Act on instinct and data

I work in advertising, marketing — and what I love most about developing creative campaigns is that it’s such a joyous and all-absorbing mental challenge. It’s a competition against other agencies and brands — trying to outfox them — combining both thinking and intuition.

The creative process is surrounded by data. We can test advertisements on different audiences to measure effectiveness, but also use research results as inspiration, feeding new ideas. Yet at the core of good advertising is still intuition, creativity, a human understanding. While data and research no doubt improve it, it’s creativity that designed the automobile. Had we relied solely on analysis, we’d still be stuck with a better horse.

But advertising isn’t all art either, despite what some in the industry want us to believe. Advertising is a means to an end (e.g. sales or reputation building). It would be stupid to ignore data, research, and other systematic steps that can make creativity better. And for me, this combination of thinking and intuition is a strong parallel with racing today.

Racing is not just an intuitive act alone. Data comes in many forms. There’s the physics and the setup of the car. There’s racing theory, and telemetry and the lessons you take out of that, such as where to brake and hit the apex, where to coast or hit the throttle, and which gear to take the corner in. Getting this right is essential, and improving this through data analysis yields massive benefits.

But then, racing is hugely intuitive too. In fact, you could this as data as well, as it’s likely that there are far more data points in your senses than telemetry can give you. Legendary snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan famously said: “Talk about strategy and you lose me. I play with instinct.”

In ‘Watching the Wheels’, Damon Hill provides an anecdote on intuition. Five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio, during the 1950 Monaco Grand Prix, approached a blind corner, and his instinct told him to lift off the throttle. He did and when he turned the corner, there was a huge wreckage, which he avoided plowing into. He first wondered if perhaps God himself had warned him, but later, when recalling the moment, he realized that instead of a divine message, the difference with previous laps was that the spectators weren’t looking at him. Instead, they looked towards the road ahead. Fangio had subconsciously registered this, and as an act of instinct lifted off the throttle, preventing himself from plowing into the wrecks ahead.

Racing drivers use similar cues to find the limit of grip in each corner, but also overtakes and race starts. The subconsciousness partly takes over, and blends with all lessons learned before into an instinctive act. I’ve had experiences in iRacing in which I was so immersed, it felt as if the feeling from the steering wheel and my vision communicated directly with my hands and feet, skipping my brain. Thoughts disappeared in close battles.

It’s not a data versus instinct debate. The big question you might have is: can you improve this feeling and intuition, too? And just like analysis and a rational understanding of racing, the answer is yes. (Similarly, you can also train creativity.)

VRS coach David Williams wrote about how you can train your intuition to react to differences of each lap: “True consistency comes from being adaptable. From being willing to make small adjustments lap after lap, either on-the-fly during a corner, or during the following lap. Simply sticking to an identical ‘routine’ each lap, with no flexibility for adjusting brake points, turn-in points, and apexes may well result in short-term consistency, but in the long term – over a stint for example – it’s unlikely to be effective. Tires wear, fuel burns off, traffic forces you offline, and even the track conditions evolve. The only way repeatability could ever be a reliable method for consistency, is if you were driving so far below the limit that the variables beyond your control never changed the response from your car. However, most of us wish to shape their driving over a single lap to run the car as close to the limit as possible, so we can set the best possible lap times.”

Damon Hill, again in ‘Watching the Wheels’ adds to this ‘expanding of consciousness’, again on the topic of the tricky Monaco circuit: “The first-ever lap you do at Monaco seems to last for thirty seconds, but by the time you do the last lap of the race, it seems to take half an hour. Your brain has expanded its consciences to the point where speed seems to slow and the track seems massive, which is exactly the state of mind you want to be in.”

The holistic approach to racing (like advertising) is to see how to extract the most of out both intuition and data, and see how they can supplement each other.

This applies to both the individual, who’s racing the car, so in the VRS academy, aside from setup articles like chapter 5, there are also plenty of articles on the ‘feeling’ of racing, such as getting your ergonomics right (article 2.4), and the mental approach, such as 6.1. But the holistic approach also applies to overal race strategy. Prime example is the 1998 Hungarian Grand Prix, when refuelling was still allowed, in which Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher gave the Formula One world a masterclass on analytics, creativity and stellar driving

On Saturday, Hakkinen took pole ahead of McLaren teammate Coulthard, with Schumacher for Ferrari is on P3. On Sunday, Schumacher’s start wasn’t great, and because overtaking is quite difficult at the Hungaroring, chances of a Ferrari victory look slim. After the first series of pitstops, the order is unchanged; Hakkinen ahead of Coulthard, who’s ahead of Schumacher. But then Brawn came up with a clever strategy. He ordered Schumacher to come in earlier for his second pitstops and refuelled the Ferrari for only a few seconds. With a relative light car and fresh tyres, Schumacher resumed the race in third place. Brawn asked Schumacher to gain 25 seconds on the McLaren duo in the next 19 laps, to which Schumacher’s answer was a frugal ‘oké’. Yet ‘Schumi’ went to wring out the F300 to its utmost limit (even beyond it as he goes off-track at one stage), basically doing 19 qualifying laps. But when he pits again, 15 laps before the finish, he keeps the lead and goes on to win the race in an inferior car.

Both sides of the yin-yang are equally important. It’s good that we can recognize that there are rational and intuitive steps that help us get a long way towards our goal and raises our chances. As famous neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reminds us, we’re not ‘thinking machines’, nor ‘feeling machines’, but rather feeling machines that think.