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Fit to drive - the world's most demanding sport 20 Mar 2007

Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Honda Racing F1 Team and Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing at the Pit Stop Tennis Pro Am tournament.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, 13 March 2007 Fernando Alonso (ESP), Jarno Trulli (ITA), Jenson Button (GBR) and Sporting Director Flavio Briatore (ITA) jog on the beach. RenaultF1 Driver Training Programme, Kenya, Africa. 12-20 December 2001. World © RenaultF1 Franck Montagny (FRA) Toyota TF107 Test Driver exercising at the Langham Hotel.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, 13 March 2007 Scott Speed (USA) Scuderia Toro Rosso on a bicycle.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, 14 March 2007 (L to R): Red Bull Racing trainer with Christian Klien (AUT) Red Bull Racing and Vitantonio Liuzzi (ITA) Red Bull Racing are put through their paces on the beach. Red Bull Racing Training, Langkawi, Malaysia 12 March 2005. © Juergen Skarwan/Sutton

Why physical perfection's a prerequisite for success in 2007

You could be forgiven for thinking that over the winter the drivers were enjoying some well-deserved days of relaxation and rest. In reality, however, the modern Formula One star has his work cut out - even during the off-season - to maintain his fitness levels, in readiness for the gruelling 17-race calendar that lies ahead.

These days all Formula One drivers look as if they have stepped straight off the front cover of a fitness magazine. A typical racer boasts a body fat ratio (BFR) of around seven percent and a physique, honed through hours of gym work, aerobic exercise and enhanced by a careful eating regimen.

You may not think of a Grand Prix being an endurance event in the traditional sense of say a race like the Le Mans 24 Hours, but endurance is what it’s all about for Formula One drivers too. They need immense physical resistance to heat and other stresses, and the ability to cope with potentially catastrophic fluid loss.

Experts say the loss of one per cent of body fluid is enough to cause serious lapses in concentration. A Grand Prix driver will lose up to three and a half litres of fluid in the course of a two-hour race - and he is among the sportsmen who can surely least afford the slightest drop-off in his powers of concentration.

And if that wasn’t enough, the first three ‘flyaway’ races of the 2007 season expose them to some of the most severe temperatures of the year. The heat in Melbourne’s opening event last weekend will rise even further in Malaysia, where cockpit temperatures often soar close to the 60 degrees Celsius mark. Sepang’s devastating humidity - as high as 80 percent - will take a further toll on the drivers’ endurance. Then in Bahrain, where they have just completed pre-season testing, they face the highest ambient temperatures of the entire season.

Not only that, but wherever they race, the pressures inside the cockpit are the same, with their bodies often subjected to forces of up to 4g under braking, and 5.5g through some corners. When you consider that a driver’s head, complete with helmet, weighs around six kilos that means the neck is being asked to sustain loadings of over 24 kilos time and time again in the course of a 58-lap race like last weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Hence the bizarre contraptions some drivers use, with weights and pulleys attached to an old helmet to replicate the loadings on the neck as they put themselves through 90-minute sessions of sustained simulation exercise.

The most dependable form of exercise for drivers is aerobic work - running, swimming and, increasingly, cycling, as epitomised by Red Bull driver Mark Webber. Webber is a long-term admirer of the great cyclist Lance Armstrong and even trained with the Texan back in 2004, when they went mountain-biking and out on the roads. “Obviously he’s pretty handy on the bike,” said the Australian, who has himself taken part in 24-hour bike races and is planning to put himself through a stage of the gruelling Tour de France that Armstrong won seven times.

Webber’s well-documented efforts in his charitable Tasmania Challenge also include kayaking, walking and running, all of it - as for every Formula One driver - calculated to increase the presence of oxygen in the blood and with it the stamina they require for the extraordinary effort they must expend.

The resting heart rate (RHR) for the average human is 60 beats per minute, though elite athletes will often display far lower figures, like cyclist Eddie Merckx, who was reputed to have an RHR in the 20s, and Formula One star David Coulthard who boasts one of under 50. When the drivers get on the grid - and in the more stressful moments of a two-hour race - the heart rate of many will soar to 200 and beyond.

Hence the sculpted physiques we see in today’s Formula One paddock. Weighing, typically, around 65 kilos, a driver will eat high-carbohydrate foods throughout race weekend but shun fatty foods. Muesli and cereals, fruit and nuts, pasta, soup and veggies are the order of the day.

McLaren, arguably among the most forward-thinking of all the teams in this respect, have teamed up with Finland’s Kuortane Sports Institute to create a Human Performance Programme. The initiative, which is described as ‘a scientific approach to driver preparation’, views the driver as one of many components in the car and, as such, the team aim to finely tune the driver as they would any other part.

Last but not least, the Formula One driver’s challenge is a unique combination of the physical and mental. A runner needs only his spikes, a footballer his boots, a tennis star his racquet. A Grand Prix driver straps himself into a 310 kilometre per hour projectile and deliberately takes his place among 21 other similar souls as they travel hundreds of thousands of kilometres a year to repeat the operation a total of 18 times.

“Physical preparation is all very well,” says Toyota medical adviser Riccardo Ceccarelli. “But that is only half of what a driver needs. The other half is the brain: there is no let-up for the brain during a race, which is what makes F1 the most demanding sport in the world!”