There is just something about the sound of a Formula 1 car that can bring the biggest of grown men to tears. Is it tears of joy, of the sound of raw power or is it tears of knowing that you would probably never own one of these cars in your lifetime. To be honest, and I believe you will agree with me, it is a combination of both.
I have had an interesting few weeks starting off with meeting Jaki Scheckter at Pablo Clark Racing head office. I was treated to a good cup of coffee surrounded by half a dozen Ferrari’s and a Ford Galaxie, not your standard pretty off-the-floor Ferrari models but the real man’s Ferrari, the modified, the need for speed, the fast and the furious customized editions that will make anybody in fordsburg think they have died and gone to heaven. While chatting away to Jaki, PCR mechanics were merely working away on some of their client’s cars, fine tuning them to get a legal but unfair performance edge for race day.
The main question arose as to what makes a great driver? Jaki’s coming from a family of motorsport drivers, both his dad Ian and uncle Jody Scheckter all competed in Formula 1 racing. Jody having a successful career in F1 and even being the first and only South African to win a Formula 1 championship in 1979. There is no doubt racing is in their family blood but in the competitive world of F1 racing, mechanics are looking for any tiny nut or bolt that will help increase the cars’ performance. The cars are so well fine-tuned, it can be compared to Usain Bolt trying to figure out what he has to do to break the world record when already he is the fastest man alive. It is easy for being the last driver on the track because there is so much to improve but being the best will cause some serious sleepless nights for the whole team.
Instead of looking to the car, what about looking to the driver. Can sport science play a role in assisting the driver in taking his performance to another level? Even though I grew up next to a race track with my dad socially racing, the sport is a tricky one since the obvious thing is to get in the car and just drive. My research on the topic led me to the conclusion that I can compare a Formula 1 driver to being in a sauna enclosed boxing ring with Mike Tyson while he delivers blows to your body of great magnitude for one and half hours. It takes great upper body strength, stamina and endurance to last a race especially when there is 3.5G’s of sustained force and can rise to 5G’s in cornering. This means that the driver experiences up to 5 times his body weight pressed against him while racing. It gives a new meaning to ‘pile on’ and still being able to move, let alone race with 5 of you on top of yourself.
One can only imagine the difficulty of these forces acting on the body and then still trying to make micro corrections to the line of driving. The body can lose up to 3 litres of water during a race because the cockpit is a whopping 50 degree Celsius. From a physiological point of view if the drivers core is not strong he won’t be able to handle the G force on the body. If the drivers’ upper body and neck has not been conditioned to withstand the strength endurance race, then his reaction and response time to a situation will decrease. Breathing is critical for a driver because it supplies oxygen to the muscles and the brain and for whatever reason the driver takes a corner and forgets to breathe, there is a good chance they could black out and crash. Nutrition and hydration is critically important for a driver and assessments need to be carried out frequently to find out the rate of perspiration, the amount of sodium lost during a race so that experts can formulate the right timing and quantity of fluids before, during and after a race. Drivers need to be well conditioned machines and it won’t be to too farfetched that F1 drivers could run a marathon in Dubai heat and complete it with ease.
Failure in mastering any of the above mentioned and more, attributes of sports science will have an adverse effect on the driver’s performance. When Formula 1 companies are spending millions of pounds in trying to make their cars faster, you can bet your bottom dollar that they are spending a fair deal of their money making sure their physical performance is of equal science as their car’s designs.
Well-conditioned boxers train to handle Mike Tyson’s blows to the body, so to do Formula 1 drivers. Can sports science play an important role in racing? The answer is obvious to someone wearing a seatbelt in a high speed car chase.