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A hot topic frequently surrounding Formula 1 drivers these days is how to classify them as athletes. It seems easy to dismiss as we are not able to detect the exertion in the same way we can a sprinter, football or basketball player or others who compete in a way that showcase their bodies.
Race car drivers, however, even with the benefit of advanced technology, still must train up to be as skilled as any other top-flight athlete. Whatever advantage they may gain by being in a cyborg existence with a machine is still dependent on the limits and abilities of their physical condition. This article peers into the world of just what an F1 driver endures.
F1 performance coach Eliot Challifour explains why, even though it looks like he sits for a living, Lewis Hamilton’s fitness is up there with Chris Froome and Mo Farah’s.
Whether it’s a turbocharged V6 engine or the latest carbon-fibre chassis, Formula 1 is a sport where innovation and technological advances are king.
But while the power, muscle and endurance of F1 cars are renowned, the power, the muscles and endurance of the men behind the wheel are often overlooked – certainly in comparison to other elite athletes.
If you were to list the top five fittest athletes in the world, names such as Mo Farah, Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Chris Froome and LeBron James would more than likely be on it. It would be no surprise, however, if Lewis Hamilton was overlooked.
Because his success is ultimately reliant on the super machine at his fingertips, there is probably a perception that the physical requirements placed on him are less than on those who run, hit, kick, dunk and cycle.
The reality is very different.
“Formula 1 drivers are extremely fit athletes,” says Eliot Challifour, a performance coach who has worked with former McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne and others over the course of his 15 years in motorsport.
“When they are in the car, they are actually sustaining heart rates very similar to that of a high-level distance runner or cyclist – it’s 80 percent or more of their maximum heart rate they’re having to maintain for a couple of hours.
“Although they’re not running or moving, they’ve got a lot of forces that are being applied to them. They’re coping with five or even six times their body weight.”
The downforce generated by an F1 car – which allows them to corner at speeds of up to 180 miles per hour – exposes drivers to G-force up to 6.5G, meaning they need a strong neck – strong enough to “hold five to six times the weight of their head” – to withstand the stress on their upper body.
That involves some specific training that you aren’t likely to see at your local gym, although Challifour is careful not to overstretch – literally – his high-profile clients.
“We do a lot of isometric work where you hold the muscle under tension, but it doesn’t change length. You can also do isometric with a little bit of rotation because obviously, the driver needs to turn their head,” Challifour says.
“I’m not a fan of doing a large range of motions with neck training – lots of people do it but there’s a higher risk of injury. If you’re personally responsible for someone worth millions, from my perspective I’d rather take the slightly safer option.”
Another thing that’s “extremely important for an F1 driver” is a strong core, as it helps to counteract G-force while also enabling them to operate the car.
“Brake forces often get forgotten – the actual force that drivers actively have to exert on the pedal is around 80 kilograms, multiple times each race,” Challifour says.
The physical demands of F1 are exacerbated by the extreme conditions that drivers are exposed to, with cockpit temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius over certain race weekends.
“They’ve got fireproof overalls on, a helmet, so all your usual mechanisms of cooling the body down, like sweat evaporating off your skin, are a lot less effective,” Challifour says.
Drivers lose an average of 1.4 litres of sweat over the course of a two-hour race, and sometimes as much as three litres in hot and humid countries such as Singapore and Bahrain.
That physical fitness not only allows drivers to drive the car but also to remain concentrated as the race unfolds around them.
“It’s a very cognitively demanding sport – the fitness aspect is just making sure they’re able to tolerate the physical stresses comfortably,” Challifour says.
“You don’t want to have in your head that you’re too hot because it’s going to impact the other aspects – the mental aspects – of what you’re undertaking,”
As with any elite athlete, diet is key for F1 drivers to maintain both their fitness and their weight over a long season.
It is part of a performance coach’s job to make sure their driver is consuming the right foods – a healthy balance of carbohydrates, lean proteins, fats and vegetables – but the timing of intake is also key.
“As soon as they get out the car we have to make sure they’ve got a healthy snack to get a quick bit of carbohydrate straight back in them and then get them a proper meal within an hour,” Challifour says.
Another factor to consider is travel, with the F1 traveling circus (including Betway F1) pitching tent at 21 countries across five continents, meaning drivers clock up around 100,000 air miles a year.
“Planning recovery around travel is essential in making sure that their immune system isn’t suppressed – that they don’t get too sick,” Challifour says. “Setting your watch to the time zone you are heading to is important, as is getting your sleep cycles in the right balance.
“That means changing when you’re eating, too – getting straight into that routine of having breakfast when you should have breakfast, lunch when you should have lunch, to get your body in sync as soon as possible.”
The physical conditioning of F1 drivers is taken far more seriously than it used to be in the early years of the sport.
“Among the generation of kids coming through now, fitness is seen as an accepted requirement – something that’s part of your daily routine as a racing driver,” Challifour says.
“In the past, you have your images of James Hunt smoking and shagging chicks, maybe doing the odd run, so there’s been a big shift over that 50 years.”
There’s still a way to go, though, according to Challifour, who believes that F1’s approach to fitness “is not as advanced as other sports”.
“Considering the advanced engineering in motorsport, physical fitness, medical and health services could be better,” he says.
Which brings us back to the car.
“It’s not like you’re a Tour de France cyclist where your physiology is everything,” Challifour says. “Motorsport is a technically complex operation, with a massive team, where the car has a massive impact too.
“You need a certain level of physical fitness to perform, but even if you’re the fittest driver in the world and you have a poor car, that won’t make any difference.
“A Williams is never going to be beating a Mercedes, for example. You could put Lewis Hamilton in a Williams and he’d still be bolt last. There’s not that 100 per cent direct correlation that there is in other sports – there are lots of other factors in play.”