What does it take to drive some of the fastest cars in the world?

F1 Drivers – Fitness, Strength and Endurance

Last Sunday we saw Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton take out the Formula 1 Grand Prix around the famous streets of Monaco.

We all know that so much money is spent on the cars performance with state of the art engineering making the cars as quick as possible. However what about the drivers performance? What is required both physically and physiologically of the driver?

A F1 team is usually seen travelling around the world with their own entourage consisting of doctors, physiotherapists, myotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches, dietitians, sports psychologists and chefs.

The demands on the driver mean that strength and endurance of the neck and trunk, grip, shoulder and legs is crucial along with reaction time and coordination.

F1 Fitness

F1 drivers need some degree of cardiovascular fitness in order to get through the 2 hour race and withstand the cardiovascular stress of cockpit temperatures reaching up to 50 degrees Celsius. Although the average heart rate of drivers sits around a sub maximal effort of approximately 120 bpm and spiking for short periods up to 170 bpm such as when overtaking or in a defensive situation this is not really so taxing on this system.

F1 Strength and Endurance

Drivers do however require significant strength particularly of the neck and trunk. Drivers need to be strong enough to withstand gravitational forces (G forces) which are generally 5-6 Gs of force whilst breaking around corners. They need to be able to cope with this during a 50-60 lap race for up to 2 hours. If they do not have the strength and endurance to do so they will be unable to maintain vision and coordination. Interestingly, turn 1 at the Melbourne Grand Prix requires drivers to withstand 6 Gs of force. Many of us in the public would be thrown around like rag doll with these forces!

Different circuits have different requirements on the driver with differences in the strength and endurance required to withstand forces. For example the heavy breaking and high speeds around the corners of the Japanese Grand Prix circuit mean that for 40% of each 50-60 laps of the race the driver is exposed to 3 Gs of force. This means that they need to withstand 3 times body weight of force through their head and neck equating to 21 kg force through the neck for approximately 30 mins. This is worked out with the average head weighing 5 kg and the helmet 2 kg resulting in 7 kg multiplied by 3 Gs equaling 21 kg. Just imagine the forces through the neck when they are involved in a collision which can be up to or more than 13 Gs of force. For those who like math this can be 91 kg of force through the neck. Most certainly in these instances the driver will sustain at minimum a neck injury such as whiplash causing neck pain and stiffness and neuromuscular inhibition of the neck muscles. Without adequate strength further injury may result.

Drivers exercise their neck muscles vigorously with neck loading programs using weights and weighted helmets in the gym to achieve maximal neck strength and endurance in order to cope with these forces and prevent injury.

F1 drivers use there right leg to accelerate and left leg to brake. The braking is heavy and requires a lot of force through their leg which is very taxing on their calf muscle. One corner of the Italian circuit requires drivers to decelerate from 340 km/h to 97 km/h in the space of 2.3 s at 6 Gs of force. This equates to 78 kg force through the calf 53 times during the entire race. It is not uncommon to see a F1 driver with a larger left calf muscle than their right side.

As you can appreciate F1 drivers spend a lot of time off the track and out of the cars in order to become successful at their chosen sport. We wish them an injury free 2019 season.

Kim Garland
Symmetry Physiotherapy