It’s not easy to become an F1 driver. They are some of the fittest people on the planet, and on top of that F1 drivers need split-second reaction speeds, cunning and endurance.
We spoke to those who would know exactly what it takes to compete at the top of the motor racing world: Simon Reynolds, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes’ Driver Performance Manager, and Mike Collier, Jenson Button’s fitness instructor. This is what they said about the true attributes of an F1 champion.
Simon: F1 drivers have been racing from an early age. Many kids on the go-kart circuit have ambitions to get to F1 but only a very small handful make it. The ones that make it are the ones who are committed to hard work and have utter determination to reach their goal.
Mike: Since I started working with Jenson in 2008 I have watched his fitness go from strength to strength and that is down to his own personal dedication. His full commitment to his own fitness has contributed him to being one of the fittest f1 drivers out there at the moment.
Simon: Drivers must be able to adapt. They travel all around the world and they have to adjust to different times zones, changing climates, and new cultures. In addition, during F1 races anything can happen, from crashes and punctures to failed engines – you’ve got to be ready to handle anything.
Mike: I think that the people who are most successful are those that are able to adapt easily. Things change all the time in F1, for example the weather, equipment and team mates. Even little things can make a difference to how a driver performs. Those that can’t handle these changes quickly and easily just won’t succeed.
Simon: As a professional athlete, what you eat and drink is key to optimal performance. The drivers have specially tailored diets that have been set out for them by their personal trainers. The Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team pay equal attention to drink, with bespoke drinks created by Lucozade Sport being an integral part of their diet. Water alone just wouldn’t be enough.
Mike: For nutrition we focus on 3 areas: pre-race, during and post-race. It is an endurance sport but we no longer go down the simplistic route of eating loads of carbs before a race. Jenson eats meals with high protein content and complex carbs which are what I call ‘vegetables from the ground’, like carrots, parsnips or potatoes. No white bread or pasta for him. On race days he consumes bespoke drinks that contain carbohydrate, electrolytes and caffeine. They are carefully designed so that Jenson gets exactly the right amounts of these elements to suit him.
4. Cardiovascular strength
Simon: It is vital that the drivers have highly efficient cardiovascular systems so that they don’t suffer from fatigue at any point in a Grand Prix. In training they do a mixture of endurance and high intensity workouts with varying heart rate zones so that they are equipped to cope with the changeable physical demands of F1 racing.
Mike: In order for the drivers to cope with travelling at 200 miles per hour for close to two hours in a sweltering hot F1 car, they’ve got to have strong cardiovascular systems. Jenson’s quite lucky in that the triathlon he does when he isn’t racing is perfect cardiovascular training for F1.
5. Strength and Stability
Simon: Having good posture and body mechanics is vital to driving an F1 Car. The G-Forces that an F1 driver’s body faces are intense and so the body must be strong enough to cope with it. Having good strength and stability also prevents injury.
Mike: In F1, we work a lot on muscle endurance and muscle strength. Muscle endurance is about how you are able to perform multiple steering movements without getting tired, whereas muscle strength is the ability to generate quick force and quick power, for example, the ability to create break pressures.
6. Neck strength
Simon: The neck is one of the most important parts of the driver’s body. It must be able to cope with huge G-Forces when breaking or going round a corner. If your neck isn’t strong enough then your head will not stay in the correct position and thus focus will be lost.
Mike: We work on the neck and general conditioning over the winter in preparation for the races. We have a number of specific exercises that target the neck muscles, including Technogym’s F1 training machine that simulates the movement within the cockpit. We also work a lot on the shoulders, the mid back and lower back because the muscle groups are all connected.
Simon: F1 drivers must have highly tuned nervous systems so as to react quickly to everything going on around them in a race. Not only must they be aware of the other cars, they’ve also got to watch out for things like debris on the track and warning flags.
Mike: It is vital that concentration levels are a hundred percent during a Grand Prix. Throughout the 1 hour and 40 minutes of a race there is no room for even a slight lapse in concentration. We do lots of training to help sharpen up reaction times like the Batak Pro reaction test. In addition, caffeine is included within our drivers’ sports drinks, which helps keep them fully alert from start to finish throughout a race.
Simon: Not only do F1 drivers have to have physical strength and stamina, they must remain completely focused from start to finish. Any lapse in concentration could affect your race position.
Mike: As a driver your mind status changes from race to race. It’s inevitable and depends on the outcome of every race. When you win, you go into the next race with bags of confidence, and likewise if you have crashed or come in last it’s going to give you a knock. Like in all sports, you go through phases of being on top form, which they call being in a state of ‘flow’, or stages of bad form where you get in a rut. But you’ve got to take each race as it comes. There are always external factors that are going to affect your mind set but its how you handle it that makes the difference.
Simon: Being professional earns respect not just from your teammates but also from your rivals. It is one of the keys to being successful.
Mike: Professionalism in F1 applies inside and outside the car. For example, when a driver becomes able to speak on the same level of knowledge and understanding as the engineers, this shows complete professionalism and helps the engineers react faster to what the driver needs. Likewise out of the car, drivers must be able to communicate articulately to media and sponsors who are integral to the financing of the sport.
Simon: This is the key to optimal performance. Just as training is important before competing, so is recovery time. This is so that the body and mind has time to repair before becoming fitter and stronger. Activities during recovery time vary but involve massages, flexibility training, low aerobic exercise and time with friends and family – and, most importantly, sleep!
Mike: All F1 drivers need a bit of downtime to aid the recovery from race to race so that they feel fresh and fit. As part of Jenson’s time away from F1 he competes in triathlons. Not only is it great for his mental well-being, it is fantastic for his fitness. Obviously we have to carefully plan the triathlons around the F1 calendar but they are not just a great way to unwind for him, they are also part of his fitness regime.