Cockpit Athletes

The exceptional demands of Formula One – where man meets machine

Cockpit AthletesBy Brian Walpole

Formula One Grand Prix racing is often regarded as the ultimate sporting harmonisation between man and machine. Drivers travel distances of up to 305km (190 miles) over 2 hours at speeds touching 360km/hr (220 miles/hr). With Gforces that hamper breathing and heart rates beyond what our very best track athletes contend with, Formula One racing places incredible demands on the human body. So are these masters of the speedway mere slaves to the machine? Or are they a class of athlete worthy of appreciation similar to that of our sporting greats? We assess the physiological demands of Formula One racing and give some insight into its training regimes.

G-force to be reckoned with!

Imagine attempting to make splitsecond decisions based on instinct and reaction while your body is being squeezed by up to four times its own imagine doing it for 2 hours while travelling at speeds of up to 360km/hr. By far the most debilitating race effect that drivers have to deal with is the Gforces experienced during acceleration, cornering and deceleration (see Hard Science). A variety of stresses are placed on the body during a race, as shown in Figure 1. Cornering, for example, can increase the Gforce as high as 4.0–4.5G [1], so that controlling a head-and-helmet mass of approximately 6.5kg would produce a force of 4G – and an incredible 26kg strain on the neck muscles [2]. This is equivalent to swinging that overfilled suitcase from your 2-week summer holiday from the side of your neck whilst having to make split-second decisions that could see you ending up in the tyre wall.

Emotional and physical stresses experienced by a Formula One Driver


G-force: because we are terrestrial inhabitants of the Earth, the human body is used to a particular force – gravity. The forces felt as a body accelerates and decelerates can be described in multiples of gravity, or G. A G-force is simply a descriptive measure of acceleration. When stationary, the force felt by Earth's gravity is 1G; however, when a body undergoes a change in speed and direction, that force increases in proportion to the rate of change [4].

As drivers are cornering during a Formula One race, the engine and aerodynamics of the car provide the forces that keep it on the ground, and push the drivers into their seats. This is a result of the inertia their bodies feel in relation to the car accelerating around the turns. The magnitude of the forces involved can easily exceed the Earth's gravitational force.

Your neck on the line

The neck and shoulder muscles need to withstand incredible forces throughout a race, particularly when entering a bend. It is for this reason that building up the neck and shoulder muscles is so important to Formula One drivers. A range of specialised equipment is used to strengthen the neck muscles, mimicking the forces experienced in the cockpit. A 2005 study [5] found that F1 drivers' neck forces were very high when compared with other experimental data obtained on neck strength – at around the same level as data obtained for Japanese judo athletes [6]; and 18–27% lower than research findings on senior Graeco-Roman wrestlers in extension, rotation, and flexion directions [7].

More than just driving

If additional G-forces and extended periods of muscle activation aren't enough to get your heart rate up, remember that F1 drivers need to deal with the added torments of car vibration, thermal loads and elevated emotions – which can see heart rates soar up to 200 beats per minute (bpm) [2], with average heart rate responses ranging from 142 to 180 bpm [8,9]. Dealing with heat up to 75°C in the cockpit means drivers also experience energy expenditures 8–10 times greater than resting levels (ie, driving under non-racing, high-speed conditions in Formula One cars) [10]. Thus body core temperature during a race can rise as high as 40–41°C [11]. Following a race, it has been reported that drivers can lose between 5% and 10% of body weight [1] which, for a driver weighing 60kg, would mean a weight loss of 3–6kg in just 2 hours of racing. Looking at the statistics, it is very clear that an F1 race places huge demands on the body and mind, and that excellent levels of cardiovascular and muscular fitness are required to deal with extended periods of elevated heart rates when competing at a high level. To give you an idea of their cardiovascular abilities, results from maximal cycling tests indicate that motorsport pilots exhibit maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) and maximal power levels similar to elite basketball or soccer players [5].

Building survival skills

Being able to maintain 100% concentration and precision throughout the race while under these physical stresses is incredibly tough, and a lapse in concentration for a split second can have disastrous results. An obvious major requirement of F1 drivers is competent motor skills – a blanket term for speed, agility, reaction time, coordination, power and balance. In particular, reaction time is crucial, with high speed and precision levels being essential components. Figure 2 shows the Batak Pro, specifically designed to improve reaction, hand–eye coordination and stamina by enabling sportsmen and women to train under simulated 'sports-like' conditions. It works by switching on a random series of lights that must be pressed as quickly as possible. It is used regularly by many top F1 drivers to keep their reactions sharp, with the official world record score of 114 in 60 seconds being held by Jenson Button.

Figure 2. The Batak Pro (

The F1 workout

Obtaining information from Formula One teams is notoriously difficult: they keep their cards very close to their chest, to prevent rivals teams finding out anything that might help them get the edge. However, you might like to consider the approaches outlined for here Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, who will soon be team mates when Hamilton moves to Mercedes.

Formula One racing drivers are often dismissed as mere motor sports pilots and not always given the credit they deserve for the physical and mental conditions they maintain to be at the top of their game. An F1 race places tremendous demands on the body, and these cockpit athletes surely deserve recognition for their athletic prowess. However, not everyone will feel too much sympathy for their struggles to achieve athletic recognition as they can reap huge financial rewards. A notable example is Michael Schumacher's 9th ranked place in Forbes highest paid athletes list for 2011 – with a staggering $34m fortune at the ripe old age of 42!

Lewis Hamilton pre=season plan and Nico Rosberg typical day


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6. Tsuyama K, Yamamoto Y, Fujimoto H et al. Comparison of the isometric cervical extension strength and a cross-sectional area of neck extensor muscles in college wrestlers and judo athletes. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2001, 84, 487–491.

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9. Mallows RJ, Newman DG. Cardiovascular data acquisition in a dynamic motion environment. Aviat Space Environ Med, 2008, 79, 416–419.

10. Jacobs PL, Olvey SE. Metabolic and heart rate responses to open-wheel automobile road racing: a single-subject study. J Strength Cond Res, 2000, 14, 157–161.

11. Jareno A, de la Serna JL, Cercas A et al. Heat stroke in motor car racing drivers. Br J Sports Med, 1987, 21, 48.


Brian Walpole is Managing Director at Love Fitness Education, London, UK.

Please contact Brian with your comments and queries:
Twitter: @LoveFitnessEd

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