Formula 1: Are F1 Drivers considered Athletes?

Ben AutySenior Writer IJune 19, 2008

Imagine if you will, the modern alpha male, Nick we shall call him. He is sat on his sofa in his living room watching the Formula 1 on a Sunday afternoon. He has a beer in his right hand and a packet of crisps in the left, anger flares as his favourite driver has just ploughed his car into the wall at 160 mph. His response initially will be one of frustration and he will probably yell some kind of abuse towards his TV implying that the driver is “useless” and no doubt our alpha male would be able to do so much better.

Well Nick, I would disagree that you could do better and this is why.

An impact at this speed, 160 mph (approximately 257 kmph) like in the case of Heikki Kovalainen in Spain this year causes the car to decelerate at a force of 26G, that’s 26 times your body weight. Now think about this, his rib cage is static due to the five-point harness he was wearing. Are your internal organs strapped in? Absolutely not, they keep on going, hitting the inside of your rib cage at 160mph. This is enough to kill our alpha male in an instant. Sorry Nick, you tried your hardest.

But these F1 drivers are no ordinary human beings, they are super humans who push their bodies to extreme high limits for their passion. They go through rigorous training schedules and diets to maintain a level of fitness that should this kind of accident occur, then they have a higher chance of survival. It’s not only the survival that is in mind but just to get through a single race is a task in itself for a human body. In this article I will try to explain just what it takes to be a Formula 1 driver. You might be surprised.

When we say the word athlete we think of fit men and women who can run fast, hit hard, go for longer and are generally at the peak of physical fitness. The reason I choose F1 drivers for my study is to show that the makings of a great athlete come from not only the body, but also the mind.

I think that this is sometimes overlooked when people look at these guys who risk their lives week after week for their passion and our entertainment. It’s overlooked that they are on the whole, probably a lot fitter than your average athlete. This might have been proved this week when Honda driver Jensen Button completed a triathlon in 2 hours, 22 minutes, 43 seconds. This was an Olympic distance event consisting of a 1,500m swim, a 42km bike ride and a 10km run to the finish. To finish in this time considering the Olympic record is 1:48:24, is pretty impressive considering his job is “to sit in a car and drive.” Do you think our alpha male Nick would do so well to get within 35 minutes of an Olympic record over this distance?

So in what parts of the body do our drivers really focus to make them such athletes? 

  • Head
  • Neck
  • Heart (Cardiovascular)
  • Core Strength
  • Arms
  • Legs 

They focus on these parts to enable their bodies to endure up to and sometimes in excess of 90 minutes of speeds up to 200 mph (322 kmph) and lateral/longitudinal G-forces of 5G, unless they crash, in which case it is a lot more as described earlier.

Let’s break it down body part by body part now to explain just why I think Formula 1 drivers are often overlooked as possibly the world’s most incredible athletes that always seem to be forgotten about.

The Neck

Building up the neck muscles for an F1 driver is vital and one of the most important. When a driver hits a corner sometimes at high speeds or under rapid deceleration the G-force on the neck and head can be anything up to 5G. This means that everything is five times the weight. A driver’s helmet and HANS (Head and Neck Support) will weigh up to 7 kilograms.  Multiply that by the G-force and he is trying to keep 35 kilograms of weight upright just so he or she can focus on the apex of the corner.

So to understand this weight just imagine having five butane gas canisters or five large fire extinguishers strapped to your head for two hours and then tell me that this is not a demonstration of physical agility.

To train for this the drivers may use a piece of equipment that is basically a helmet attached to pulleys, which pull and move the head and neck in different directions and angles. The driver must then resist the pull to strengthen the neck and upper back muscles. It’s not uncommon for the driver’s personal trainer to learn the next track that the driver will race and simulate the track by making the pulleys move in the corner sequence of the track thus making the driver prepared for the coming race.

The Heart (Cardiovascular)

Drivers have to go the distance on race days, there are no breaks where they can just get out of the vehicle and cool down. They can’t go to the touchline and grab a drink from a trainer and they don’t get a halftime or a time out. For F1 drivers it's constant physical endurance for the full race length, which as I have said before at an extreme level can be anything up to two hours long.

The average human being, that’s me and you folks (unless Lewis and Co. is reading this), has a resting heartbeat of 70 bpm. Our drivers tend to have a resting heart rate of about 45-50 bpm, which increases rapidly come race time.

As our driver sits on the grid waiting for the lights to go out, his heart rate has increased to 185 bpm even though he is not moving a single muscle. During the race adrenaline will push the heart rate up even higher, sometimes over 200 bpm.  This will give an average reading of approximately 170 bpm. That heart rate of 170 bpm is equivalent to almost three beats every second. Count it and then imagine your heart going through that for the full two hours.

Did you know? - A driver’s blood pressure will increase by approximately 50 percent during a two-hour race.

Our driver is operating in cramped conditions that are hot and noisy. He will be strapped in with a five-point harness, which puts pressure on the crotch and chest. I am sure that it is difficult to breathe at the best of times in an F1 car. At the season’s hottest race in Malaysia the heat soared to 40 C and humidity was at an astounding 80 percent. Most drivers jumped out of the cars and almost passed out with the heat and dehydration.  During a normal race in mild temperatures a driver will sweat out up to three litres.

Dehydration is bad for F1 drivers as it causes confusion and slow responses. Yes, the drivers do get liquids on board the vehicle, but at the very most it will be one litre of an energy drink that will contain vital salts lost through sweating to try and help maintain the high level of brain and muscle function. Even then the pump system used to transport this fluid to the driver often breaks and leaves the driver parched for the remainder of the race.

