Nigel Mansell was once famously quoted as saying that the presence of vast numbers of fans at his home race were worth an extra few tenths of a second per lap. While this claim is obviously difficult to quantify, he’s not the only driver who has implied that a visible (and vocal!) contingent of partisan supporters can have a positive motivational effect on race day. With a capacity crowd of 140,000 expected for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone this weekend as part of the Government’s test event programme, Zandvoort back on the F1 calendar, and Max Verstappen’s orange army out in force at the Red Bull Ring recently, we thought it timely to look at some sport psychology research regarding the effect of home advantage. While much has been written about home venue advantage in the context of other sports, is there any evidence to suggest it may also have an influence on athlete performance in motorsport events?
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Firstly when looking at this issue from a Formula One context, the definition of a ‘home’ venue or race can be slightly ambiguous. Although Red Bull have had a great run at their eponymous home circuit in Austria over recent years, only their sponsorship is Austrian-based, with the actual team being based in Milton Keynes. This technically makes Silverstone their home race from an operations standpoint, as with most of the current teams on the grid. For the purposes of this article we’ll mostly focus on the role of the driver as a performing athlete over a race weekend, while acknowledging that there is a clear logistical advantage for all members of team personnel when they’re able to work at circuits close to home; particularly over the course of the current monster 23 race worldwide schedule.
Research conducted in other sports (most notably soccer) shows that there is a significant and positive statistical effect to playing at home, with teams consistently winning more home than away games. Correlation doesn’t always equal causality though, so what factors have been put forward that may influence this phenomenon? There are four key factors for home advantage which are believed to be crowd support, territoriality, familiarity, and travel fatigue. It has been suggested that the main factor is presence and proximity of large numbers of vocal fans (with the effect being more pronounced at indoor playing environments such as those used in hockey and basketball) playing a part in increasing arousal levels and leading to increased motivation for home players.
Interestingly there is also some evidence to suggest that while this effect can be strong during the normal course of a season, it statistically begins to tail off again when the importance of matches increases with formats like ‘playoffs’ or toward the end of a season. This ties in with the concept of over-arousal for athletes at big pressure or ‘spotlight’ events, supporting the optimal zone theory (a sport psychology classic!) and that individual differences of players and how they respond to stress events also has a significant effect. For a classic example of this we’ll once again turn to soccer, where a player who derives a motivational benefit from a noisy home crowd during the course of a match may suddenly wish for an empty stadium when it’s time for match-deciding penalty kicks.
With much of the research in the area having been conducted in team sport environments (and also being quite US-centric) let’s take a look at how this broad observed effect might play out for individual athletes in a motorsport context. At a very basic level, competing at a home venue can simply reduce the number of variables an athlete has to contend with, and therefore devote attentional capacity to, on race day. By removing complicated travel logistics, increasing the chance of being well rested from sleeping in your own bed, to having a larger family/social support network on hand, a ‘home’ event can have obvious advantages. For international athletes, even being in an environment where you can conduct a working day in your own language may increase that sense of familiarity and become just one more tiny thing you don’t have to devote precious attentional capacity to.
On the flipside of this however, it’s likely that the extra attention around a home event for an elite athlete may bring increased media commitments or a sense of expectation that isn’t necessarily present at other events. Every individual will handle this differently, and where one may thrive from the increased buzz and activity around a race weekend, another may find it distracting and an unwelcome drain to their focus. It’s therefore important for any athlete and their wider support network (in any sport) to be aware of where these events may occur in their season, and have appropriate well-developed strategies in place to cope with any associated anxiety or unwelcome negative attentional effects that could impact their performance.
The notion of territoriality and familiarity is an interesting one. Testing rules in modern Formula One obviously limit extra track preparation, however once again purely for the ease of travel logistics teams will use their local circuit for most pre-season filming/testing work, further increasing that sense of familiarity with the venue. It’s no coincidence that Alpha Tauri chose to do much of their pre-season running at Imola with Yuki Tsunoda for example; with the aim being that this would also reap benefits with familiarity when it came to the race weekend itself for the rookie driver.
A bad performance at what is deemed to be an important home race can potentially create a self-fulfilling prophecy of increased pressure next time at the same venue. As a recent example of this consider Charles Leclerc and ‘the Monegasque curse’ of not finishing his home race since 2017. In reality it’s simply a conflation of car performance factors and some unfortunate luck, but it’s also difficult to quantify if there could also be an element of that increased expectation/arousal changing the approach to a race weekend and encouraging overdriving. For a further pertinent example see also the annual national weight of expectation for anyone driving a Ferrari to produce a good result at the Italian Grand Prix…
Interestingly, in the last 15 months we’ve had an (unfortunate) opportunity to observe the long term effects of removing crowds from home events with the disruption caused by the global pandemic. In a recent study conducted in the German Bundesliga (referenced below for further reading) it was found that the absence of crowds due to the Covid-19 lockdown turned a significant home advantage of 54.35% into a home disadvantage of 44.10%. Once again there are a wide number of factors that could also influence this, particularly with regard to increased disruption and mental stressors on account of changes to season schedules and pandemic procedures, but such a difference still seems notable. The authors of this particular study were in fact careful to note that transferring their findings from the German soccer league where they were observed is difficult, due to the number of conflicting variables. It may also be a possibility that there is a kind of placebo effect at play, with players believing so much in the concept of a home advantage that they unconsciously up their game in some way for big home events.
While we’ve looked at Formula One and the upcoming home races for elite drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, outside of the highest levels of the sport, what lessons can it give to all athletes? Looking back at those four key factors for home advantage (crowd support, territoriality, familiarity, and travel fatigue) the concepts could be seen to be equally as applicable for an athlete performing at any level. While crowd support is out of your control, you may find you perform better at your local track closer to home than ones that require significant travel time or planning. The fundamental principles of simplifying travel stress, being well rested from sleeping in your own bed, to having your family/social support network easily accessible are ones that any athlete would do well to ensure are in place around competitive events. As with other concepts in athlete preparation, the more you can standardise and simplify your race day environment the higher chance you have of repeatedly facilitating peak performance, whatever venue you’re competing at.
Ultimately, in a complex sport like motorsport there are many factors that affect performance which therefore makes it difficult to observe if there is a quantifiable effect in one as seemingly innocuous as racing at a home circuit. However, on the basis of anecdotal evidence from drivers when asked if a home crowd affects their performance, we can infer that spectators may well play a small but not insignificant part in increasing motivation to succeed through their visible support and encouragement for anyone they consider to be a home driver. When this is added to the more tangible effects of venue familiarity, removal of travel fatigue, and the territorial need to perform well at a home venue, it’s just possible that Mansell might have been right… although perhaps not to the hyperbolic extent of a few tenths per lap!
Reference: Tilp M and Thaller S (2020) Covid-19 Has Turned Home Advantage Into Home Disadvantage in the German Soccer Bundesliga. Front. Sports Act. Living 2:593499. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2020.593499