PSYCHOLOGY IN FORMULA ONE
Why was Abu Dhabi a Traumatic Loss for Lewis Hamilton?
The 2021 World Championship -
Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton v. Red Bull's Max Verstappen (part 2)
After his loss at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the resulting loss of the 2021 World Championship, Lewis Hamilton stated in an interview:
"I think when anyone experiences trauma... because you know it can be a traumatic experience when you lose something that you worked hard for...or whatever it may be... I think that will always be a part of me but I would like to think that I've gained strength from it... I would say.. um and just reminded... myself of the strength that I have within..."
As a psychotherapist, I was immediately struck by Hamilton's use of the word "trauma".
If you read my previous post here, you know that I definitely felt traumatized in that moment when the 2021 World Championship was determined by a controversial call by race director and here I am, just a measly fan!
I also appreciate why I imagine Hamilton felt traumatized on many levels but I was curious if there were people who heard him use the word "traumatic" and thought, "well that seems like a strong word or maybe even a little dramatic. How could losing one race be traumatic for Lewis Hamilton? Seriously? He's pretty much the GOAT of Formula One - or at least one of the greatest racers ever. What's the big deal?" Or maybe there were people with a more cynical perspective who thought, "how could Hamilton be traumatized when he has millions of dollars and can buy beautiful houses and cars and go on amazing vacations etc.. I get he lost the championship but he has won 7 times. Get over it. Losing is not traumatic for someone in his shoes."
And it would definitely be fair to ask a fan such as me how I could feel traumatized when (sadly) I don't even have the privilege of knowing Lewis Hamilton so why would it impact me so strongly?
So I wanted to address all of this from a therapeutic perspective:
Why might that loss feel traumatic to Lewis Hamilton?
(with the huge caveat that I respectfully do not know what Lewis Hamilton thinks or feels so this truly is only my take on why someone in Lewis Hamilton's position might feel traumatized)
Why might anyone who was emotionally invested in the outcome of the race that day feel traumatized ?
A few things first:
In psychology in the United States, we rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the DSM for providing us the criteria for mental disorders and it defines trauma as a stressor that involves an immediate threat to life or physical injury or sexual violence. SAMSHA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), a U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, defines trauma as an event or circumstance that results in physical, emotional harm or life-threatening harm that has lasting effects on one's mental health, physical health, emotional health, social well-being, and/or spiritual well-being. On an international scale, the International Classification of Diseases is a globally used diagnostic tool that is maintained by the World Health Organization and its definition of trauma is extensive and includes a stressor event that is threatening or horrific in which escape is difficult or impossible and meets many other criteria that you can read more about here. I could go on with other respected organizations' definitions of trauma but the point I want to demonstrate is that there is not one single definition and I believe if anyone does consider one source for a definition of trauma, then that is a far too limited definition.
TRAUMA that results from EXPERIENCING or WITNESSING an INJUSTICE
From my own experience and after working with clients, I believe there is a trauma that we experience when our sense of justice and fairness is violated.
As Hamilton got into his car at Abu Dhabi, he brought his personal values with him - values I believe he consistently demonstrates both on and off the race track that include moral and ethical integrity and fairness. He also brought with him an understanding of the rules that he and his fellow competitors would be competing under. These rules are extensive and well documented; precedents that have been set over years of Formula One racing.
All of the drivers, team members, announcers, and fans either participated or watched the race at Abu Dhabi with the expectations and knowledge of the same rules and precedents; however, despite these shared expectations and knowledge, a rule was twisted beyond recognition in the final moments of the race with dramatic consequences.
In those split seconds, the race director did not simply tweak a rule, his decision violated the deep expectations of moral and ethical fairness.
This could easily have been experienced as an arbitrary and random act that denied Hamilton what he rightfully deserved - a victory at Abu Dhabi and a record setting eighth World Championship in Formula One history.
This is why Hamilton's loss was so much more than a loss of a single race. It was a moral and ethical injustice.
