How fit is an F1 driver? One question that people who don’t follow motor racing often ask is “how fit are the drivers?” If F1’s not your thing, it’s easy to assume racing a Formula 1 car is no more strenuous than driving on the road.
Toyota team doctor Ricardo Ceccarelli gives some extraordinary insight into the punishing forces an F1 driver is subject to - and how fit they need to be
There is no other sport in the world which compares to the demands Formula 1 puts on the heart.
The heart rate of a top driver can average over 180bpm for a race distance of 90 minutes or more. This is huge and no other sport keeps a heart rate so high for such a long time.
On top of that there is a lot of muscle work for the whole body - heavy work for neck muscles to cope with the G forces, high loads on legs and arms and good lumbar strength to stabilize the body. A normal person could do two or three laps in a Formula 1 car under those stresses before physically they couldn’t continue.
What I often think makes F1 different from many other sports is the demands it places on a drivers’ concentration. In football, for example, a player is always paying attention to what is going on and often moving around – but his activity on the ball is occasional.
In F1 the driver is working all the time and the slightest misjudgment on the controls can cause a crash or a spin. Ceccarelli explains:
The demand on the muscles is important but the load on the brain is amazing. Formula 1 is a sport where the brain has to be working hard for the whole race.
In tennis you have a break every few seconds, in boxing you break every three minutes, in shooting you break all the time. This means a Formula 1 driver’s brain is working in a different way. When you compare a Formula 1 driver’s brain to an average person, the way it works is completely different.
When a driver is racing he is driving differently to a qualifying lap, which puts more intense physical strain on him. In qualifying a driver is right on the limit, always very close to a mistake and his heart can be beating 50bpm faster than a normal racing lap. This shows the body is doing a massive amount of work, which is possible to sustain for a few minutes but not a whole race.
At Sepang two weeks ago we saw Fernando Alonso compete despite suffering an ear infection. What kind of effect might that have had on his performance?
The affect [of illness] on the driver is really subtle and difficult to see.
Before I worked with Toyota, I saw a driver who was starting the race after having a very bad infection for four days. He lost a lot of fluids and he arrived on Sunday feeling really bad, but he had to start. He told me after the race that he felt he could collapse at any point but he finished in the top six because he had a good car.
When a driver who is normally super fit is sick, he is likely to be four tenths - maximum half a second - slower than usual in the race.