How fit is an F1 driver?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Fernando Alonso suffered an ear infection in the Malaysian Grand Prix
Fernando Alonso suffered an ear infection in the Malaysian Grand Prix

One question that people who don’t follow motor racing often ask is ??how fit are the drivers??? If F1’s not your thing, it’s easy to assume racinga Formula 1 car is no more strenuous than driving on the road.

Toyota team doctor Ricardo Ceccarelli gives some extraordinary insight into the punishing forces an F1 driver is subject to – and how fit they need to be

There is no other sport in the world which compares to the demands Formula 1 puts on the heart.

The heart rate of a top driver can average over 180bpm for a race distance of 90 minutes or more. This is huge and no other sport keeps a heart rate so high for such a long time.

On top of that there is a lot of muscle work for the whole body – heavy work for neck muscles to cope with the G forces, high loads on legs and arms and good lumbar strength to stabilise the body. A normal person could do two or three laps in a Formula 1 car under those stresses before physically they couldn’t continue.

What I often think makes F1 different from many other sports is the demands it places on a drivers? concentration. In football, for example, a player is always paying attention to what is going on and often moving around ?ǣ but his activity on the ball is occasional.

In F1 the driver is working all the time and the slightest misjudgement on the controls can cause a crash or a spin. Ceccarelli explains:

The demand on the muscles is important but the load on the brain is amazing. Formula 1 is a sport where the brain has to be working hard for the whole race.

In tennis you have a break every few seconds, in boxing you break every three minutes, in shooting you break all the time. This means a Formula 1 driver’s brain is working in a different way. When you compare a Formula 1 driver’s brain to an average person, the way it works is completely different.

When a driver is racing he is driving differently to a qualifying lap, which puts more intense physical strain on him. In qualifying a driver is right on the limit, always very close to a mistake and his heart can be beating 50bpm faster than a normal racing lap. This shows the body is doing a massive amount of work, which is possible to sustain for a few minutes but not a whole race.

At Sepang two weeks ago we saw Fernando Alonso compete despite suffering an ear infection. What kind of effect might that have had on his performance?

The affect [of illness] on the driver is really subtle and difficult to see.

Before I worked with Toyota, I saw a driver who was starting the race after having a very bad infection for four days. He lost a lot of fluids and he arrived on Sunday feeling really bad, but he had to start. He told me after the race that he felt he could collapse at any point but he finished in the top six because he had a good car.

When a driver who is normally super fit is sick, he is likely to be four tenths – maximum half a second – slower than usual in the race.

64 comments on “How fit is an F1 driver?”

  1. Jenson Button’s performance in several triathalon events and Mark Webber’s Tasmania Challenge tell you how fit these guys are.

    1. And Trulli’s done a few marathons hasn’t he?

  2. I love this topic. Too often I hear “Forumula one isn’t a sport, they’re just sitting in a car”.

    I think the best example I can relate to these people is this:

    Play the board game operation while running 5:15 minute miles (that’d be a distance of over 17 miles in 90 minutes)on a treadmill while the treadmill is attached to a rollercoaster for 90 minutes straight.

    That ought to generate the right amount of stress on the human body to simulate an F1 race. Oh yeah, and you better win at Operation every time (or you crash). Have fun avoiding vomiting and passing out!

    Anyone that isn’t astounded by F1 fitness, is simply not a fan.

    ref: the game operation

    1. Terry Fabulous
      21st April 2009, 22:02

      Great example Fred, I will use this with my unenlightened work colleagues.

      I reckon I am pretty fit and can do a half marathon in about 85 minutes. ‘Old man’ Trulli did one a year or so again and he would have been 1500m in front of me by the end!! Fit!!!

    2. Play the board game operation while running 5:15 minute miles (that’d be a distance of over 17 miles in 90 minutes)on a treadmill while the treadmill is attached to a rollercoaster for 90 minutes straight.

      Amazingly there isn’t a video of someone doing that on Youtube already…

  3. It’s hard to imagine a sport that requires more fitness than F1- I have often compared it more to flying jet aircraft than to other sports when taking about the stresses it places on the body.

    1. More specifically, flying modern jet fighters like F-16s and Typhoons…

      I remember reading something about the ground effect cars of the 70s and how much G-load they inflicted on the drivers.

      If cornering speeds and turn rates continued to increase (from those days, assuming that ground effects was allowed), we’d either see drivers G-LOC in the corners or drivers wearing G-suits.

  4. It’s almost a shame Nasa doesn’t recruit these guys for space travel after they retire. Guys like Alonso, Schumacher and a few others certainly aren’t strangers to enegineering.

    1. Williams 4ever
      21st April 2009, 22:20

      Add Vettel to that mix, While he was instrumental in his 1st win in Monza by his thorough recon of every inch of the race track in Friday FP’s, his car setup was the one that even Computer aided Biggies at Ferrari and Macca couldn’t simulate. Latest team news of RBR has also indicated that his current team-mate has started copying his setup coz its simply too fast.