And psychologically, the experience of an ethical violation of what is fair and right can wound us traumatically - especially when we are powerless to stop it.
It is traumatic because it is wrong, unfair, and unjust in a way that disrupts and violates the very core values of our being.
It is blatantly obvious to us and yet, we are often powerless to stop it from happening - usually because someone else has more power over the situation than we do or because we aren't physically present to stop it.
In those moments, we feel distress as we experience a reality that is out of sync with our expectations of rules and structure we thought were in place - that we thought actually meant something.
To the degree others go along with this dissonance, we are left to question ourselves, to feel gaslit.
How can this be happening? How can rules be changed arbitrarily? Does no one else see what I see? Am I alone? How can no one be stopping this?
Even worse, others may celebrate the injustice which only compounds the trauma we experience.
Sometimes one small person has the power to cause a huge injustice and that feels even more disheartening and exacerbates the trauma.
We then become disillusioned with humanity - with what we thought to be true - and we feel utterly defeated.
At Abu Dhabi, a blatant injustice happened because one person held too much power to determine something far too important on his own whim.
And, the final traumatic blow occurred after Mercedes' Team Principal, Toto Wolff, expressed "this is not right" to the race director, a statement attempting to bring in fairness and justice in the heat of the moment. Instead of being met with respect, Wolff was flippantly disregarded with a condescending response: "Toto, it's called a motor race. We went car racing."
So, not only did Lewis Hamilton directly experience the injustice, but he was also deprived of something I believe he rightfully deserved. Then, on top of that, when the injustice was called to the attention of one of the only people who could possibly make it right, instead of responding with validation or even acknowledgment or basic compassion, that person dismissed the concern with a patronizing air of superiority. All of this happening within the back drop of a huge celebration by Red Bull and Red Bull fans (* * * Just a note that these are the same Red Bull team and Red Bull fans who one can presume feel the September 11, 2022 outcome at Monza was a fair implementation of the rules and outcome of the race.) All of these pieces were ingredients for significant trauma.
To come back to answer the second question about why a fan might be traumatized, I, as a transparent Lewis Hamilton fan, was invested in Hamilton winning - yes. But I was honestly much more invested in a fair race which did not happen. Moral and ethical fairness is a core value for me and I witnessed what I felt was a violation of fairness and justice which is why I felt traumatized that day. I wanted a fair race for Lewis Hamilton and I felt he was denied that. Honestly, I wanted a fair race for all of the drivers and I felt they were all denied that. (* * *September 11, 2022 was that fair race at Monza and a fair implementation of rules even if it was an anticlimactic ending) I also felt powerless to change the outcome for Hamilton and that made me feel utterly helpless which was also incredibly distressing.
I want to reiterate that my posts are never meant to beat up on or villify any one individual. I am not saying the race director's actions were intentional or malicious; my post is not about his motives because of course, I have no idea what was going through his mind nor do I envy anyone in his shoes having to make these high stress split second decisions. This post is about exploring how the results of what happened that day at Abu Dhabi could have caused trauma for Lewis Hamilton, any Lewis Hamilton fan, any fan of Formula One or anyone invested in a fair race.
To use Abu Dhabi as a metaphor for what other issues that may be more relevant to our day to day lives, I think parents experience this kind of "trauma as witnesses of injustice" as they raise their children. Think of all the times we see our children have hurt feelings because another child says something mean or because they our young adult is in a romantic relationship and their "partner" breaks up with them or "ghosts" them and we see our "child" is crushed and devastated. We witness this "injustice" done to our child and we are utterly powerless to change the outcome. Our hearts feel devastated and we can feel as if we are traumatized.
AFTER THE TRAUMA:
Finally, after we survive the trauma itself, the next monumental challenge we have to face is that time moves forward - life moves on - even though we have just experienced this life-changing disheartening blow. And we are still left with this unresolved disillusioning injustice.
Our minds and bodies need to recover from those kinds of traumas.