The Phenomenon of Getting in the Zone

The Phenomenon of Getting in the Zone.jpg
„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 sim racers. 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 sim racing 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 sim racing 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 sim racers and real racing drivers alike fast. Being able to trust the car encourages the driver to go to the limit. And it shows: sim racing and real motorsport are not that different in this regard.

How is your experience with getting in the zone? How has it happened to you before? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @RaceDepartment!
About author
Yannik Haustein
Lifelong motorsport enthusiast and sim racing aficionado, walking racing history encyclopedia.

Sim racing editor, streamer and one half of the SimRacing Buddies podcast (warning, German!).

Heel & Toe Gang 4 life :D


There are people who make a connection between "getting in the zone" and being incredible fast. But for me this is not the same. "getting in the zone", at least as it is described here, is driving the car without thinking. You've driven the lap so many times that you've automated it. Just like you no longer have to think about it while walking, cycling or driving a car in quiet traffic. You have also automated that by doing it very often. When I have done many laps in a row on a track, there comes a moment when I have also automated the lap. So I don't have to think about what I'm doing anymore. And at that moment I am faster than the laps I do think about. But .... I still drive at my own modest speed, which is a lot slower than the aliens.
"This car is going to be f-ing quick." - Ayrton Senna after his first test in the MP4/4

If you want to know the story behind the headlines and much more about the inner workings of McLaren and Ferrari during the time period between '87 and Schumacher/Braun era, give this a listen. Unaffiliated.

Senna - The movie..
Will tell you about the circumstances and the mindset of drivers at this
era .. Don't miss it.. :thumbsup:
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You can certainly do it in sims, but I find not often, you just hit a sweet spot for a few laps or even longer that everything you do is just perfect.

Aliens do this routinely which is why I hate them, but now and then a normal person like me can also have these moments!
I would not exactly describe Ayrton's "zone" quote as "less-remembered"
Maybe for a new millenial generation, relying motorsports history on wikipedia, but for my generation and older, witnessing Ayrton Senna's fabulous excessive superiority that day stands for many as even more convincing than Donnington '93.

Luckily for newer generations, Kapadia's credible documentary movie "Senna" had a sharp focus on this episode (AFAIR, it was at the beginning of the movie, correct me if I'm wrong).

I'm glad the author of this article mentions Monaco '88 - for me it has ever since been the benchmark definition of 'being in the zone'.
Having experienced that feeling on a personal note on more occasions, the word 'unconsiously' as Senna used to describe his experience is IMO the best way to describe 'the zone'.

'In the zone' is also where adrenaline, focus and shutting everything irellevant out of the mind, removes physical pain and you suddenly feel "above the cloud".
And every movement is perceived by your mind as being in a strange in slow-motion state, due to your senses and reactions are far more alert than usual.

I think first time I entered this state of mind was in fact in same year, 1988, just a few weeks before Monaco GP.

I was a youth rower by that time, been rowing in club for 3 years, but just for fun and long-distance rowing without a competition element. Just weeks into the season, some competition rowers saw a potential in me. And suddenly, without preparation, I found myself at a regatta in a coxed pair with the other guy being really strong and experienced. I had endless awe and was quiet by nature and bit the pain in me. For me, 2000m rowing in competition mode has always been one of the toughest disciplines both mentally and physically. Mentally because the demanded 'perfect style', delivering the extra speed, requires constant concentration for every stroke. On the contrary If your rowing style does not exactly sit in the closet (in Danish terms "butt rowing", typical mistake made by beginners, top body and legs not in sync, hitting max leg stretch way before top body, leaving your top body, loins, back, arms and butt doing the remaining tough stroke part, when 70% power should be delivered by main leg muscles), you automatically overload individual points in the body, quickly setting your body on the limits.

That day, taking off from gun start, my technique was far from perfect (just like in racing when constantly missing out apex on same series of consecusive corners, lap after lap), having a sleepless night up to my first competition.
So, my effort pulling out the start block was on pure power and pain, all the wrong way.
After 500 meters I had serious thoughts like "I'll not survive this". The next 1000m was some of the hardest I've experienced in my life, physically as well as mentally.
But then the final approached, i.e. for the last 500m, I suddenly experienced a feeling rolling over my body and mind. Like my body "opening a special window" of extra power, where I was far beyond my previous limits just moments before. Mentally I found myself all of a sudden in one and same time relaxed an extremely focussed, and all pains left my body. I finally got a touch on my good, near perfection, rowing style, but it felt like it was not me using mind craft, but the body doing it automatically.
Just the moments after crossing the finish line as No. 3 after fighting the last 250m our way up from No. 6, I was thinking "Hey, was that it? That was easy!"....well, just until I got back my breath 30 secs later, suddenly feeling my body again, just screaming in pain, other rowers and the sparse crowd thinking I was expressing excitement :D

