Drivers face heat at Malaysia

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At the Malaysian Grand Prix, it is the extreme heat that turns a dream job into really tough work, and not only during the 56 race laps on the Sepang International Circuit.

Heat accumulation is the kind of congestion that builds up tension behind the steering wheel but doesn't lead to a traffic standstill. Temperatures of 70°C have already been measured in the cockpit of a Formula 1 car, and 60°C is not unusual under the helmet and racing overalls. During a hot race, drivers can lose up to 3.5 litres of body fluid and about 4% of their body weight – but they still have to stay cool at all times. "Poor hydration can lead to a loss of concentration which can compromise performance and safety," says Webber.

As well as up to 40°C heat and 95% air humidity, Malaysia presents the drivers with all the normal physical exertions they have to bear during a race. When braking from high speeds and in super-fast corners, forces up to 5G have been measured – that is the equivalent of five times the driver's own body weight. The race in Monza requires 212 full braking manoeuvres, and each requires a force equivalent to 80 kilograms, while at the twisting Monaco track the drivers have to shift gear about 3,100 times. That's extremely hard work – averaging one change every second.

The drivers are also worn down by the psychological stress they are subjected to during the race, and it is often even more extreme than the physical load. It all starts in qualifying, with the pressure of putting in a perfect lap. The slightest mistake can often destroy a driver's chances. But even this pressure is nothing compared to the start of the race, when the pulse climbs to 180 beats per minute. The stress is at its greatest in the labyrinth of corners that is Monaco, because the track has hardly any run-off zones, just walls and crash barriers. That pushes the drivers' pulse rate up to a peak level of 210 beats per minute.

The drivers build up the stamina they need for these peak performances with regular training. Everyone in Formula 1 has long since accepted that, without the right fitness, even the greatest talent will be wasted. Especially in extremely hot races like Malaysia, fitness is just as crucial for the performance on the track as the tyres, the engine and the aerodynamics. The greater a driver's stamina, the lower his pulse rate and, therefore, the easier he can deal with the stress. Those who are exceptionally fit generally demonstrate it during the last third of the race, when concentration and response capability slowly start to wane. And let's not forget: as their fitness improves, the drivers become more confident they can master situations where others would fail. From that point of view, the drivers' fitness is an important safety factor in Formula 1.

In normal road traffic, too, the temperature affects the driving behaviour. "The increasing area taken up by windows in cars means the temperature of the interior air quickly climbs well over 30°C, even on just moderately warm days," says Dr. Christoph Lauterwasser from the Allianz Centre for Technology (AZT). Investigations have shown that the number of driver errors and the accident frequency increase as the interior temperature rises. The best remedy is the air conditioning. Helped by briefly airing the vehicle at the start of the trip, air-conditioning systems can create a pleasant, dry atmosphere in the vehicle in just a few minutes. This helps to maintain reflexes and concentration, even in extreme external temperatures. "If you don't yet have air conditioning, you must always take regular breaks and drink a lot during hot trips, in order to keep a cool head," says Lauterwasser.

Prevention is better than over-heating: in Formula 1, the high fluid loss in hot races has to be compensated for even before the start. The drinking device in the car, activated by a button on the steering wheel, is only the contingency reserve. The drivers have to drink a great deal in the days before the race – as a rule, consuming special energy drinks with water and various minerals, which is the only way their bodies can defy the heat combined with the extremely high loads. "In Malaysia, we just drink the whole time," says Webber, pointing out the contrast with some other races. "In Monza or Spa, I'm fine with a cup of tea."

Mark Webber

"On no other track is the fitness of the drivers as important a safety factor as here. That's why I train hard, to keep my concentration over the entire race distance and to be able to perform at my best, even in extreme heat. The circuit itself has all the safety standards drivers could wish for. The planners have even prepared for the strong monsoon rain that you always have to cater for in Malaysia: a very effective drainage system ensures that the water can flow away quickly and so the safety of the drivers is guaranteed even in extreme conditions."

Thanks to Allianz