I knew something was up when I stopped counting sheep to get through my anxiety-fuelled nights. Instead, mid-lockdown, I was counting cars.
At 3.30am, drenched in sweat and reeling from mental checklists about an upcoming international move, I mentally selected a Williams racecar and tackled a Formula One circuit.
I’d take Silverstone’s corners in my mind, the names becoming a comfort: Copse, Maggots, Beckets, Chapel, Hangar Straight. Navigating these became my sheep.
Three years ago, I would have laughed in your face if you’d told me you did the same. ‘You do what?!’ I’d have said, before finding someone else to talk to, fast.
But Formula One has saved me, and not just from interminable nightly 3am mind games. In every aspect of my life. And this has come as much of a surprise to me, as it has to my friends and family.
I’m a feminist and I believe in equal pay. For much of my life, all sports left me cold as I winced at highly paid professionals and thought how much better the world would be if they spread their wealth.
I got angry at football on TV, asking why it was all men, all of the time. Formula One, if anything, felt worse. Until recently, Pit Girls strode around the circuits wearing very little and posing; it’s an incredibly macho sport.
Women don’t race in F1, although I’m hoping that with the W Series – an all-female, single-seater, racing championship that aims to help women break through into the relatively elitist, male-dominated sport – this will start to change. There’s still a long way to go.
And yet, there’s magic there. Watching a race is more than just excitement: it’s the anticipation of what could be around the next corner. Bits of equipment don’t fall off tennis players, footballers are never set on fire mid-match.
Basketball stars don’t crash with teammates and take each other out. No matter how good an F1 driver is, there’s always the risk of an incredible overtake or devastating engine failure.
However, I never would have expected that F1 would impact my life in the way it has. It has become an obsession that’s got me through lockdown, helped me manage my mental health, and probably saved my life.
In 2018, due to limited plane-movie options, I watched the 2010 film, Senna, about the racing career of one of the world’s greatest drivers. It didn’t fall into my usual genre of ‘depressing documentary about social activism’ but in the weeks that followed, the film stayed with me. I soon found myself on YouTube, quietly watching Senna’s final three races in 1994.
That was a strange thing for me to do. I didn’t tell anyone, because motorsport felt like something my friends and family wouldn’t approve of. It felt aggressive, dirty, potentially environmentally unsound (although that is changing).
But, for some reason, it felt right. It was so totally different to my work and my life that I felt no need to be the best at it, or try to control its outcomes.
By 2019, my depression and anxiety had hit a peak. I was admitted into hospital and a serious relationship ended. My working hours in the corporate world were long.
I’d been putting in well over 12 hours a day, every day, which left me no time to stop and switch off. Even though at work I presented as somebody who was taking it in their stride, I was exhausted and worried every day.
When lockdown hit in early 2020, I had the extra challenge of having to relocate to Italy for work. For much of the year, I was thousands of miles away from home, with just my dog to talk to. Like so many of us, my working hours increased as I stayed later and later at my desk.
My heart rate increased every race: the sport made me feel alive
As I became more stressed, I began to think about the last time I’d really felt relaxed. I realised it was when I was watching the F1 replays of Senna’s races in 1994.
I started to watch F1 again, to try to regain the feeling of total relaxation. It worked.
Watching the races took up two hours on a Sunday, more if the race was ‘red flagged’ (stopped due to a crash or bad weather). This felt like a good excuse to stop work.
Then I realised if I watched qualifying and free practice sessions on Friday and Saturday, that would be three days of Formula One – great! I was surprised as the next person that I’d got hooked so fast, but I think my brain was itching for stress relief.
All my hobbies – mountaineering, theatre, art – were on hold because of Covid. There was a gap that needed to be filled.
In my lonely locked-down flat in Italy, starting a new job and learning the language from scratch, Formula One became a familiar thing to ease back into.
Once, I’d rolled my eyes at people who liked sport. Now, I got it. The team’s successes and failures had absolutely nothing to do with me. I watched weekend after weekend as drivers spun around the tracks, raced each other for pole position, and battled to enter the points.
I’m still disinterested in most other sports, other than motorsports. For me, F1 is special because it is about the single-mindedness of the driver to perform under intense pressure, which makes the whole sport so easy to become immersed in.
I’d previously wondered why people bothered investing in something if they couldn’t change the outcome. My life, the one pumped with anxiety and stress, was all about controlling every decision, planning meticulously for the future, and living in an ordered existence.
But now I could enjoy something without preparing for it first. Instead, I could be sad for a hot second if my driver didn’t get a podium finish, and then get on with my day.
Shouting at the screen as Verstappen and Hamilton battled to win the championship became an outlet for my stress. Who’s going to come out stronger at the next corner?
My heart rate increased every race: the sport made me feel alive. Formula One was great for my mental health – better even than the plodding runs or turgid weights regimes I made myself do every morning.
By the end of 2020, I had a real, delightful distraction. A waste of time, old me would have said. The new me would say: a vital release. I listened to every Formula One podcast I could get my hands on while doing my tedious morning runs.
When lockdown finally ended in Italy, I took a train up to Imola and walked around the race track with my dog in the rain, walking Acque Mineralli, Tamburello and Lesmo corners.
Then, it became more than just a distraction – I started to enjoy the rivalries, the engineering, the cars, the tracks. Between races, I sifted through race archives. I was hungry for information: eager to understand more about the classic battles commentators touched on.
During Rome’s hot summer days, when it was unbearable to go outside, I watched classic battles between Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, and even Fangio’s first races in the Ferrari back in the 1950s. A new world had opened up.
A world of passion, noise and energy. It chimed with my quiet, dead life in Rome, where I was unable to make friends easily due to language and lockdown barriers. The anxiety and depression that had plagued me for most of 2020 began to clear.
Now, I’m hooked on F1: it’s a hobby and a passion for life. It’s also encouraged me to be more open-minded. I never thought sport would be for me: I had a list of reasons why I would hate being a spectator. But getting sucked into the world of motorsport has changed my life.
If anyone else is also searching for an outlet but hasn’t quite discovered what it is, I’d recommend a niche sport that you can throw your whole life at. Archery, clay pigeon shooting, pole vaulting: become the world’s biggest fan, and your daily life will become easier, I promise.
When I hear ‘It’s lights out and away we go’ from David Croft, commentating on Sky Sports, I know I can lose myself in the race.
And, as someone with anxiety and depression, I hadn’t been able to do that before F1.
As for Sunday’s showdown between Mercedes and Red Bull, I have butterflies. But they’re the good sort to have, because no matter who wins, in the grand scheme of my life, it really doesn’t matter.
So, for that, thank you cars, thank you drivers, thank you F1.
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