What’s the formula behind an F1 driver? Eye tracking could uncover the recipe for success.

  • by Tobii
  • 5 min

Using eye tracking in F1 - Formula 1

Nico Hülkenberg is first to wear eye tracking glasses, revealing his visual attention and quick reaction times while driving a Formula 1 car. Tobii Pro Glasses enabled the first true insight into what a Formula 1 driver actually sees.

How many times have you watched in awe as a professional athlete competes, and said “how do they do that?” No doubt years of practice and training are the reasons for their physical abilities, but what about their mental performance?

F1 racing is a true meeting of physical and mental capabilities; as drivers tear around the track pushing 400 km/h there’s no time to second-guess maneuvers or decisions. Eye tracking affords us a unique look inside this exclusive sport where the action is so fast, not even the driver is aware of everything they do because it’s so instinctive.

Eye tracking technology allows us to understand more about the split-second decisions athletes make, how quickly they refocus their attention, and how well they multitask in situations too rapid to be dissected with the naked eye.

F1 driver Nico Hülkenberg was fitted with Tobii Pro Glasses and he took us for a spin at Silverstone Circuit in the U.K. - the results? Almost “superhuman.”

The glasses capture what Nico sees and register precisely where his eyes are looking. Because it’s all recorded, we can review it at a much slower speed and examine how he processes different parts of the drive.

Leaving the pit lane and joining the track, Nico instinctively checks his mirror – for a 10th of a second! This is close to the shortest time a human needs to view something for the brain to be able to interpret it, however, the average person needs at least five times that duration to recognize an object.

sBelieve it or not, we don’t see life as a continual moving scene, rather we process snippets of information gathered when our eyes fixate on a point, and our brains fill-in the gaps. Amazingly, people who are accustomed to operating in extremely fast environments are able to train their brains to process these snippets faster than average. Where this really became apparent with Nico was when the race light changed from red to green - Nico’s reaction was just under a 10th of a second. A reaction this fast in athletics would be considered so improbable it would be deemed a false start to the gun.

Approaching the corner, he focuses on the apex and feels the car’s speed to gauge how fast he can go but still remain on the track. He actually commits several seconds of his attention to fixate on the apex as he rounds the bend – the key to a good lap time.
Although a lot goes on in the cockpit, Nico hardly looks at the buttons. Because he can see the rev counter and dash display from his peripheral vision, he can absorb that information without specifically switching his focus from the road. As he approaches the pit lane he scans for the black and white pit sign and automatically hits the green neutral button with his finger. Similarly as he drives in his gaze is scanning for the striped glove of the front left mechanic, which is his cue to stop.

How eye tracking is used to understand sports performance

Even as a professional racing on the track for more than a decade, Nico wasn’t aware of exactly where he was looking in the heat of the moment until it was pinpointed with eye tracking and broken-down frame by frame from the video playback.

Eye tracking research has found its way into many other high-profile sports around the world as coaches look to develop a competitive edge within their players. An ESPN Sport Science Segment explored the use of eye tracking technology in the American NFL, to look at how elite players process numerous tasks during periods of rapid play.

Cleveland Browns Receiver Sammie Coates wore Tobii Pro Glasses while running, catching and dodging in a fast paced controlled experiment. It showed his brain, just like Nico’s, had adapted to facilitate a more rapid processing of information. In fact, he was able to perform these three actions 13% faster than average. It’s insight like this which makes eye tracking a valuable tool that’s commonly used in sports as a research method for improving performance and training.

But what about sports where it’s not so easy to define the skill-set with time or accuracy parameters? Some might say surfing is a skill you just need to ‘feel’. This concept is exactly what Macromedia University Professor Dr. Guido Ellert set out to explore. After safely stowing his eye tracking glasses inside waterproof housing, he set about defining how to handle yourself in the surf, based on the maneuvers of a pro.

Over two and a half years, five experiments were carried out in various conditions and with different types of surfers to gain insights into perceptual-cognitive expertise in surfing. One aim of the study was to get a qualitative description of gaze behavior from both expert and recreational surfers. You can read more about the results of his study. All these experiments have involved Tobii Pro Glasses, which are ideal for real world testing where the subject needs to be able to naturally interact with their surrounds.

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