x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fit to be an F1 champion

It takes extreme fitness to be a race car driver. Matt Majendie talks with Jenson Button's trainer about triathlons and potential workouts in Dubai.

The possibility of losing a race seat prompted Jenson Button to get into the best shape of his life. Now, he leads the F1 drivers' standings.
The possibility of losing a race seat prompted Jenson Button to get into the best shape of his life. Now, he leads the F1 drivers' standings.

How fit do you have to be to be a Formula One champion? Very, according to the man responsible for keeping runaway championship leader Jenson Button in shape. Mike Collier has been working with Button since the Italian Grand Prix in Monza in the latter part of the 2007 season, and his official title as Button's physiotherapist is a bit misleading.

Collier's approach is far more scientific than simply that, involving reams of statistics taken at certain points during the season to pinpoint the Brawn GP driver's progress. In addition, he is the key figure behind the 29-year-old driver's diet and fitness regime, and he's the guy holding the pitboard during races as Button pounds around the track. But while Button is Collier's boss, their relationship is closer than that, and the pair have undeniably become good friends since working together.

"I was doing a sports science degree and, in my third year, spent a year with the Benetton [now Renault] team," explained Collier. "They had quite a lot of drivers passing through there at the time - Fernando Alonso, Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jenson, and I first met Jenson while working there and did a little bit of training with him. "I then went back and finished my degree and kept in touch with Jenson and still saw him a little bit. I wouldn't say we were close mates but I went to his 21st birthday and used to send the odd text - something like 'good luck for the season', that sort of thing.

"And then I suddenly got a call from Jenson out of the blue asking me to come and work with him and he said to come to a few tests and races to see if it was something that I wanted to do." The pair have become something of an inseparable double act since then, to the extent that Collier admits he probably spends more time with Button than his doctor girlfriend back in England. An all-year occupation, their season generally starts with winter training in Lanzarote, which was again the platform for getting the driver in shape for 2009, although they are contemplating switching elsewhere, possibly Dubai, for the 2009 winter.

"You need to keep things fresh all the time so it's important to do different things at different times," he says. "It's important you can go somewhere that's got good facilities and warm weather so it doesn't affect any outdoor training you're going to want to do. "I've heard Dubai Sports City is pretty impressive, so that's certainly an option for the winter. But there's a few things I'm looking at. I like the idea of Nordic skiing, for example - that sort of thing's great for getting in shape, but you need to weigh up the pros and cons of something like that. If he got injured, I probably wouldn't be very popular with the team, so we'll have to see."

On top of the winter training, there is also the matter of keeping in shape during the season. For example, ahead of the British Grand Prix this weekend, Collier spent four days with Button at the Briton's home in Monaco but, rather than lapping up the luxury of the principality, the pair had their work cut out. That involved a lengthy swim, two 90-kilometre bike rides and a handful of runs in the scorching weather. And Button never once complained, according to Collier.

"He's the perfect person to work with because he really enjoys the training and keeping fit," says Collier. "For him, it's a simple case of relaxing - it allows him to wind down away from the craziness of a race weekend. I don't really need to tell him what to do - it's not a case of trying to get him out of bed and into training. He just does it." In fact, Button is now the fittest he has ever been, thanks in part to the uncertainty over the winter when his former employers Honda decided to pull out of Formula One.

Button was on the verge of being left without a drive for 2009, until team boss Ross Brawn put together a late management buyout. The team was rebranded Brawn GP and Button has been flying ever since. However, the prospect of losing his livelihood inspired Button over the winter, according to his trainer. "That actually made things easy, because the training provided him with a complete outlet," says Collier. "He decided to make it a positive thing and we made a big thing of every time he was supposed to be doing a winter test.

"Obviously the team weren't testing because they didn't know whether they would be racing, so every time there was an F1 test elsewhere, we'd build a training programme for a few days. And so, because of all that, he's ended up being fitter than ever before as he didn't really have anything else to do." But with the season now in full swing and with Button the championship leader (by 26 points going into this weekend), the demands on his time are greater than they have ever been during his nine-year Formula One career, and Collier has to fit around that.

"The only difficulty really is fitting everything in, but we make it work," he explained. "Trying to get the continuity of training for the last few months has been a bit tricky. Everyone obviously wants a bit of his time, but we just juggle it around everything else." The rigours of driving an F1 car at speeds of up to 200mph are immense. Button, who's resting heartbeat is about 50 beats per minute, will see that rise as high as 150 during a race. But in Collier's eyes, Button is the fittest driver on the grid, and the statistics would certainly suggest Button is right up there.

Something of a triathlon fanatic, the Brawn GP racer impressed against 1,700 competitors in a triathlon consisting of a 1.5km swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run in the UK last summer. His time of two hours, 22 minutes was enough to see him finish 117th and not far behind many of the professional triathletes. Button aims to do the London Triathlon later this year, and Collier will be right behind him.

One part of Collier's remit that he has happily not had to pursue is rehabilitation, but he is all too aware that the potential for accidents and injury is still high, despite the sport being arguably the safest it has ever been. "In the winter, we worked a lot on prevention, basically highlighting previous injuries and niggles and working out ways of avoiding them in the future, and I believe that's worked well," says Collier.

Judging by Button's place at the top of the standings, few could disagree with Collier's assessment. mmajendie@thenational.ae