Driver trainingFor most of us, driving is a relaxing pursuit. We place our derriere in a seat as comfortable as our favourite armchair, play our best tunes and adjust the cabin temperature to suit our whim. From time-to-time, we might even visit a drive-through, the automotive equivalent of a TV dinner.
But for an F1 driver, life is very different. They place their bottoms in a carbon fibre bucket, have their ear drums pummelled by an angry V8 and, at some races, operate for up to two hours in a climate that’s hotter than a sauna. Their only nourishment comes through a straw, and doesn’t last long.
For all its glamour, the task of driving a grand prix car is exceptionally arduous and demands a high level of driver fitness. “In the last fifteen years, there has been a paradigm shift in Formula One that was led by Michael Schumacher and the new generation of young drivers,” says Tony Lycholat. “Today, every driver takes their fitness very seriously – it’s become part of the culture.”
As the Head of Human Performance for the Honda Racing F1 Team, Lycholat is responsible for the physical and mental well-being of key personnel, and especially the drivers. It’s his role to ensure that when Jenson Button or Rubens Barrichello don their helmets and climb into their cars, they are in the best possible condition.
“A lot of people misunderstand the role of physical fitness in F1,” he says. “They talk about a driver’s heartbeat but often that has more to do with adrenalin than the physical demands of driving a car. The cardiovascular demands of Formula One are high, but they’re not unbelievably high. Grand Prix drivers aren’t marathon runners.” Nor do the drivers have to be powerful. “If you look at Jenson’s physique, he’s not particularly muscular. He is slim and lean, with very little body fat.” The main physical demand, according to Lycholat, is on the neck. “A driver will regularly suffer a load up to 5g (g=acceleration due to gravity) during a lap. That means that instead of their head and helmet weighing 6kg, it weighs 30kg. That puts a tremendous strain on the neck muscles.”
Honda’s Brackley HQ is home to a piece of gym apparatus that’s specifically designed to simulate the effects of g-force on the driver’s neck. This is a critical part of their training, as Christian Klien, Honda’s 2007 Test and Reserve Driver, acknowledges. “At my first Formula One test, I could only manage about twelve laps in a row,” he says. “I had to stop and let my neck recover.”
Lycholat agrees: “This is one of the biggest challenges facing any young driver as they begin their Formula One career. It’s critically important that they can position their head and neck so they can replicate their braking points, lap-after-lap. This is the primary limiting factor on a driver’s performance and all the cardiovascular training must support this basic premise.”
The need to maintain a high level of neck strength also impacts on how and when a driver trains. If they want to succeed, there can be no respite. “The de-training effect on the neck is massive. In normal life you simply don’t use those muscles and a driver can’t afford to go two weeks without training.”
Surprisingly, the crucial period for driver training is at the season’s end. Instead of lounging on a tropical island, Button and Barrichello are thrown into an initial five weeks of intensive activity. “This is the key period when they’re not driving the car,” says Lycholat. “November to February are the critical months for getting them into shape, then we’ll look to tweak and maintain their condition throughout the season.
“In many ways, the physical training is the easy bit. It’s a numbers game. We analyse the demands and requirements and then build each driver a programme to achieve those objectives. I’ll monitor their progress every six weeks – there’s nowhere to hide and they know we won’t tolerate any slacking.”
Lycholat can call upon 25 years experience of working with elite and Olympic athletes in six different sports. “It’s really not about the sport, it’s about the person,” he explains. “You coach people, not the sport.”
The key to success is an understanding of the psychology of each driver. “Rubens [Barrichello] is a very analytical athlete. He likes to have everything explained and to understand the processes. He’s happy to work alone. If you write a programme for him, he’ll go away and do it.” Button, though, is different. “Jenson likes to have a training partner for extra motivation. You have to understand their preferred learning style and then adapt the programme to suit.”
This approach also extends to the race track. Each driver has their own therapist who will prepare their meals, organise their kit and perform treatments, including massage. “A driver will have twenty to thirty minutes of treatment before and after every session on the track.” This process helps them prepare both physically and mentally.
“There is always a lot of pressure on a driver before a race,” says Klien, who has competed in forty-six Grands Prix. “You are working with the engineers, but there are also members of the press who want the last interview before you step into the car. You have to find the right moment to be able to switch off. Half an hour before I go to the grid, I like to lie down, listen to some music and be in my driver’s room on my own. It helps me get my concentration – I know that when my helmet is on and I’m in my office, I have to be concentrating 100per cent.”
“We have to understand the needs of each driver and make sure they are able to prepare in their own way,” says the Head of Human Performance. “For me, there are two things that matter: total focus on the job in hand and total self-belief. If you get that right, then you perform.”
Lycholat is in no doubt about the significance of the correct preparation. Setting up the driver is as important as setting up the car. “If the driver is physically prepared and in the best mental condition, if they have their ‘right head on’, then it is worth 0.5sec per lap,” he says. “It really
is that important.”
Source Honda Racing F1 Team