      And of course don’t forget to add my favorite Professor to that list. Not to mention JPM who contributed to improvisation of Rear Suspension design of Adrian Newey at Macca. Given that Bigger team like Macca will not change unless its not there in Computers(sometime computers of other teams)
      So there are some drivers out there, whom you need to respect not only for “Brawn” but for “Brains” as well.

    2. maybe, but their personalities wouldn’t be the best fit. while they may be on teams, they are not exactly “team players”. their paranoia about being the best wouldn’t exactly make them easy to get along with in a confined capsule for weeks at a time.

  5. I think F1 drivers are probably the fittest sportsmen ever. This reminds me of when Richard Hammond tried to drive an F1 car and he was full throttle for all of 0.2 seconds, and the tyres went cold off him driving slow!

    Its amazing to think the physical strain on the body when driving these cars, all of that and they are still expected to overtake and push to the limit all the time!

    1. It seems that the absolutely top drivers can handle these great stresses in an automatical way, and at the same time their mind is detached from these bodily hardships and thinking several laps ahead in terms of strategy and finding flaws in the drivers ahead.

      Ours is a tremendous sport. Even us armchair enthusiasts have to hold on real hard to the chair and to the vodka with Red Bull

  6. Hugo Bourgeois
    21st April 2009, 21:55

    Lovely feature! Coincidence is that I was just using this theme to my parents today, who argued that F1 is not a real sport “like athletics, for instance”… I mailed them this article :-)

    1. If I had a penny for every time I’ve had that argument…

    2. I know what you mean, it annoys the life out of me! You just feel like saying, well you drive one, see how far you get.

  7. another question i would like to ask, i suspect now an f1 driver cannot smoke now, however what happpens if he did what would be the effect?

  8. FIVE LAPS in my go-kart and your neck will know it!
    After a 200 lap day there’s plenty of bruises on your back
    and sides. I can’t drive an F1 car but isn’t it interesting how many F1 drivers also race karts?

    1. Your right with that statement. I did some karting for the first time a few weeks ago and my body was acheing like hell after that.

      I knew top level motorsport required a super human level fitness before but after realising how physical karting was I’m just in awe in their fitness.

    2. A standard 30min session in a bog standard go-kart (dunno which one you have Number 38, sounds a beast) knackers THE HELL out of me. After about 15-20mins my arms are gone and I’m fighting my body more than the clock. I also notice I’m not breathing properly – not quite out of breath, but a similar type of exhaustion.

      I also drove a Rally car in 3 x 10minute sessions – those 10 minutes are gruelling (though in a much different way), there was a point when I thought “I. don’t. think. I. can. manage. another. gear. . . . change!”

  9. The heart rate of a top driver can average over 180bpm for a race distance of 90 minutes or more. This is huge and no other sport keeps a heart rate so high for such a long time.

    Cycling?? Cyclists sometimes make 260km cycling for not 90min, but over 5 hours straight [sic!], averaging speeds of over 50km/h on a bicycle.

    1. Sush Meerkat
      21st April 2009, 22:39

      most F1 drivers are cyclists.

    2. Cycling has the physical endurance part, but nowhere near the G tolerance or the concentration requirement – unless on a very fast, tight Alpine descent or similar, where a wrong move may result in a big fall – but these only last for a few minutes.

  10. Every time someone tells me that racing is a pansy sport, I remind them of Ernest Hemingway (which I’m sure has been shared here before but I’ll share it anyway)

    “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”


    1. He forgot about bowling

    2. Next time you hear that tell them at least it’s not a bunch of guys falling over crying mommy everytime another foot goes near them.

      Good quote btw!

  11. Mussolini's Pet Cat
    21st April 2009, 23:12

    None of ’em are as fit as Kylie Minogue

    1. I prefer Danni

    2. So did Jenson.


    3. Nah, that was Black Jack

  12. Guys like Alonso, Schumacher and a few others certainly aren’t strangers to enegineering.

    F1 drivers are not engineers, even Alonso and Schumacher.

    1. Although some have engineering diplomas… like Mansell… And didn’t Nico Rosberg give up his engineering course at the Imperial College for GP2?

    2. Yeah Nico was accepted to read Engineering at Imperial, at thats pretty impressive. You need pretty damn good scores to get into Imperial even if you’ve got the cash.

      Agreed that F1 drivers aren’t engineers, but it helps if they’re technically inclined. The basic concept of engineering is all based on common sense, if you have an analytical mind, you can pick up on the aspects quickly.

      I believe that the best drivers, past and present to be very intelligent people. The likes of Senna, Prost, Schumacher and Alonso have all been great in car development just as they were on track. Some drivers like Olivier Panis and Luca Badoer may not have had chequered racing careers, but their technical feedback from their test roles were regarded invaluable.

    3. Jay Menon:

      The basic concept of engineering is all based on common sense

      I’d have to say engineering concepts were based more on the laws of physics. Applied with creative, lateral and fact based thinking, quite the opposite of common sense?

      Or am I just stoned?

    4. Psynrg:

      Yeah, you’re right, its based on the laws of physics…but for me, if you really think about it, it’s all is common sense.

