Fluid, carbs, reflex games: how a Formula One driver prepares for race day

“To drive a Formula One car, you have to be a little bit mad”, said 2009 World Champion Jenson Button in 2012.

How mad exactly?

Daniel Ricciardo prepares to drive on the grid before the F1 Grand Prix of Austria last year.Credit:Getty Images

Well, for starters, you’re strapped into a racecar – essentially a glorified metal death trap – hurtling up to 360 km/hour through the air. The G-force is so strong (2G just from a standing start, and up to 6G around corners), it’s an effort to keep your head straight. You turn corners that literally take your breath away and leave your eyesight blurry. There’s no power steering so you have to muster every inch of your strength to turn the wheel at each corner. Want to stop? About 61 kilograms in force is required to brake, and the average F1 driver breaks up to 250 times per race.

None of this is visible from the outside, and so to the layperson, what F1 drivers do might seem easy. “Just get in the car and drive! How hard could it be?” they might scoff. The answer? Very hard indeed.

When F1 drivers hit the tarmac at Albert Park for Melbourne’s Grand Prix on Sunday, they’ll be subjecting themselves to some of the most extreme gravitational forces on the planet. To weather this – and survive – F1 drivers have to be at peak mental and physical fitness.

Jacks of all trades

Noel Carroll is a performance coach for AlphaTauri, working with top drivers like Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly. He says that the physical demands of racing are quite different to other sports. Whilst with a sport like marathon running, athletes focus primarily on endurance, the goal with F1 drivers is to create well-rounded athletes.

“Drivers need a good cardiovascular base,” Carroll explains. Drivers can be on the track for up to two hours, and heart rates can escalate to as high as 170 beats per minute under the intense physical strain and heat of a race (a normal adult’s resting heart rate is between 60 to 100bpm).

F1 drivers are notorious for their thick necks. “[They] have to be able to resist the pull of a long corner, or of the sudden shift from a long straight into a sharp turn,” Carroll says.

Sharp reflexes are also imperative (and potentially life-saving). Carroll encourages clients to play games like racket squash and padel, a hybrid of squash and tennis that “pushes reflexes”. Right before a race, he’ll have clients play a few rounds of a game like BlazePod, a digital device involving flashing lights that’s designed to hone one’s reflexes.

One of the most astounding physical effects of a race is the dramatic weight loss that occurs – sometimes up to seven kilograms. “For drivers like Yuki who have a small build, they obviously won’t lose as much in terms of kilograms,” Carroll says, “but the percentage of body weight lost is up there.” The weight loss largely comes down to fluids – a loss that’s intensified in hot climates like the Middle East and Singapore – meaning hydration both pre and post race is incredibly important. The morning of race day, drivers typically attempt to consume around three litres of water. Post race rehydration involves more water, electrolytes and protein shakes.

Nutritionally, Carroll’s approach is simple. “Good quality carbohydrates, fats, and proteins,” he says. In the days leading up to the race, he’ll up clients’ carbohydrate intake. Good carbs like pasta and rice, he says, and no crazy carb loading. Consumption is distributed evenly over a few days.

Dream it, then be it

Mind coaching has only recently been embraced by the macho world of F1 racing. But between the pressure cooker of the racecourse, jet lag and public scrutiny, mental preparation is just as important as the physical, says Carroll.

Daniel Ricciardo’s performance coach Michael Italiano incorporates mindfulness exercises into their regular training which he shares on his public Instagram account.

British sports mind coach Don MacPherson, who has worked with drivers Damon Hill and Kazuki Nakajima, highlighted the importance of visualisation in the mental strategy of F1 drivers in a recent interview. He described the imagination as being your brain’s “satnav”, adding “it can drive you to your dreams and goals.”

And if all this physical and mental preparation fails to get a driver on the podium? A successful driver needs to have a resilient enough mindset to move on.

Italiano’s “24-hour rule” – which he detailed on popular sports podcast Girls on the Grid – sums this up nicely. Ricciardo’s allowed to stew in his emotions for 24 hours, and then must channel them into a learning experience.

It’s simple yet effective advice – some even us non-F1 drivers would do well to heed.

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