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Preparing Mentally for Formula 3: With Leonardo Fornaroli

Conducted by Juan Arroyo, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Header credits: Dutch Photo Agency

This interview is the first part of ‘Track and Mind', a series by Divebomb that takes an in-depth look into the mental preparation of young drivers in the world of motorsport. It explores the techniques and strategies that drivers use to stay focused and motivated on and off the track.


Through a series of interviews and expert analysis, the series provides a comprehensive guide to mental preparation for young drivers. From visualisation exercises to breathing techniques, ‘Track and Mind’ uncovers the secrets to success in motorsport.


 

The best racing drivers have one thing in common: they constantly seek an edge over the competition.


They have a rare blend of cognitive abilities — lightning-fast reaction times, top-notch spatial awareness, and decision-making skills that are second to none — enabling them to perform at their peak.


In Formula 1’s feeder ladder, every aspiring driver vying for a seat at the pinnacle has to find that edge in the mind.


Years of working with expert coaches, psychologists, and trainers enable drivers to make split-second decisions while racing at breakneck speeds.


In this unforgiving environment, the mind is just as crucial as the machine. It is the combination of cognitive abilities and mental resilience that set successful drivers apart from the rest of the field.


For 18-year-old Leonardo Fornaroli, mental strength has been vital to his success across the junior formulas: "I started (training mentally) more in FRECA," he says. "F4 and karting, I was not doing it so much."


Transitioning from karting to single-seaters can be a daunting challenge for drivers. The increased speed demands greater physical and mental capabilities.


Fornaroli underwent rigorous training to enhance his physical conditioning and adapt to the new categories. But mental coaching has proved to be the crucial component in managing his nerves and optimising his performance.


As he put it ahead of his FIA Formula 3 debut: "We trained a lot mentally [in the last few days] because I was a little bit nervous before the start of the year. This is a big step of my career. I work a lot with my trainer and now I'm more confident and relaxed than before."

Credit: Dutch Photo Agency

The combination of athletic and mental work is paramount to success, according to Leonardo Fornaroli's manager, Gianpaolo Matteucci: "To be fair, the result comes from the combination between the 2 aspects, where the athletic work is of paramount importance," he said.


He also stressed the importance of working on the athlete's mental abilities, comparing it to working on a car's Electronic Control Unit (ECU).


"I always explain to my assisted drivers that we have to work on the engine (the athletic), but we shall also work on the ECU (the mental), to obtain a strong performance. In my example, the body represents the engine, and the ECU represents the brain of the drivers."


Fornaroli's manager also emphasised the role of family in his driver's success, particularly his father's support, during a pivotal moment.


"When the father of Leo came to me the first time, he was at the end of the F4 campaign, still 16 years old. That was a delicate moment because I explained to the father the importance of the athletic and mental work, to be done in high quantity with the highest possible quality. Not all the fathers and mothers are so quick and ready to accept the changes requested in a family organisation."


Matteucci highlighted the importance of collaboration between the driver's manager and the team: "Since we started to work on Leo, once again he was still 16 years old, we consult each other nearly one time per day, as I did weekly with Gianfranco Rizzi. I mean that the collaboration and armoury between all the involved professionals, it's the necessary tools to make the driver's talent bright."

 

Fornaroli has been working with Formula Medicine, a program focused on providing physical and mental training to athletes, since he joined Trident.


Teams are increasingly recognizing the role of this training in maximising driver performance, and many have established their mental training programs or sought partnerships with dedicated organisations.


Trident sends garage personnel and drivers to the Viareggio facility multiple times in the year in an effort to sharpen the team in all aspects, a practice repeated by some Formula 1 teams.


Formula Medicine's flagship program, the MET, includes mental exercises that monitor brain activity, and train drivers to become more efficient in using their mental energy.


Leonardo told Divebomb about his experience: “I did a couple of weeks last year. This year, I did one day with all my teammates where we trained physical and mental, and it was a really good day.


“With physical, we did a lot of tests, but I think the mental training was actually really tough. They put us [under] mental stress and doing some tough exercise and I think it was really good to do because it helped me stay more relaxed and concentrate only on what I have to do, and not [on] other things.”


One of the exercises Fornaroli recalls is the Stroop Task: “You have the colour green (written out) but the colour (of the text on screen) is another one like yellow, and you have to put true or false. But the true and false is [also] changing on the joystick, so it’s really tough.”


Essentially, the Stroop effect describes the interference that occurs when we try to name the colour of a word written in a different colour than what the word actually says.


For example, if the word "blue" is written in red ink, it takes longer for our brains to recognize and say the colour of the ink than if the word "red" was written in red ink.


Such exercises are crucial in training drivers to manage pressure better and improve performance. The Stroop Task, for example, helps drivers process information faster and remain focused under pressure.

Credit: Formula Medicine / Facebook

Through repetition, drivers are trained to become more efficient — hence the name Mental Economy — in their use of mental energy, allowing them to remain focused and perform at their best on and off the track.


Fornaroli praised the program's physical and mental training, including certain challenging mental exercises that helped him stay relaxed and focused on his tasks.


Back home in Piacenza, Fornaroli has a physical and mental trainer to help him improve race-on-race: “When I have a difficult weekend, of course [for a] couple of days later I'm a bit sad and not motivated so much. But then with Gianfranco I can speak a bit of what happened and what I have to improve and that is a big, big motivation.”


Gianfranco Rizzi, Fornaroli’s physical and mental coach, trains with the Trident driver at his Yama Arashi Performance Center. Rizzi previously worked as the Technical Director of the Italian National Kickboxing team before moving into motorsport.


“Just that at the end of quarantine I was searching for someone professional in my town and I met [Gianfranco], who has a lot of experience with guys of my age, so he can really help me under the mental training point of view,” Fornaroli says, adding that their training program isn’t limited to mental work alone.


The physical demands of motorsport require athletes to have exceptional mental and physical endurance. Drivers must maintain high concentration levels for extended periods while managing their physical fatigue and discomfort.


There’s an adaptation curve from series to series in managing the long races. He will race longer F3 races of 45 minutes each, compared to the shorter races he was used to in Formula 4: “I had to improve again, and I hope I will, but I'm quite confident I can manage it.”


As always, the objective is to clear the mind as much as possible: “I learned only to concentrate on the things I know I have to do, and to put away everything I don't need.”


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