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Fit to win - staying in shape for Formula One success 29 Jul 2008

Lewis Hamilton (GB), McLaren, McLaren Mercedes MP4-23, leads at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix 2008, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Montreal, Canada, Sunday, 8 June 2008. © Martin Trenkler / Reporter Images Jarno Trulli (ITA), Toyota, Toyota TF108, Canadian Grand Prix 2008, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Montreal, Canada, Friday, 6 June 2008. © Martin Trenkler / Reporter Images Timo Glock (GER), Toyota, Toyota TF108, British Grand Prix 2008, Silverstone, Friday, 4 July 2008. © Martin Trenkler / Reporter Images Dr Riccardo Ceccarelli (ITA) Toyota Team Doctor.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 13, Italian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Monza, Italy, Friday, 7 September 2007 Timo Glock (GER) Toyota TF108 Formula One Testing, Day One, Paul Ricard, France, 14 May 2008. World © Bumstead/Sutton

Just because Formula One drivers do their work sitting down doesn't mean they are not among the fittest athletes on the planet - far from it. While he may not be running, jumping or swimming, an F1 driver nevertheless needs immense physical strength and stamina to survive the rigours of a 350 km/h racing car.

To drive a modern Formula One car is not only down to a driver's reflexes and natural talent; without supreme fitness it would be virtually impossible to race flat-out for a Grand Prix distance due to the immense forces faced on every lap.

The highly-efficient carbon brakes slow a car down so rapidly and the downforce generated by current aerodynamics is such that a driver experiences a peak of around 5Gs under braking and in high-speed corners. This affects the whole body but has its most dramatic consequence on the neck and chest.

For a typical person, these forces are almost unimaginable and the nearest most will come is on the most extreme, white-knuckle rollercoaster. But on a rollercoaster you are a passenger for a minute or so; in a Formula One car a driver must be focused and push to the very limit for up to two hours at a time.

The result is a heart rate higher than almost any other kind of athlete, with an average rate of around 170 beats per minute (bpm) during a race and peaks as high as 190. Contrast that to a typical healthy man of similar age, whose heart rate is closer to 60bpm.

Naturally, like all their rivals, Toyota drivers Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock take fitness very seriously and rigorous daily workouts mean they are always in peak condition whenever they get behind the wheel.

"I would say it's completely different to any other sport because you have a heartbeat average of 170 over an hour and a half and you never see that in another sport," Glock says. "That makes it completely different. That's the reason why you have to be really fit as a Formula One driver."

Demands like that on the body require specially-tailored training plans, as Toyota team doctor Riccardo Ceccarelli explains: "The heart-rate is amazing so they need aerobic fitness to a very high level. They go jogging, cycling, all sports that involve aerobic area. The second part of the training is specific for the neck. They need a very strong neck because every corner puts a load of around 20-25kgs on the neck, and obviously a strong upper body and forearms."

But it is not just physical fitness that is important in Formula One racing. To drive a 350km/h car at the very limit for a race distance requires immense concentration and mental strength.

"The brain is just like a muscle and you can train it," according to Ceccarelli and he offers Toyota drivers the chance to stay sharp by using computer programmes. He has developed simulations which can test - and improve - reaction times, multi tasking and spatial awareness.

Trulli uses these techniques to ensure he is mentally ready for each Grand Prix, as he explains: "We do mental preparation with some of these simulations which have been developed through the years. I can easily do them at home or even during the Grand Prix weekend using my computer. It's all about keeping concentration and trying to be fit and concentrated for a race distance, which is not so easy in a Formula One car because obviously it's very quick."

Studies show a marked difference in how a racing driver responds to these challenges. For example, the reaction time test simulates the start of a Grand Prix and the user is required to press a button as soon as the lights go out. In general a Formula One driver and an ordinary person have similar reaction times, but the driver uses significantly less energy in his brain to achieve this.

"The difference is that the driver is much more economical in managing this performance, so his brain is working in an economical way compared to a normal person," says Dr Ceccarelli. "That means he is able to carry on this performance for a longer time compared to a normal person. That is the important point we have to consider in the training."

More surprisingly, since the elimination of traction control and engine braking, drivers are facing more strain on their bodies as they battle to keep the 700bhp car under complete control.

Dr Ceccarelli reveals: "From the beginning of this season compared to last year, we have seen the heart rate is from five to 10 beats more and the sweating is more, which means the driver is more involved in driving. We consider this is not on the physical side but the mental side, which consumes a lot of energy."

So, there is more reason than ever for Toyota's drivers to stay fighting fit as they search for the vital edge which will help the team move closer to its ambitious targets.