How fit are F1 drivers?

F1 drivers make their work look effortless on television, as the camera belies the speed and the aggressive forces involved, with their suffering hidden from us under their helmets. The cars corner as if on rails, disguising the struggle within the cockpit. Driving is, for most of us, relatively easy and could never be considered exercise. In F1, however, controlling such powerful machines requires not just skill, but also a high degree of a very specialised type of fitness.

As the relentless search for every infinitesimal advantage ploughs on in F1, the drivers have to fight against the brutal consequences of the car’s combination of power, grip, downforce and braking performance. Modern F1 cars generate forces of over 5 G while cornering and 6 G while braking, or to put it in other words, forces roughly equivalent to those felt by Neil Armstrong and Co during Apollo 11’s re-entry.

Drivers must repeatedly tolerate these extreme forces for over 90 minutes of racing, which requires incredible strength and endurance. Strong legs, core and arms are vital, but perhaps most crucial of all, drivers need unparalleled neck strength to hold their heads level while cornering.

The drivers put themselves through torturous neck exercises, such as George Russell’s ‘Egyptian Mummy Neck Plank’ and neck harness workouts – demonstrated by Lando Norris and Sergio Perez – which put huge loads on their necks to prepare them for a Grand Prix. Even with this training, during long test sessions drivers have reported severe neck fatigue, with some having to rest their heads against the cockpit as they struggle to tolerate the accumulation of g-force on their necks.

Even getting an F1 car stopped presents a challenge to the drivers. They must apply over 100 kilos of force to these cars’ heavy brake pedals at the hardest braking points, several times per lap, lap after lap, for over 90 minutes of racing. Any fatigue over the course of the race could make braking errors more likely, which would at best cost time, and could at worst be very dangerous.

The driver’s job is further complicated by the need to be mindful of their bodyweight. Before 2019, driver weight was included in the minimum total car weight, meaning that kilos saved in driver weight translated into kilos of ballast (needed to achieve the minimum weight) that the teams could place in the car to adjust its balance. 80 kilos of the car’s weight must now be made up by the driver, their helmet, race suit and shoes, with ballast added to the cockpits of the drivers under this weight. Drivers now have more leeway to be at their fighting weight, but must still balance strength with weight to avoid incurring the penalty in performance for going over the 80 kilo threshold. Being an F1 driver therefore demands a very precise diet and exercise routine.

G-force is far from the only thing F1 drivers have to combat. They are subjected to sweltering heat in the cockpit of an F1 car, which can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius at the warmest Grands Prix such as Singapore. At such a circuit, the high temperature and humidity takes an immense toll on the drivers, who can lose three to four kilos of bodyweight sweated out through their thick fire-proof race suits. Resisting heat exhaustion in these conditions is a feat in and of itself, but doing so while maintaining the precision and intense focus needed to perform in F1 is exceptional.

In Dallas in 1984, Nigel Mansell expended his last ounce of energy as he tried to push his Lotus over the finish line, and collapsed as heat exhaustion finally caught up with him. In 1991 at Interlagos, Ayrton Senna gave us a rare insight into the human suffering F1 entails. After crossing the line victorious, the Brazilian was so spent that he had to stop on his cool down lap to be helped out of his McLaren, and it seemed that only the overwhelming emotion of his maiden home win gave him the strength to heave the winner’s trophy above his head.

Perhaps the most crucial facet of a driver’s fitness is being able to absorb the strain of a race while maintaining razor-sharp focus. Even a momentary lapse in concentration can result in an expensive and race-ending mistake, so drivers must remain physically strong so that they can stay mentally fresh. Maintaining lightning-quick reaction times is vital, and can be the different between victory and defeat when reacting to snaps of oversteer or fighting another driver wheel-to-wheel. Modern F1 cars are mind-bogglingly complicated, with drivers needing to make constant adjustments on the steering wheel to change engine modes, brake bias, differential settings, and communicate with the team, all whilst driving flat out.

Maintaining concentration behind the visor is a key component of driver performance.

The mental strength, the mindset, as well as the technique of the very greatest drivers is what sets them apart from the rest. To be able to put that mindset and technique to good effect, however, peak physical fitness is required. Just driving one of these beasts involves taking a lot of punishment, but to take the car to its absolute limit, not tire, not make any mistakes, and hold a consistent pace, extreme fitness is paramount.

What about other forms of motorsport?

Perhaps surprisingly, Lando Norris told Autosport that Formula 2 was ‘much harder physically’ than F1, especially on the arms, as F2 drivers hustle their cars round the track without power steering. Although drivers in slower series such as F2 are not subjected to the same g-forces as in F1, being fit is still an important part of performance. Even in karting, where most F1 drivers start their careers, physical strength is required in a similar way, if only to a lesser degree.

In the World Rally Championship, the interior of the car can reach up to 70 degrees Celsius at the warmer events, something which the drivers must endure over multiple stages spanning several days. Again, remaining mentally sharp is critical, as round every bend lies a new challenge in rallying, and the drivers must react quickly and rapidly process their co-driver’s pace notes.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans pushes drivers’ endurance to the limit.

Endurance racing provides its own unique challenge for drivers. In events such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, competitors must stay alert while racing through the night, driving multiple stints throughout the race. In Le Mans, as in other endurance races, limits on stint lengths have been implemented on safety grounds, demonstrating the toll that these mammoth races take on the drivers, as both body and mind fight against the growing tide of fatigue.

Every form of motorsport, and every different series requires something unique from its competitors. Although its drivers benefit from power steering where many other motorsports lack it, F1, with its extreme g-forces, is a uniquely punishing sport in which only athletes at their physical and mental peak can prevail. Just as Schumacher and Senna before him raised the bar for fitness in Formula 1, the current and next generations of drivers will continue to push themselves to be as fit and as fast as possible.

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