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The fight to be fit - Force India’s Balbir Singh on driver training 09 Mar 2010

(L to R): Vitantonio Liuzzi (ITA) Force India F1 with Balbir Singh (IND) Force India F1 Team Physical Trainer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 13, Italian Grand Prix, Preparations, Monza, Italy, Thursday, 10 September 2009 Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Force India F1 works out in the gym with Balbir Singh (IND) Force India F1 Team personal trainer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Chinese Grand Prix, Preparations, Shanghai, China, Thursday, 16 April 2009 Balbir Singh (IND) Force India F1 Team Physical Trainer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Practice Day, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 8 May 2009 Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari F2002 keeps dry on the grid with manager, Willi Weber (GER) and trainer, Balbir Singh (IND). Brazilian Grand Prix, Rd3, Interlagos, Brazil, 6 April 2003. Adrian Sutil (GER) Force India F1 with team physios Alex Leibinger (GER)  (Left) and Balbir Singh (IND) (Right). 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race Day, Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, 2 November 2008

Since the start of February, the drivers have been hard at work at the test track, honing their cars ahead of this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix. But although this was the first public glimpse of their 2010 preparations, the drivers have actually been hard at work ever since the curtain closed on the ’09 season.

Indeed, like all topflight sportsmen, today’s Formula One heroes never really step off the treadmill, and the winter off-season provides them with the perfect opportunity to improve their fitness. So whilst the engineers are slogging it out perfecting their 2010 cars back at the factory, the drivers are busy ensuring they’ll be fit enough to drive them.

And boy, do they need to be fit. Unlike the old days when they’d enjoy a fry-up before the race and a beer after, Formula One drivers nowadays are amongst the most conditioned athletes on earth. During a race their hearts will register 170 beats per minute (bpm) and peak at 190 bpm. To put that into context, that’s three times the 60 bpm of an average man.

If that wasn’t enough, they also need to be strong enough to withstand forces as high as 5Gs in high-speed corners and under braking, and have enough stamina to cope with such extreme heat that they can sweat off anything up to 3kg of their body weight during a race. It’s like being trapped on a rollercoaster, without respite, for up to two hours.

It’s no wonder then that teams call in specialists to ensure their drivers are at the very peak of fitness. Amongst the best in the business is Force India’s Balbir Singh, who started his Formula One career after being poached from the sports clinic where he was working by none other than Michael Schumacher. Although he had no previous Formula One experience, Singh believes Schumacher hired him, ahead of his debut with Ferrari in 1996, because he liked the Punjab-born physiotherapist’s unique methodology.

“I have been a physiotherapist for a long time now,” explains Singh. “I was working in a sports clinic and had the fortune to treat Michael Schumacher. He liked my approach and some time later I received a phone call from him asking if I wanted to be his full time physio at races. He’s a very driven person and the opportunity was a good one so I went for it.”

To aid mental relaxation, Singh is an avid proponent of a variety of holistic therapies. Although unusual, it’s an approach that has been gaining ground in recent years up and down the pit lane, and Singh remains convinced that looking beyond just the physical fitness is essential.

“For me, it’s crucial,” he says. “You have to have a complete package - mind, body and soul working as one. I teach relaxation techniques such as tai chi and yoga and rebalancing techniques for the mind. This will help them unwind and in doing so sharpens the mind when they come to the track as they are more relaxed.

“If your body is fit but your mind is untrained then you will not succeed; you need both to work in harmony. So I make sure the mind is focused and also able to relax as much as I make sure the body is fit. F1 drivers are subject to constant pressures inside and outside the car. There is the media attention, the demands from sponsors, the fans and then the commitments to the team. Other sportspeople have this, but perhaps not in such short, intense bursts. So I make sure that the drivers can relax away from the track, that their breathing is in tune with the body and there is a sense of calm.”

Over the years, Singh and Schumacher became very close, even sharing accommodation at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track, and the trainer believes that establishing a strong personal relationship with a driver is an essential element to the success of his work. Anyone looking at Schumacher’s achievements at Ferrari would be hard pressed to disagree.

“It’s very important to have a mutual trust and respect for each other,” he explained. “I don’t try and make them open up, but I try to create an environment where they can unwind and can talk if they want to. That’s what makes you closer as you will get to understand each other. Equally I need to know they are committed to the training and how much they want to improve.”

He stayed with Schumacher for over a decade, working alongside the German as he picked up countless wins and five drivers’ title for Ferrari. He eventually retired from the sport in 2005, moving to a new position that saw him work with several Dakar Rally teams, and also set up his own clinic in Germany. Singh, however, couldn’t resist the pull of F1 racing.

He eventually returned to the paddock in 2008 to ply his trade with Force India and is currently working with the team’s line-up of Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi as they prepare for the season ahead. Although both drivers are seeking the same end results, Singh believes it’s best to vary his methods and create a distinct programme designed to fit each individual’s specific needs.

“Every programme will be tailored to that person as everybody has a different body, different strengths, different weaknesses and a very different mental approach,” he explains. “How I treat them will be dependant on their whole body and mind, so therefore Adrian and Tonio are quite different.”

Over the winter he has focused his attentions on Liuzzi in particular. The 29 year-old was promoted to a race seat for the last five rounds of the 2009 season, after Giancarlo Fisichella moved to Ferrari. He had previously been the team’s third driver. With the Italian set to contest his first full Formula One season since 2007, it’s been a busy few months as he gets into race shape.

“I’ve been working really closely with Tonio,” said Singh. “He’s been coming to Germany to train with me, or I’ve been going to Italy - he’s been working very hard. It’s been keeping his stamina and overall fitness level high while he’s not driving, so lots of cardio work like cycling but also doing relaxation techniques such as yoga and tai chi. He’s very motivated.”

During pre-season testing, Singh’s methods changed as the drivers returned to the cockpit. He was regularly in attendance at the test circuits, ensuring the drivers are fit and ready to get behind the wheel.

“As the drivers go into the testing programmes we work on the muscles more,” he said. “Even though they will be very fit and relaxed, they have not driven the cars for a few months, so the muscles will have to get used to the pressures of driving again. So it will be massages and treating areas of discomfort.”

Once the season starts, the programme will shift again. Although there’ll still be just as much training between races, over a Grand Prix weekend just being in the car is exercise enough; so rather than working intensively on fitness, Singh’s philosophy is that sleep and plenty of relaxation will get the best out of his drivers at races

“It’s not as intense as in the week before, as the driving keeps the drivers fit, but it is also very tiring,” he explains. “On the Wednesday we will be in the gym and also a little on Thursday but during running days there will be a massage, some relaxation and then plenty of sleep!”

It’ll be interesting once the season is underway to watch how the Singh’s regime helps the Force India line-up achieve their dreams. With the team’s chief operating officer, Otmar Szafnauer, reportedly targeting fifth in the standings, the pressure will certainly be on the drivers - and trainer. In the meantime Singh himself wanted to sign off with a few words to any Formula One hopefuls out there.

“You need to have dedication,” he concludes. “Not just to the car and your team but to your own fitness and well-being. Every single part of your body is important and you need to optimise this to get the most out of yourself and, therefore, the car.