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