Years before that experience I practiced athletics at school running 800m (also a discipline that I consider harder than 400m or 3000m as your heart is at the breaking point for a long time), I always dreamed of getting in this 'zone' when I heard a national marathon runner talking about this 'zone' when he won the London Marathon. But I never achieved that state for my school 800m runs, only pure pain :confused::D

After university studies late 90ies, I started up cycling just as an exerciser. And so stupid to set out with the longest bike race I have participated in to date: +350km. Completely without preparation. After 120k I was about to quit, but then some experienced guys came up to me and I fell into cozy talks talk. At + 200k (and after remembering to eat and drink before I got thirsty and hungry, as is a deemed necessity at those bike race distances), I suddenly found myself in the 'zone'. It was pouring down with rain and the temperature had dropped from approx. 20° C to 8° C, in addition now strong headwinds, I only had short tubes for legs and arms, ie. summer cycling clothing. But suddenly my senses were again extra alert, mind turning into a relaxed state, and my pains in pretty much the whole body, lower back, thighs, neck, back, seagull, etc. suddenly disappeared completely.
My legs suddenly felt like I had gained power from 8 freshly polished cylinders extra. I escaped a group that I had ridden roller shifts together with. I suddenly felt like I could ride faster and faster, even in the relatively strong head wind, passing more groups ahead, doing an insane solo ride.
Again a definition of 'zone', as sent from Heaven :inlove:

Regarding automotive racing I have experienced it both IRL and simwise, actually quite a few times.

E.g. my 2nd visit at Nordschleife (as 'Touristfahren') in 2010. OK it was just a caged lightweight Suzuki Swift Sport, but with racing tyres and perfect weather; dry and 25°C at about 5:30pm mid-late July, perfect track surface.
At first lap, I was reluctant, though I had to hold myself back, getting eager, but thinking about track conditions and tyres.
At 2nd lap I found it was far more safe to keep up to pace, since constantly looking in the mirrors of faster cars, while trying to concentrate on the slopes ahead felt far more dangerous.
Then the next couple of laps, I absolutely floored it. I think my mind left my body as early as in the middle of Hatzenbach section and just constantly attacking and on the limit, corner overtaking far more race-oriented cars with much more engine power. And not just by bullying and divebombing, but always with concentration on gentleman driving, the focus being on preventing to make some owners of expensive cars really sad.
But it was like I was just on automode. And my mind came back to my body at Galgenkopf just before Döttinger Höhe, me thinking "oh am I already here"? It was like the feeling of being on autopilot the mind taking a relaxing nap, just my hands, legs and feet doing the work ...unconsiously!

Aaand simracing wise, for those not fallen asleep yet:
Same track, a couple of years earlier, in 2008. This time behind my Thrustmaster Guillemotte Ferrari FFB. A national rF1 2hr online event in Mclaren F1 mod- Even at qual I was in the first 'zone', but at race I for a mere two hours felt like being in the 'zone', with luckily noone to interrupt me via a radio or in my living room (VERY understanding girlfriend, big kudos to her :D).
And I clearly remember that I feared the pit stops, afraid of my mind leaving 'the zone'. Luckily I did not, but the pit stops were the biggest challenge for me, mentally.

Since, I have experienced 'the zone' quite some times in simracing. Best experience at lap attacks around Targa Florio. I think the rewarding feeling of all coming together and at same time feeling effortless, must be the same when rally drivers have the feeling of just performed a perfect stage.

Edit: I should stop posting late night from my phone for such longer posts, first post was rubbish. However, RD tends to have uploaded articles initiating my enthusiasm, just before sleep :D:inlove: Now edited hopefully more readable, sorry.
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Thanks, stenowitz..
Excellent write-up !! :D
Not easy to describe these things.
But you did it well.. :)
I think Murray Walker’s description of Ayrton Senna as a Mystic was one of his more accurate insights. Ayrton always had a unique and thoughtful way to communicate what is special about driving a car at—and beyond—the limit of man and machine, especially during competition.. His comments about his experience at Monaco in 1988 remain some of his most transcendental.
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Senna - The movie..
Will tell you about the circumstances and the mindset of drivers at this
era .. Don't miss it.. :thumbsup:
Didn't notice your post before writing mine :) Yes, surely 'Senna' is an adviceable watch, especially the screen/sound editing of Ayrton's almost spiritual description of his Monaco experience is IMO a bulls eye description of the feeling entering the zone.
Just looked it up, cannot fathom the movie already have 12 years on it's bag, time flies...
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4 days later, I came up good. 1:36.941 with the 962C.

EDIT: Damnit, I posted these pics in the wrong thread lel

Still, I now fully understand what people mean by getting into the zone. For background, I was doing a Top Gear esque challenge on AC by setting about getting a sub 1:37 with this car around Zandvoort. And I just wanted to celebrate a belated 40th Birthday of the Porsche 956/962 in my own way.
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