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Evolution and the F1 Driver

Humanity has got to be one of the strangest creatures on the planet. For a start, he walks on two legs, whereas most other mammals opt for four. He is also almost completely defenseless, with teeth that are hopeless for threatening anything bigger than a mouse and an unarmored skin that does not even have much hair for protection. Yet most other animals are scared of him. Weird, isn’t it?

But this is only the beginning of the odd decisions taken by evolution in designing mankind. There are aspects that can only be described as overkill and the perfect illustration of this is the F1 driver. Here is an animal that, without external aid, can reach a top speed of about 20 mph; yet has reflexes and processing power that enable him to control a vehicle going at ten times that speed.


Man lives on a planet that defines gravity in terms of itself – we live at 1G. Yet, for reasons known only to itself, evolution has decided to give him the power not only to exist at over 3G but to perform delicate and precise tasks at the same time. Then the humble backside, an anatomical part that cannot reasonably be expected to need more sensory perception than the discernment of the difference between a hard rock and a pillow, proves capable of sensing how much adhesion is left in four tires remotely connected to said backside through suspension parts, a car body and a seat. And all this happens while he is being shaken around, vibrated and thumped by his environment with an engine screaming in one ear and a disembodied electronic voice speaking to him in the other. Yet he copes with it all and even professes to enjoy the experience.

Our F1 driver, designed for a home of natural forces, turns out to be capable of functioning perfectly well at speeds, g-forces, pressures and sound levels many times that which could have been predicted before his brain allowed technology to make such things possible. What on earth made evolution design the human being with such huge tolerances above and beyond what could be expected?

If the human were a car, we would say he is massively over-engineered. He has no evolutionary need to cope with pressures so much greater than any encountered in the natural environment of Earth. It is as though evolution, in the act of fitting this harmless upright ape with a brain that could help him survive, had stopped suddenly and thought, “Hang on a mo, if I give the creature this brain he will eventually make things that go really fast and encounter forces that will rip him apart. I’d better give him a little more capacity for survival in such circumstances.”

Which, of course, is ridiculous – evolution doesn’t “think”. Pretty weird, isn’t it? Makes you wonder what’s really going on…

12 Responses to “Evolution and the F1 Driver”

  1. Every time I look at a racing car, I think of the miriad of objects and movements that are in the engine. A vast number of springs, shafts, lobes, valves, wires, links, relays, etc. etc. etc… all functioning in nano-precise unity at unbelievable speed. The most stunning thing to me is that, if just one essential piece was missing… it doesn’t matter which one, but let’s say a piece that has a monetary value equal to that of a pack of cigarettes. With that part omitted, the entire magnificent machine is rendered into dead weight with a gorgeous body.

  2. True, Barry – and it is just as amazing that the engines are as reliable as they are, with all that to go wrong. They say the perfect racing car goes flat out for the entire race and explodes as it crosses the line – and the engines these days are designed almost as accurately as that…

  3. i know,we come from aliens and are are designed to fly spaceships! hehe…

  4. Well, dang, Rob – that was gonna be my next post! :D

  5. It’s a question that vexes me – How do I know how much grip my tyres have? In the dry through a particular set of corners my tyres tell me that they have more grip than I have skill to use but on the same set of corners through the wet my tyres might tell me that they are approaching the limit of adhesion. Fair enough, but how the hell do I pick up this information? It baffles me…

  6. It can only be that we pick up subtle signals from the machine and analyse them subconsciously, Mad. But why would we need such incredibly sensitive and apparently natural abilities? It’s a mystery.

  7. I asked my flatmate about this, as its much more his area than mine. He was telling me about some GPS project he’s done with cattle recently, and points out that the motion sensors on cows regularly record momentary G-forces of up to 8-10g

    Apparently people can momentarily experience up to 15-20g when they fall. So the ability to withstand high g forces is quite evolutionarily useful. The ability to withstand lower, but still unusually high g-forces as might be found in an f1 car, for longer, is probably just a byproduct of this evolutionary pressure.

    Just as the ability to drive an F1 car at 200mph (not something which most of us can do, it must be said) is probably a by product of the brain’s ability to perform much more complex tasks at slower speeds.

  8. Now you’ve given me a vision of cows flying around a field at 200mph and skidding on all the corners, Patrick!

    Seriously though, it may all be a byproduct as you say but it’s a pretty weird one, even so. All that spare capacity…

  9. Jeff Bezos (of Palm Pilot fame) wrote a book regarding human intelligence a few years ago. Jeff, being a fan of neuroscience as well as being a computer scientist spent a lot of time researching the human brain.

    Anyways, in his book it states that the human brain or more precisely its neurons operates at a maximum speed of roughly 200 mph. But it can perform feats of that no computer (operating at essentially light speed) can achieve (or may achieve will great difficulty). Such as catching a ball for instance.

    The human brain has this capacity to remember and abstract and these are the keys to its seemingly wonderous processing abilities and near prescient powers. You should read the book but what it boils down to is that human beings have “Jedi reflexes” (my own term not Bezos’) and that we are able to anticipate events before it happens.

    Any racing driver will tell you that anticipation is the key to driving. Looking far ahead beyond your current position on the road is the key to driving fast. And I suppose looking ahead maximizes the brain’s ability to recall and anticipate what will come next. So with that anticipation the brain fires the motor neurons so that the driver will already have taken the correct muscle action to make the turn.

    But my explanation might be a whole load of nonsense so read the book.

  10. My Dad taught me to drive when I was a teen-ager (in the 50s). He was a superb driver who loved driving, and did so almost constantly (as do I). The most valuable lesson was “anticipate”. Even on the public roads, I am always watching the car ahead of the car ahead of me. It is amazing how regularly I know what another driver is going to do before that driver has made the decision. Time after time, I brake or evade before the car ahead of me does, because that driver is not anticipating. Similarly, checking the rear view mirror, I can often anticipate a trailing driver’s next move. I recall one occasion, as I was slowing behind a line of stopped cars, I glanced into the rear-view mirror. I knew at once that the following car was not going to stop in time. I quickly checked the lane to my right, found it empty, and dodged into it and pulled up beside the car that had been in front of me, just as the following car bumped him… not too hard. But had I been in my previous position, the hit to my rear bumper would have been a lot harder.

  11. Very interesting, Qwerty. I always enjoy listening to scientists explaining what they know of the human brain and how it works – at times they are quite poetic in the descriptions and parallels they build to help us understand.

    The matter of anticipation is exactly what gives us seemingly magical abilities – thinking about it, I can cite experiences from my own life to illustrate this. Thank you for your considered and helpful comment. If I see the book, I shall buy it and read!

  12. Hear, hear, Barry. Anticipation is a very important facet of driving, one that we could not do without, in fact. I remember reading somewhere that the hallmark of a good driver is the ability to see ahead and predict what others were about to do. In fact, I think that I watch the drivers, more than the cars, although I am not sure on this one – it may just be wishful thinking on my part since it is difficult to imagine that I could discern facial signals through windshields at a distance!

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