Could you hack life behind the wheel of a modern F1 car?

I’m sure that all of us have met someone who firmly believes Formula One is not a physical sport. This is understandable because anyone not familiar with F1 would associate it with normal driving which we can all do with very little trouble. However, Grand Prix racing is anything but normal driving.

There are a number of reasons why Grand Prix driving is such an enormously physical challenge, and why the current drivers work so hard on their fitness.

The first, and perhaps most obvious reason, is that a Formula One race lasts for around 90 minutes. Any form of mild exercise is going to take effect on you after that long.

However, the biggest thing that F1 drivers have to cope with are G forces.

If you jump into the air, a force of 1G pushes you back to the ground. This is the force of the Earth’s gravity. There is less gravity on the moon which is why the astronauts bounced around so much when they were up there.

The G forces produced by a Formula One car are unbelievable. Due to the high levels of downforce and grip, the cornering speeds are so high that an F1 must feel like it is on rails. This is one sensation we cannot feel on the road, or in most racing cars, simply because the machinery does not allow it.

Formula One cars regularly produce a force of 4G through corners, which means a 70 KG driver instantly weighs 280kg. That is a massive strain on the body. It is a particular strain on the body parts that have to move, such as the head and arms. Through a corner a drivers head will weigh 16kg! That is unbelievable. Try strapping a few bricks to your head and shaking it side to side for 90 minutes. That is one hell of a workout, and it is why drivers have such large neck muscles.

Similar forces are exerted on the driver’s arms as they operate the steering wheel. Next time you go for a 90 minute drive along a windy road, strap those bricks onto your arms and see how you feel afterwards. It isn’t easy.

That is just cornering at 4G, which F1 cars do often. At full braking pressure from top speed, a Grand Prix machine can produce 6G. That is extreme! You black out at 8G. That is so strong that it will suck water out of a driver’s tear ducts and splatter it on his visor. That is one hell of a ride.

Two years ago I had the good fortune to have a ride in a fighter jet. We pulled many 4G turns, along with a few that went over 7G. After a twenty minute flight, during which I blacked out and threw up, I was absolutely spent. When you go through a high G manoeuvre you can feel the extra weight all through your body. It is a very uncomfortable and difficult experience. The G forces compress you like a spring. It makes it harder to breathe, it makes it harder for your blood to circulate (hence the blackout) and it affects your vision and senses. 90 minutes of those G forces would be unimaginable.

Clearly the drivers get used to it, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Along with the G forces, there are a number of other things that a driver has to deal with in the cockpit of a Grand Prix car.

One of those is heat.

How can an F1 driver get hot if he’s sitting out in the open with all that air rushing past him? Well, that air isn’t exactly helpful.

If a driver is following another car, the exhaust gases coming from the guy in front are not going to be cold.

There is also the air coming off his own front wheels which isn’t cold either. The front brakes run at temperatures of 900 degrees Celsius which is only 200 degrees less than a volcanic eruption! The tyre rubber itself runs very hot so any air form that region of the car (which happens to be right in front of the driver) is not comfortable.

The driver also sits right in front of the engine which understandably operates at very high temperatures, and there are a number of hot liquids that run through the car which add to the problem.

The worst thing of all sometimes can be the seat. When an F1 car ‘bottoms out’ and scrapes along the ground, it generates a massive amount of heat and friction. The cars have a wooden plank on their floors to help dissipate some of that friction, but sometimes the excess heat can transfer up the chassis and into the cockpit. The driver is only a few inches of the ground, and you’ll find that Mark Webber and Jarno Trulli have the singed buttocks to prove it!

Heat is often a problem for drivers, but in some races like Malaysia there is also the humidity. At Sepang a driver will lose four kilograms of fluid during the race, which is an awful lot! Think of it this way – that’s nine pints!

A Grand Prix driver also has something else unusual to contend with, and that is massive vibration. F1 cars don’t have conventional suspension and are very stiffly sprung. This means the tiniest little bump will feel like a huge jolt. A run down the straight in a Grand Prix car is not a smooth ride, and during the course of a race the driver will get shaken to bits. The vibrations have a huge effect on the driver’s bone joints and there is some concern about the long term health effects. Cars have become bumpier over the past 20 years so it is not surprising that many drivers now suffer from conditions such as arthritis.

Something like a flatspotted tyre only makes the problem worse.

Again, the drivers would get used to the vibrations but that doesn’t make them any easier.

The actual driving position doesn’t help either. The drivers are almost lying down in the car with their feet raised high. That is neither comfortable nor good for blood flow.

The other crucial factor is a mental one. Formula One is not a sport like swimming where you can just stare at a black line and focus on your body and rhythm. The driver needs to worry about everything else going on around him, and has to be ready for any possibility. They have to keep mentally alert at all times and can’t simply ‘go through the motions’. Their fitness has to be strong so they can keep their minds awake.

Jenson Button competes in triathlons and Mark Webber organises the annual Tasmania Challenge which includes all sort of extreme sports. Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen have also run in the New York Marathon. They do these things because they are incredibly fit, and because they need to be incredibly fit.

The massive G forces are enough, but to combine that with the heat and the vibrations for 90 minutes is very full on.

Next time you meet someone who argues that Formula One is just normal driving, tell them to get into their car, strap weights all over their body, crank the heater, pick a windy bumpy road, and drive along it for 90 minutes. Make sure to throw out the occasional obstacle to keep them guessing, and see how normal they think that is!

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