.

Se­condly, and most sig­nif­i­cantly here, at 1800 a huge guy called Bernie came in the draw­ing of­fice and threw us out. ‘What’s hap­pen­ing?’ I asked. ‘Oh, that’s Bernie, he locks up and sets the alarm ev­ery evening,’ was the an­swer.

That was it. At 1801 I was in the car park head­ing back to my digs.

A few years later we all got keys and could lock up and set the alarm. But were we more pro­duc­tive? I’m not so sure. If you know you have to fin­ish by a cer­tain time it does fo­cus the mind. There’s no chit-chat, it’s all work, you press on. Then you go home for some well-earned r’n’r and, above all, a good night’s sleep, which then im­proves the fol­low­ing day’s pro­duc­tiv­ity.

The chal­lenge is avoid­ing the neg­a­tive spi­ral where you get be­hind, work later, be­come less pro­duc­tive as a re­sult and need to work later…

I would of­ten try to get ahead by start­ing a new de­sign scheme be­fore leav­ing the of­fice for the day (read evening) – a clean sheet of pa­per to which I would add a few cen­tre­lines so I could hit the ground run­ning the next morn­ing. The next morn­ing, the first thing I would do is rub out those lines. So Bernie ac­tu­ally did us and the com­pany a big favour by kick­ing us out at 1800. We just didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate it.

In 1994 I went to the United States to do some Indy­car en­gi­neer­ing for King Rac­ing, Kenny Bern­stein’s team. Things weren’t go­ing too badly un­til we got to the In­di­anapo­lis 500. This is a fas­ci­nat­ing place and one where it’s very easy to lose your nerve. Even the greats have bad years.

It all starts when you aren’t as quick as you think you should be. The wind picks up and the quick guys stay in the garage, but you need to run so you do, you get lost with the set-up and go even slower. Soon it spi­rals out of con­trol.

Now, the team man­ager was an ‘hours’ rather than a ‘re­sults’-based guy. So ev­ery­one had to stay at the track un­til we fig­ured it out. Well, it’s not that easy or we wouldn’t have got­ten into this mess. For­tu­nately he was re­placed by some­one who un­der­stood peo­ple and the tech­ni­cal side of the sport. A great guy named John Dick, and we are still friends to this day.

His ad­vice was that, when things turn bad, close the garage doors and head for the bar, or­der a jug of mar­garita and chew it over. Ba­si­cally, sleep on it – and after a few mar­gar­i­tas you cer­tainly did!

He knew the ben­e­fit of giv­ing the guys – me­chan­ics and en­gi­neers – time off. We were at the Michi­gan 500 and it was early Satur­day evening when he an­nounced the en­gi­neer­ing staff were leav­ing the cir­cuit. “The car’s nearly fin­ished and once we leave, the me­chan­ics will have it wrapped pretty quickly.” They did.

The next day we won the race.

Mo­tor­sport is def­i­nitely testos­terone­fu­elled, where the num­ber of hours worked pro­vides brag­ging rights. Peo­ple stay in the of­fice hav­ing com­pleted their tasks, sim­ply be­cause they don’t want to leave first.

But the world around us is mov­ing on and play­ing smarter. Mo­tor­sport is an in­tel­lec­tual com­pe­ti­tion, so to me the sit­u­a­tion is no dif­fer­ent. To get the most from your team, make sure they get plenty of sleep.

Hakki­nen knew the value of swap­ping pit garage for ho­tel bed

Pit crews can make mis­takes when not prop­erly rested

En­durance-rac­ing crews are ac­cus­tomed to work­ing long hours

Jean-eric Vergne takes a nap dur­ing the Saudi Ara­bia For­mula E rain de­lay

Burn­ing the mid­night oil isn’t con­ducive to good work

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