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ABC's of a Formula 1 Driver's Physical Fitness

Undergoing G-Forces and Mental Stress, Drivers Must Be Physically Fit

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Clearly, the fitter an F1 driver is, the better they will perform.

But increasingly, another factor has come into play for the elite class of drivers in world auto racing: Because the series requires so much travel and so many demands on a driver's time and attention in dealing with the media, sponsors, team personnel and fans, drivers say that their physical workouts are intended as much to keep in top condition mentally as physically.

''Fitness is a very important thing in Formula 1, but I have to say that now it is less physical fitness and more mental fitness,'' said Vitantonio Liuzzi, a driver at the Hispania team. ''To be sharp for a one-and-a-half to two-hour race without making a mistake - more than physical, I believe, is a mental thing.''

Alexander Leibinger, a physiotherapist and osteopath who trains Adrian Sutil, a driver at the Force India team, said that being in good physical condition also helps to quickly eliminate the physiological byproducts of mental stress, like the acids the body produces.

''If you have a better basic fitness level then your body can handle it and eliminate all of the stress products,'' Leibinger said. ''That is why we do a lot of basic training, say 20 hours a week of endurance training and muscle training. To have a good basis so that during a race weekend, when the stress is very high, the body can handle it.''

''When you go into the car, your head is full of things,'' he added, referring to all the interviews, sponsor demands and relations with team personnel. ''You need a program where you can go easily and quickly back to the state you need to be in. And this is what we train on the side: How to be focused in the car and put everything else to the side. So we also have training on the mental side, to have exercises to help the drivers deal with that situation.''

As the technology of racing cars has changed, so have the physical demands on a driver's body. In the past, a driver had mostly to be strong in the shoulders and forearms in order to handle the steering and change gears. Now there is power steering, but advances in aerodynamic grip have created considerable G-forces during a car's high-speed cornering, as have the braking with the carbon brakes. That makes demands most of all on a driver's neck, as his head will be up to five times heavier than its usual weight and the driver has to keep it upright. His legs are solicited with heavy pounding on the brakes, which demand a sudden force of more than 100 kilograms, or 220 pounds.

Heikki Kovalainen, a driver at Team Lotus, therefore works on developing quick, explosive power from his muscles. Not just for braking, but also for other quick bursts of action that may be required in a race, like when he suddenly has to shift the direction of the car or deal with going off track.

''I believe it is very important to work on the power and explosive strength so the muscle can do the job very quickly,'' Kovalainen said. ''When I have a surprising moment, a snap with the car, the muscles need to react very quickly. If I have a lot of power it doesn't matter and it doesn't help if I can't actually use it.''

The typical heart rate over a race is from 140 to 150 beats a minute, as the body pumps the blood to cool off and adrenaline flows and muscles work.

Drivers' exercising methods differ, and most are helped by personal physiotherapists and athletic trainers, but one thing is the same up and down the grid: During the winter, they will often exercise from five to seven hours a day to build a base. During the season, between races they will continue to exercise for hours when they can. On a race weekend some will do a little exercise, but for others the time spent in the car is enough.

''The best training is kilometers in the car,'' Liuzzi said. ''You can train as much as you want over the winter, but when you go in the car for the first test, you feel it.'' Many drivers do triathlons, with the cycling, swimming and running working most of the parts of the body that are used during a race. But not all drivers have the same philosophy.

''I am a little bit skeptical about people doing triathlons,'' Kovalainen said. ''We are racing drivers. We are not endurance athletes.''

But where all sports come together, Leibinger noted, is the need to perform at a high level during the competition on the mental side.

''The mental side is the same in every sport,'' he said. ''The difference between a very good athlete is how can you on the race day perform 100 percent. A good one can perform 80 percent or 70 percent, and is not able to perform what he can normally in the training. A very good athlete can perform 100 percent and also in a competition he can improve his performance and do it much better than in the training.''

A driver's diet is also under constant watch and control, both for his physical health and also for making him most effective as part of the driver/car package.

''We take a lot of care of nutrition because on a race weekend he should be light and we tell the cook he should have specific food: low fat, low salt so the body cannot save more fluids as the body weight must be low on the race weekend,'' Leibinger said. ''If the driver is lighter, the engineers can balance the car better.''

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