x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Formula fitness

For many, Formula One is a race of machines. It doesn't take much digging, however, to find that the man behind the wheel must be in tip-top shape.

The 17th Formula One Grand Prix will be in November in Abu Dhabi. The workers on Yas Island are doing their own race to get the racetrack, hotels, roads, grandstands and marina finished in time. To me, Formula One means fast cars and smoking tyres. Apart from a driver's quick reflexes, it seems as though the car does most of the heavy lifting. But something I read about Mark Webber, the Australian who won the German Grand Prix earlier this month, made me wonder about their fitness conditioning. Webber broke his leg in a cycling accident last year. "It's great to feel the leg getting better race by race," he said after the win. So how much of the race is decided by the 700bhp engine and state-of-the-art aerodynamics, and how much by the aerobic strength and power of the driver?

It's impossible to break down the man versus machine ratio exactly, but it takes a lot of brawn and a strong heart to handle speeds of more than 380 kilometres per hour, up to five g-forces and the continuous onslaught of adrenalin for 90 minutes. "There is no other sport as physically demanding as Formula One," the Finnish driver Heikki Kovalainen said after the 2008 season. He's a bit biased, sure, but let's look at the facts. When drivers rush headlong around corners, the g-force makes their heads weigh around five times the normal weight. That's a lot even without a crash helmet. Then, steering such a powerful machine through the twisting track uses the body's core: the abdomen, back and arms. In an interview with the BBC, Kovalainen said he strengthens his arms by balancing on an exercise ball and holding a five kilogram weight in front of himself. Then he practices moving it with small turns of the wrist. He uses free weights and chest presses to build up his strength and resistance. He has a resting heart rate of 58 beats per minute, which rises to 185 at the start of the race, before he even moves a muscle.

To maintain this condition, many F1 athletes train twice a day, six days a week. The aerobic conditioning is focused on running, cross-training and cycling to maintain a specific heart rate for 90 minutes. The other exercises focus on the neck and core muscles. Last but perhaps most important for safety, they practise keeping an alert brain with honed hand-eye co-ordination. Some drivers use a batak light board reaction test, which measures how many randomly lit lights they can hit in 60 seconds. Kovalainen can hit in the 120s.

Many drivers in the UAE barrel down the highways at speeds approaching Grand Prix standards. If they want to get serious about driving, though, maybe they should hit the gym.