Why the Singapore Grand Prix Presents a Unique Challenge for Drivers

Fraser MasefieldContributor ISeptember 25, 2013

Raikkonen drove through the pain barrier to finish third in Singapore
Raikkonen drove through the pain barrier to finish third in SingaporeClive Mason/Getty Images

Kimi Raikkonen’s remarkable drive from 13th on the grid to finish third at the Singapore Grand Prix has to go down as one of the drives of the season because it was achieved in arguably the most demanding race on the F1 calendar.

Raikkonen sliced his way through the field with a series of bold overtaking manoeuvres, particularly on Jenson Button. His effort was all the more superhuman because he was nursing a back injury that almost saw him pull out of the race, as reported by ESPNF1.

Yesterday was not ideal and I almost didn't drive. We have to be happy enough with finishing third and we can sort the problems for the next race. It's not the first time I have had issues with my back and I know I have some work to do over the winter so we will see what we can do.

Singapore is not the place to have a back problem. With the possible exception of Interlagos, it is the bumpiest circuit on the calendar. But that isn’t the only problem for drivers on a circuit that provides arguably the biggest test of a driver’s fitness on the F1 calendar.

Drivers also have to adapt their body clock to racing on European time at night and even the evening time slot provides little respite from the stifling 30-degree heat and 70 percent humidity in which drivers can lose up to three kilos of fluid during the two-hour race.

Formula One drivers are amongst the fittest and most highly-conditioned athletes in sport. Intense cardio vascular training is mixed with weight training to cope with the rigours of a long race. Some drivers will swim, some will run and some will cycle. And some, like Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg will do all three in triathlons.

Red Bull’s Mark Webber has his own endurance event, the Tasmania challenge, a five-day event consisting of mountain biking, kayaking and running across 350km of challenging terrain. We saw the Webber sprint in action at the end of the Singapore GP as he dashed to Fernando’s Ferrari to hitch a lift.

But it’s not only the physical aspect of the human body that needs to be in peak condition, for at Marina Bay, the mental aspect also plays a huge part.

On a street circuit such as Singapore, where run-off areas are minimal, a driver has to attack the course by getting as close to the wall as possible. Negotiating 23 corners a lap and changing gear 71 times a lap for 61 laps, they also have to keep radio contact with their pit crew, be aware of other cars and make minuscule adjustments to their brake, engine and clutch settings.

They must  weigh up when to use their KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) and open the DRS (Drag Reduction System) for overtaking opportunities.

There clearly is a lot to think about when driving at speeds of up to 180mph. Lose concentration for just a millisecond and they’re in the wall as Daniel Ricciardo and Paul di Resta discovered.

Some drivers employ sports psychologists to help them to concentrate during a race, including techniques to visualise the perfect lap, shutting out outside distractions and breathing exercises.

The anti-clockwise nature of the Marina Bay circuit also makes it tough drivers' neck muscles, so weight training is important. Most circuits are clockwise, so neck muscles are unaccustomed to such a change.

Drivers encounter up to 3.5g of cornering force and the weight of the helmet adds to the load on he neck. These loadings cannot easily be replicated by normal gym equipment and some drivers use specially-designed rigs, such as helmets with clips attached to heavy weights on pulley systems to keep the muscles strong during the off season.

Drivers sometimes rest their helmets on the side of the cockpit at times during the race, especially at Interlagos, to alleviate the strain on the left side of their neck.

Diet is also extremely important for keeping a driver at his optimum weightthe lighter the better.

A lot of chicken and oily fish is consumed between races to aid weight loss. On a race weekend, the onus is on carbohydrates such as brown rice and pasta, which release energy slowly. Protein is especially important after an intense race as it aids muscle recovery.

Because drivers sweat out up to 3kg of their own body weight in the extreme heat and humidity, they take on large quantities of water and energy drinks containing electrolytes and salts before, during and after the race.

Before Raikkonen returned to F1 in 2012, many questioned whether or not he had the fitness or mental strength to return to the top level after a two-year absence.

After his latest stellar drive in Singapore, I think we know the answer.