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Breathtaking Merlini breaks world record on Sakhir grid 26 Apr 2009

Man prepares to hold his breath under water for a very long time.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 4, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Sunday, 26 April 2009 Man holds his breath under water for a very long time.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 4, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Sunday, 26 April 2009

David Merlini is his real name. Any resemblance to Merlin the magician is purely coincidental, but he is considered the spiritual heir of Harry Houdini, the legendary escape artist of the early 20th century, also born in Budapest, albeit 104 years earlier.

A young Merlini started his professional daredevil career early at the age of 16 years, being strapped into a straitjacket and then suspended upside down under a burning rope 30ft above the ground. Merlini was free in less than 100 seconds, descending to a huge stage with a second rescue cord.

That was the beginning of a magical career that brought him the Best Escape Artist prize at the 2007 World Magic Awards in Los Angeles. Since then he has set several world records for holding his breath while underwater. And that is exactly what he did on the grid in Bahrain - pushing the record to new extremes - under the watching eyes of the Formula One world and millions of spectators around the globe.

The stunt: Merlini was lowered into a tank on the Sakhir start line by a small crane, his aim to spend as much time as possible underwater without breathing, remaining entirely visible from beginning to end. The target was to beat his own world record from last year of 20 minutes 39 seconds and to push past 21 minutes.

A who’s who of Formula One stood by in amazement watching the time tick by without any visible sign of Merlini surfacing: Formula One Management CEO Bernie Ecclestone, Virgin chief Richard Branson, Toyota team President John Howett, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, drivers Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock were all baffled bystanders to the unbelievable performance.

As the seconds moved past the 20:39 mark the spectators on the track and the fans in the stands started to clap and there was a breathtaking wave of applause when Merlini finally emerged from the tank after 21 minutes and 29 seconds.

“I knew that he would do it,” said Bernie Ecclestone. “When I first heard of it I thought ‘impossible’, but after I met him I was sure that he is for real. What a performance!” An astonished Branson added: “This guy would be perfect for space!”

The question remains, why does Merlini do this? Preparation for the stunt started 35 days ago in a military camp, in complete isolation in order to attain the ‘right mental state’. But when did his affection for the unusual start?

“Since the age of four I am attracted to everything that is unusual - and since I was a child my biggest dream was to be as free as a fish in the water,” said Merlini. “Since a very early age I’ve spent almost 30 percent of my time in water - and this is the result. Water is one of the most important elements of my life.

“How do I lower my heartbeat? That is not very difficult. Just think about this: when you are upset your heartbeat goes up, so it is just a question of controlling what you want to do. If you are able to bring your heartbeat up you also can lower it. That is the theory.

“When I am submerged in such a small water tank the whole world around disappears - it feels as if you are at the bottom of a big quiet lake and I lose all feeling for time. And as I knew that millions of people were watching me I didn’t want to give up until I was signalled that I’d done it, because I didn’t want to disappoint them.”