Is there anything more satisfying than seeing cars at full, breakneck speed during a qualifying session?

Practice is one thing, but nobody shows their true pace and the car’s full capabilities there. They’re still getting settings for their respective cars and bedding drivers in. This is especially true in GT racing where many drivers may visit certain circuits for the first time in their careers. Qualifying itself is an incomparable entity and very special in its own right. It’s when the weekend’s driving gets serious and people begin to really knuckle down. It’s the point at which problems with the car must be eradicated and resolved. A car must, arguably, be at its absolute apex in terms of performance, as this is the time it frequently sets its fastest pace of the entire weekend.

There have been drivers in the past who’ve perhaps not necessarily preferred qualifying, but find themselves consumed by it. Entirely infatuated and almost at ease. Perhaps it’d be fair to say that it’s the one point where a driver can get into the zone. After all, so long as you get a clean run, you’re not likely to get a comparable rhythm going for the remainder of the racing weekend after that.

As someone who’s only driven around Mallory Park for a couple of laps before, I have a real dearth of experience to inject into this conversation, but I’d imagine it’s far more likely you could zone in during qualifying than you could in the race proper.

Whilst racing you’ve got so much to consider: Strategy, fuel levels, position on track, the man in front, the man in your mirrors, tyre wear and temperature, brake management… of course you have to consider all of this during qualifying too, only to a lesser extent.

The only person you’re racing is yourself.

Your one aim during qualifying is to be the quickest you can possibly be. I’d imagine for some drivers it’s almost a ‘chase the dragon’ scenario; the addictive side of driving. Deep down, you’re racing yourself. With every quicker lap, you’re throwing down your own gauntlet, setting yourself a benchmark. A new score to beat.

I’m sure we’ve all been there while playing racing games on our respective consoles at least, haven’t we? I bought Raceroom not ever so long ago, simply because it was the only game which had a full license over the DTM. I’ll hold my hands up, whilst I enjoy the racing, most of my time on that game is spent on free practice and/or qualifying. Just driving around freely, trying to beat my last lap. Chasing that ghost car is addictive and I just zone in. To a certain extent, if I know the circuit well enough, I don’t even have to think about it. I just drive. And although it’s just a stupid (debatable) game, it still feels bloody awesome to get into the zone.

Ayrton Senna was one driver with a similar experience and view on the mental aspect of qualifying. During his famous and quite frankly ridiculous Monaco ’88 laps, he ‘noticed’ he was looking down on himself from above during the tunnel section and eventually snapped out of it after he became genuinely frightened by the experience. Perhaps it was the feeling of mortality that he didn’t like.

‘I was already on pole, then by half a second and then one second and i just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. Not only the tunnel under the hotel, but the whole circuit was a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more and more and more. I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more.’
Ayrton Senna

Obviously, Senna was a highly spiritual individual, frequently seen on his own with a bible in hand prior to qualifying and the race. Maybe that helped him focus. It certainly helped him keep calm as his heart rate was always lower than that of the drivers around him.

Senna was not and could not have been the only driver to experience this almost out of body experience though. Every driver has his day where everything is just so, so smooth and no matter how fast he goes, he’s completely at ease with the car and completely in control. I suspect it’s merely part of what is essentially a perfect day up to that point. I don’t know about anyone else, but when trying to get into the zone everything has to be spot on. Much like during qualifying or during a race, one small thing can knock you off your stride and suddenly you’re conscious of everything. When you’re in auto-pilot but not really worrying about what you’re doing because it feels spot on, it’s an amazing feeling.

To me, that’s what qualifying is about – a feeling. Even as a fan, watching a qualifying session on TV, you can see drivers mentally preparing themselves and entering into this zone. It’s almost like they’re dialling themselves into the Matrix. There they are, sat in highly sophisticated, fantastically engineered pieces of machinery, about to drive at top speeds with their sole aim being to keep pushing and pushing, faster and faster. Their eyes are switched on behind the visor, but are totally still. On the face of it, it’s a vacant stare, but it’s really the direct opposite. It’s focus. Dialling themselves in and preparing for this labyrinth of asphalt and tarmac, and no doubt the conditions too, just feet away from them as they sit in the pit garage…

Waiting.

Mattias Ekström giving 'the eyes'. (Photo reference: http://www.redbull.com/sk/sk/motorsports/stories/1331793291538/extremny-vikend-mattiasa-ekstroma)
Mattias Ekström giving ‘the eyes’.
(Photo reference: http://www.redbull.com/sk/sk/motorsports/stories/1331793291538/extremny-vikend-mattiasa-ekstroma)

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