IGuides & Insights

The Autopilot Phenomenon

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„If you no longer go for a gap that exists…” – this quote from three-time Formula 1 World Champion Ayrton Senna is arguably one of the most well-known among SimRacers No matter if it is interpreted as serious our as an excuse for crashing into title rival Alain Prost at Suzuka in 1990 – this and many other statements by the Brazilian legend are still quoted frequently to this day. A less-remembered quote of his references his incredible pace at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1988 and how he was in the zone of driving subconsciously – which plays a role in SimRacing as well.

Let’s take a look at the past: The 1988 season was still young as the F1 circus made its stop at Monte Carlo. Senna and Prost had won both of the first two at Jacarepagua and Imola in the McLaren MP4/4, had been far ahead of the competition early on already. In Monaco, Senna posted a near-unbelievable qualifying lap that was a whopping 1,427 seconds faster than teammate Prost’s. In the race, the Brazilian stormed away from the field as well and built a 50-second lead at one point – until he put the car into the barriers at Portier. Senna retired, Prost went on to win the race.

A lapse in concentration had ended Senna’s race. Before his crash, he was so absorbed by the race that he drove the car almost automatically. “[…]and suddenly, I realized 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.” Or, in other words, “in the zone”.

This “zone” plays a role in SimRacing as well. Finding your rhythm is often mentioned as race preparation advice, and usually, this can be done consciously by approaching a stint in a relaxed manner without paying too much attention to the rest of the field. To dive in as deeply as Senna described, however, is rare, and not consciously achievable, at least from my experience.

Usually, it is only noticeable once you are already there – just like Senna noticed as well. All of a sudden, the last few laps have just gone by without really being noticed, and lap times are often multiple tenths faster. Autopilot has taken over, and as soon as you notice that it is active, the phenomenon is usually over already.

For me personally, it was interesting to notice that this happens in more complicated cars as well: Two races at Bremgarten in the six-cylinder Maserati 250F required a lot of focus, and despite this, things started happening automatically at one point. The feeling of being one with the car is likely what makes SimRacers and real racing drivers alike fast. Being able to trust the car encourages the driver to go to the limit. And it shows: SimRacing and real motorsport are not that different in this regard.