“Put it this way, if I said to you ‘Luke, you’re going to do some weight lifting. And I’ll tell you what Luke, we’re going to put you straight into the European championships and you’ll be starting the deadlift at 150kg.’ What would you say to me?
“‘Well excuse me, I don’t even know how to pick a weight up.'”
It’s remarkable how well he knows me given just a few hours earlier, Brian Cameron probably didn’t even know I existed, let alone that I would be on the other end of the telephone.
I am certainly no weightlifter. I have no experience and I’m not planning on changing that.
But, you’ll be relieved to hear, this metaphor isn’t about me. It’s about Max Smart – one of the six FIA Rally Star finalists bidding for a spot in the 2024 Junior World Rally Championship.
He’s inexperienced too. But the difference is, he is absolutely trying to change that.
“That’s kind of like what we were saying to Max,” Cameron continues. “We were saying ‘This is the rulebook, here’s the rules, there’s the car, go drive it.'”
You see Smart may be an FIA Rally Star finalist, but unlike the rest of the final six, he’s completely green to rallying. Four weeks prior to the first Rally Star ‘training season’ event in San Marino, the South African had never even driven a rally car.
Clearly, he is talented. He wouldn’t have won the African final if he wasn’t. But expecting him to be able to compete at such a high level, and under so much pressure, when he had nothing to draw from proved a step too far.
Smart crashed in testing, and he crashed on his first event in San Marino. Something wasn’t working. Something had to be done.
So while the rest of the Rally Star finalists headed off to contest Tarmac rallies in Austria and Slovenia, Smart was ejected from the ‘training season’ and went back to basics.
Because as Cameron shrewdly put it: “Can we say the accidents Max had were Max’s fault? No, they were just always going to happen.”
The whole cognitive overload was just a recipe for making a mistake
Cameron, by the way, is a doctor in elite performance who co-founded Elite Sports Performance alongside 2001 World Rally champion and FIA deputy president for sport Robert Reid. Listening to what he has to say is extremely insightful.
“You can’t just put drivers in cars and expect seat time to be the answer – that’s exactly the way to break people,” he says. “You will destroy the talent before it ever has a chance to develop.
“Seat time’s not the answer, but traditionally in motorsport everyone has believed it is. And to an extent that’s true, but kilometers in Rally3 cars are expensive kilometers and somehow you’ve got to short-circle that as far as possible.
“The skills have to be transferable – you have to prepare them in a different way.
“For Max we may as well have been talking to him in Swahili. He could hear the words, but he had no experience to ground them into. So we had to rewind it with Max and really went back to basics.
“It was going to get expensive for them [FIA Rally Star] otherwise and there’s a definition of insanity which is keep doing the same thing time and time again and expect a different outcome.
“That’s where it got to with Max. It was quite clear that there was something different needed, so we took him on for five/six weeks in the UK.”
As a former motocross rider, Smart had an awareness of what was needed to compete. But what he didn’t necessarily understand was how to transfer that knowledge into a rally car.
Cameron pinpoints an interesting example from the 20-year-old’s accident in testing.
“Everyone was focused on ‘well there’s where you made the mistake going from the four to the three tightens’ and you went off there,” he recalls, “but nobody actually looked at the previous run of the stage, where he came out of that corner and said to Lorcan [Moore, co-driver] ‘There’s something not right with the car I don’t understand what it is, I must have a puncture’.
“This is someone who doesn’t understand what the feeling of the car is, and what they possibly should have done is then cautioned that corner but the second time, whatever had made the car loose had then spat him off the road and that’s where he had the accident.
“So the problem wasn’t the corner, it was not understanding what the surface was telling him, what the car was telling him. And that’s a fundamental knowledge that you build up through experience and through guided learning.
“The other thing was just watching him driving the car, he was putting huge amounts of physical effort into driving the car,” Cameron adds.
We saw a completely different Max in Estonia - the calmness, the professionalism, the understanding of what he needed to do and delivering against it
“And it became very clear early on, watching his in-car, that this is somebody who didn’t have the capacity to deal with what he had to do with the car, grabbing gears, grabbing the handbrake, turning the steering, getting the balance, listening to pacenotes – and he was in left-hand-drive and he’d never driven left-hand-drive before.
“The whole cognitive overload was just a recipe for making a mistake.”
To ensure the recipe was for success instead, a 10-point plan was devised with the basic premise of enabling Max to understand what he was doing and transform processes into what Cameron describes as “unconscious competence”.
Smart clocking a few thousand miles in a left-hand-drive road car was just one such example.
“Consciously, he was incompetent – he knew he couldn’t drive left-hand-drive,” Cameron says. “We had to get him consciously competent, and then give him enough experience and practice so it becomes an unconscious competent.
“And because it’s an unconscious competence it doesn’t take any cognitive capacity for him to process the spatial awareness changes.”
Other steps were more directly motorsport-oriented, such as learning about steering inputs and weight transfer at a test track, spending time on a simulator to perfect racing lines and then taking part in actual events – a hillclimb and two rallies, one a single-venue and one a round of the Irish National championship, in a Suzuki Swift.
It worked. By the time Smart returned to the FIA Rally Star ‘training season’ on the recent Rally Saaremaa, he was a transformed prospect.
In Cameron’s words “we saw a completely different Max in Estonia – the calmness, the professionalism, the understanding of what he needed to do and delivering against it.”
Now the South African’s target will be to build up his speed – starting with this weekend’s Rally RACC, formerly Spain’s round of the WRC – and ultimately earn himself a place in next year’s Junior WRC.
“It’s a big challenge,” Cameron acknowledges. “Let’s see if he’s up to it.”