11 July 2004

Grand Prix: how fit must a racing driver be?

Michael Schumacher won last Saturday's British Grand Prix by combining lightning-quick reflexes and good hand-eye coordination. Still, racing aces are only sitting in a car, right? Wrong. They also need to be super-fit. We found out just how fit.

Fancy the adrenaline, travel opportunities, stratospheric income and attractive admirers that F1 racing drivers have? You’ll need more than quick reflexes.

David Coulthard, Michael Schumacher, Ralph Schumacher and Juan-Pablo Montoya are arguably four of the fittest athletes on the planet. Their jobs put incredible stresses on their bodies. Their mobile offices reach around 300km/h and the drivers are subjected to up to 5 Gs in some corners.

And while the drivers appear to live on Bollinger and beluga, their physical fitness programmes are rather more spartan. Most have a rigorous programme of exercise and self-denial. Spraying or being sprayed with champagne is as close as most will get to a pub-crawl.

The racers’ pulse rates stay elevated for hours at a time. Many humans have a resting heart rate of around 70 beats per minute (bpm). But while the average gym-rat’s heart-rate hits around 160bpm during a workout, many F1 drivers experience heart rates of around 200bpm. It’s the sort of rate that would cause most treadmill-plodders to pass out.

'Fitter than Premiership players'
Recently Coulthard’s trainer Terry Woods said: “David is an athlete now - that's the best way to describe him. There's no question that David is fitter than most Premiership football players. And I think he's fitter than Schumacher - but not by much.”

“David's resting pulse rate is 40 bpm and at periods of intense exertion this can go up to 196 bpm and will be back down to 48 within five minutes. One of the reasons for this fast recovery is the fact that David utilises 70% of the oxygen in his lungs whereas most people only use around 50%.”

Each year Coulthard goes on an army training weekend in the Brecon Beacons in Wales with a group of former paras. He spends the time on gruelling hikes and climbs, abseiling and mountain biking.

Being supremely fit gives the drivers stamina and enables them to recover more quickly from the injuries and bruising that are part their job description.

It wasn’t always so: in the ‘70s many drivers were chubby, particularly at the end of the off-racing season. Jim Clark dined on steak and chips before each race. The late Ayrton Senna was probably the first driver to acknowledge the need for a punishing exercise regimen and a controlled diet. The drivers started eating wisely, although Gilles Villeneuve would famously consume burgers, French fries and milkshakes while the others struggled through their frugal fare.

Most drivers now follow a weights programme of high repetitions with low weights to build, long, lean muscles, with emphasis on the back, shoulders, neck and arms.

Head weighs 40kgs
It’s not just muscle tone, though. The drivers’ bodies have to adapt to the unique stresses of the track. Schumacher's former trainer Harry Hawaiian says: “His head weighs 6kg, the helmet 1kg more. When he goes around a corner, his head weighs 40kg - we build neck and shoulder muscles to take that.”

And apart from muscle tone, the ability to react with precision at 300km/h is crucial, says Sherylle Calder, a world pioneer in visual fitness. She’s trained Italy’s Americas Cup team, as well as the Pakistani and Surrey County cricket teams. She says: “There’s more to it than hand-eye coordination. You need to hone your visual reaction time, your ability to recognize objects, and your ability to judge distance.

“The average person’s level of visual fitness is perhaps a fraction of the average athlete’s, but even many professional athletes are less visually fit than they could be.

“You’ll recognize the visually fit ones by their accuracy. The late Donald Brahman practiced with a golf ball and a cricket stump – he pushed his visual fitness to peak levels.”

Lastly, with temperatures hitting 50 degrees C inside their fireproofed suits, the drivers can sweat around two litres during a race. A dehydrated Nelson Piquet was unable to take the winner’s podium after the 1982 Brazilian Grand Prix and had to receive intravenous fluids.

The guidelines for drivers dictate a litre of fluid before the race, two litres while driving and two litres afterwards. This can lead to some hopping about on the winner’s podium. Not so for Nigel Mansell, who was so dried out he had to wait an hour before he could produce a post-race urine sample.

And not so for Karl Wendlinger, who relieved himself before a startled, packed start line grandstand after the 1993 Hungary Grand Prix. - William Smook.


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