Getting back to the cardiovascular level, the fact is there is no other sporting activity other than a full distance marathon that will keep heart rates and temperatures as high and at such a long time as F1 does. Are you starting to get on board with me yet?

Core Strength

Steering this 750 horsepower beast of a car, which weighs the same as a modern Mini Cooper, is no easy task. The driver will use free weights and chest presses to strengthen chest and back muscles in order cope with assisting the neck and arms with moving the car round the track. The general idea for a driver will be to build strength and improve resistance.

The Arms

Drivers need incredibly strong arms for obvious reasons and while muscle is good, bulk is bad. This is why you don’t see an F1 driver getting into his car with arms like Mike Tyson. The muscles must be incredibly strong but not so big that the driver is carrying extra weight or size.

Finnish driver Heikki Kovalainen for example will train his arm muscles to be strong by sitting balanced on a gym ball and holding out a three kilograms weight in front of him like it is a steering wheel. He will then be directed by his personal trainer to turn the wheel left, right or return to centre. This improves muscle strength over long periods of time and reaction times while under the pressure of keeping the weight held out in front of you. Drivers will purposely build up lactic acid in their muscles to help strengthen them to a level which will be required during a race period.

While us mortals would buckle from cramping and start to whimper like a grown man who has just stubbed his toes on a sharp corner, the drivers' bodies are used to this kind of strain and keep on going so that cramps will not develop at the wrong time.

The Legs

What does it take to stop this car that’s hurtling towards the next corner at 200 mph? Our driver needs to generate 80 kilograms of downward pressure on the brake pedal just to get this beast to slow. That is equivalent to about the weight of 175 bags of sugar. For the drivers to be able to do this, again the same rules apply for the legs as they do with the arms. Strong is good, bulk is bad.

A driver does need to have legs as thick as a small infant’s waist. As long as he is strong and his legs are prepared for the excess build up of lactic acid then he should be OK for all the times he will need to use the brake, approximately 1,500 times in an average race.

Now one for you guys: Get 175 bags of sugar, balance them on your legs, then over a period of two hours lift them up and down repeatedly roughly 1,500 times over the duration.

What do you mean no?

The pedal in an F1 car is quite stiff unlike your modern road cars. That's why so much pressure is required to press them to get the car to slow so rapidly. The driver must use the full-extended leg to press the brake. To train for this our driver will hold 90 kilograms on a press machine. Upon instruction he will need to quickly press down to lift the weight higher and then release when instructed but at all times keeping the weights elevated off the base. This will increase leg strength and also help the driver contend with the lactic acid build up thus making him prepared for the grueling task ahead.

Did you know? - An F1 car can brake from 115 mph (185kmph) in 3.5 seconds in a space of only 80 metres. Under this kind of braking the driver will experience a deceleration of 4G.

OK guys, you’re doing well so far to stay with me, not far to go now, just stay focused.

The Brain

I left the brain until last because I think this is the key to what I believe gives the Formula 1 drivers the edge over all other athletes in world sports. The brain will be constantly running at a very high activity level from the lights to the final straight. In fact the brain will be in gear even before he gets in the car.

Most drivers will enter a near meditative state before the race to focus their mind on the perfect start and the perfect lap. Running mentally through the procedures and corners one by one and seeing every apex on every corner as he visualises his route around the circuit. Some drivers use breathing techniques to settle the brain and help it maintain a state of soundness in preparation to what could be a huge crash. The driver must mentally be ready for that as well as physically.

There are a lot of things going on at any one time in an F1 car and the driver must be fully tuned in to fully make the car perform. He has the digital displays on his wheel showing everything he needs to see from the cockpit. He has the guy in front, the guy behind. He is thinking about racing lines, braking points, apexes and acceleration points on the track. He is thinking strategy. He is thinking about his rival’s strategy. He has his team in his ears constantly relaying times, positions, strategies, speeds, sector times and instructions. He is using his trained mind to help reduce heart rates via mental concentration and all of this at 200 mph in over 40 C, when all you want is a nice cold beer.

Could you imagine superstar footballer Christiano Ronaldo trying to do this or better still, our alpha male Nick?

To assist in training the mind and help with hand eye coordination, McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen uses a machine called a “batak reaction board.” This is basically a board with lots of panels on it which light up in a random sequence. The idea is to hit the panel to turn the light off as soon as you see it come on. It is said that a fighter pilot in 60 seconds will hit approximately 100 lights out and this is considered a good score. Heikki averages at 121 lights per session. Impressive?

Heikki is quoted as saying, “You have to be alert for different situations in F1. You have to be ready for something that is coming but you don't know when or where. Our job is to drive on average one-and-a-half days a week throughout the year, but the rest of the time is spent preparing for that. If we were not athletes, we'd just turn up and race, but if you are not physically and mentally prepared you cannot be successful in Formula 1.”

So there you have it, the low down on what a driver goes through and must train for to undergo just one race in the worlds most physically demanding sport. It is no walk in the park and these drivers, sorry...these athletes deserve so much more respect for what they do on a weekly basis in the name on entertainment for us mortals.

Most non-fans of the sport will suggest that they merely drive the car and depending on which cars are the fastest, then that will determine the outcome of the race. But hopefully after reading this you will understand that an awful lot is down to not only the physical, but mental strength of the driver. F1 drivers...we salute you.

Ben, Over and Out!