      I’m not gloating or anything, but I hold a Master degree in Engineering, and work for one of the biggest players in the oil indusrty…and to me, throughout my studies and career…everything always boiled down to common sense.

      Maybe I’ve been stoned all this while then eh?..hahaha

  13. Can’t argue with Mussolini’s Pet Cat….Kylie is a different variation of fit perhaps?..haha..very nice nonetheless

    I’ve tried to explain this to various people, they just don’t get it. My American collegues believe that American Football players are the fittest athletes in the World! Must be really fit to play a game that stops every 10 seconds I guess.

    I’ve read about the fitness regimes these drivers go through, its scary! I remember Jacques Villeneuve used to run 15 miles a day and swim for a couple hours. These guys are different breed of human! I spent 30 minutes in a go kart and by the time I was done, I my arms felt like I’d been doing push ups for a year and I couldn’t feel my legs.

    Forward this so as many doubters as you can!!

    1. you cant compare f1 to American Football a football player may not make it thought a full race but an f1 driver woud not last 5min in a football game this is like saying a marathon runner could beat Muhammad Ali in a fight becaues he can run for 3 hours.

      the conditioning level of an f1 driver is world class but it is Impossible you compare that to football you try running at a full sprint and being hit every 10secs by a 250lbs man that runs a 4.50 in the 40 yard dash im not saying that football is better just different

    2. Nobody is comparing them based on the skill required to compete in their respective sports, its just about fitness, or endurance if you’d like.

      An American football player is not as fit as an F1 driver.

    3. this is an unfair comparison a football player is just as fit just in a different way there is more to being fit than just running

    4. An American football player? Ha! How much action is there in a game? Lets see them do something for 90 mins straight

  14. f1 is very demanding but motocross i belive is just as demanding there are no Long Straights in motocross

  15. Cam McConville a host for F1 in Australia and V8 driver did a segment on his recent Honda test in Japan that is worth a look. He was struggling by the end of the day and the V8 drivers all talk physical fitness and their training regimes these days.

    1. A couple of years ago they put a heart rate monitor on Rick Kelly during one of the races. It was very interesting to see how high his heart rate got !

    2. I saw McConville driving the Honda, very interesting.

      Didn’t David Coulthard sack a personal trainer once because the trainer wasn’t fit enough to keep up with him? Despite the trainer being a green beret or something similar…

  16. Eduardo Colombi
    22nd April 2009, 5:01

    Just one exemple: Ayrton Senna and his extreme focus on the qualifying laps.

    You must be strong not just fisicly but mentaly. You need just one lapse of concentration and boom! You’re out of the track. As Senna used to say i must push ’til your limite and go further. See the 91′ Interlagos GP and see how though is to drive a race car…

  17. The Sri Lankan Senna
    22nd April 2009, 6:20

    Dont forget Moto Gp which is juat as exausting, i Do karting ( Kt100 senior unrestricted) and just to keep myselft from looking like an idiot i run 4 days a week for 30 mins + streangth training for neack, wrists forearms and back, just to deal with the levels of stress. and dont rule out the fact that the stress levels, both physically and mentaly rise if it rains dring an f1 race while just about every athlet in other forms of sports except for swimmers wrap it up. for those people that want to test the levels of a real F1 car i suggest heading over to europe and tying out AGS for a session in a modern grand prix car. im sure you all will agree f1 drivers are some of the fittest in the sports business

  18. Keith, Great article. I love this. I know drivers are fit but how demanding this sports is. wow!

    1. The quotes were put out by Toyota the other day. Buried on a bookshelf somewhere I think I’ve got some similar research they did in the early ’80s, comparing Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi in ground effects-era Ferraris. Will see if I can dig it out…

  19. I think the perception of a lack of fitness is, maybe, the way that in an earlier era, motor racing driving was seen as glamorous and for wealthy playboys, often caught on film having a fag, and with a cocktail in hand. When interviewed the drivers would be very laconic about the dangers, and stresses, making it look so easy does’nt help, but very few mention the fact that these guys have to be that fit, strong, durable, and try to keep the weight down! Whilst still taking in enough nutrition to maintain that strength, bit of a science for many years, although I did hear that Mansell favoured Karate for his fitness training.

  20. I’d suspect MotoGP is even more brutal on a body than F1. They have to be far more physical with there machine, clambering and pulling the bike side to side in turns fighting against teh gyroscopic effect and having no restraints or a backrest to ease against acceleration/braking forces.

    ….and then there’s the injuries.

    Nah, F1 drivers are softies compared to the Stoners & Rossis :p

    1. Aren’t Moto GP races quite short though?

    2. I think it’s two 45min races. I agree MotoGP riders are also supremely skilled with similar athletic capability, and a bit mental!

      The most significant differences are the g-forces.
      MotoGP pulls maximum 1.8g’s to F1’s 4.5g. Imagine weighing 4.5 times your weight and operating extremely sensitive machines at speeds that are always near or on the edge of what is possible.
      A feat very difficult to maintain even in a decent computer sim (for the likes of me) for any length of time. F1 – It’s just all so …. controlled, powerful, violent and fast!

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