Formula 1 – the elite international level of automobile racing – is coming to Austin, TX this weekend.

It’s a big deal. Formula 1 hasn’t raced on U.S. soil since 2007. And its real glory days in the U.S. were decades ago. But worldwide, Formula 1 has the biggest viewership of any sport – even bigger than soccer. Formula 1 drivers are the highest-paid athletes in the world. The cars aren’t like NASCAR cars – they’re engineering miracles. Each team designs its own car – Formula 1 is an engineering competition as much as a driving competition. It’s all about extreme excellence and peak performance.

And that brings us to LASIK.

How? Aren’t we stretching it a bit to compare elite automobile racing to laser vision correction surgery?

Not really. Let’s think for a minute about what Formula 1 racing really involves – and the fact that, among other things, it’s one of the most visually demanding tasks in the world.

First, there’s pure speed. The speeds that F1 cars are capable of are staggering. They’ve been clocked at over 250mph. On racetracks they will routinely reach 190mph.

But F1 isn’t just about speed. Formula 1 tracks are incredibly twisty. The Circuit of the Americas track here in Austin has 20 turns, some of them hairpins, and while there are stretches where the cars will be going flat-out fast, there are others where they’ll have to slow to a crawl – without losing position. Each driver has to deal with 23 other cars trying to get by them. Crowding on the race track is so common that the cars will often travel within inches of each other and contact is a routine occurrence. Think about how uneasy you feel when a car comes within a couple feet of you on a straight portion of freeway while traveling at 60mph. Now contrast that with F1 cars that are two inches apart while travelling 130mph going into a tight curve. How do stay safe and separated – and fast? Precise vision makes the difference. The visual demands on these drivers are nothing short of remarkable.

Let’s break down how F1 drivers need to see and react. At 190mph their cars will travel 300 feet (in other words, 100 yards, or the length of a football field) in one second. For you and me in regular driving conditions it will take one to 1.5 seconds for us to see an issue down the road, neurally process a decision, and physically make the driving correction. In an F1 car, while trying to make that decision, we would have gone 450 feet – a football field and a half!

But those reaction times are for ideal conditions. If conditions are less than ideal, reaction times get longer. Factors that can make for longer reaction times include:

  1. Poor visibility – decreased lighting or limited visibility (for example, in rain) will demand longer reaction times.
  2. Cognitive load – poor road conditions, the close presence of other drivers, distracting radio communications or the need to read the gauges will increase reaction times
  3. Unexpected occurrence – the more unexpected an event, the longer the reaction time.

In race conditions, the margin of victory – and the margin of safety – depends on how far ahead the drivers can see. The difference between seeing 20/20 and better than 20/20 can be significant. Better than 20/20 vision allows for earlier detection of competitors’ moves, earlier execution of needed course corrections, better assessment of entry speed into a corner, and more effective crash avoidance. There is no doubt that the better a race car driver can see, the faster he can go.

Can LASIK make a difference? Experience says, “yes.” Consider the LASIK experience of military fighter pilots, who have to deal with even faster speeds and even shorter reaction times. Several years ago, custom wavefront LASIK was approved for U.S. Navy and Air Force fighter pilots and is now routinely done. Fighter pilots may be the most thoroughly studied group of any set of LASIK patients. The effectiveness of LASIK surgery in military aviation is well documented. In particular, fighter pilots have benefited from custom wavefront LASIK, which corrects not only near- and farsightedness but also the unique imperfections in each patient’s eye. This often results in much better than 20/20 vision and even improves night vision.

What about other vision correction options? For fighter pilots and F1 drivers, eyeglasses and contact lenses aren’t really practical. Glasses cause peripheral distortions and can increase higher order aberrations, limiting depth perception. This is an extremely dangerous risk to take when you’re traveling at 100 mph only inches away from another car. Contact lenses have been shown to decrease contrast sensitivity and cause dry eye. Both of these issues result in loss of detail that in turn increases reaction times. The discomfort of contact lens dryness will also lead to an increased blink rate and degradation of image quality. Remember – in the time it takes you to blink, an F1 car will travel over 100 feet.

Wearing glasses or contacts while racing also creates safety risks. If eyeglasses fog up or shift under the helmet, vision would be critically reduced. The same risk applies if a contact lens should fall out or move in the eye.

While we’re not aware of a current F1 driver who’s had LASIK, we do know that many racecar drivers do seek out LASIK surgery. For example, there’s Bill Auberlen, who drives a BMW M3 in the almost equally demanding American Le Mans series. Racers who have LASIK are more effective, more competitive, and see better than they ever did with glasses or contacts. Like other high performers who undergo LASIK, they can achieve 20/15 vision or even 20/10. It’s a source of significant advantage. What does all of this mean to you and me? We may not be fighter pilots or F1 drivers – but LASIK can still give us an edge in performance and safety. Even if your most demanding driving is on the Interstate – or driving your kids to soccer practice – the better you see, the safer a driver you’ll be.

If you’re tired of the hassle of glasses or contacts – or just want to find out how good your vision can be – come in and talk with us. We’re here to help you decide if LASIK is right for you.