How F1 Drivers Practice In The Off-Season (Full Explanation)

When the sun sets on another glorious Formula 1 season and the traveling circus winds down for the winter, F1 drivers will have a couple of months out for the off-season. F1 takes a lot of practice to get good at, so you might be wondering how F1 drivers practice in the off-season.  

F1 drivers practice in the off-season during a brief winter testing period, which lasts for about 6 days. In the meantime, they will make the most out of their team’s simulator facilities, as well as keep themselves in peak physical condition with their personal trainers.

With F1 seasons getting longer, drivers spend less time away from the confines of their teams’ headquarters, and more time utilizing the training facilities available to them. Below, we’ll discuss how F1 drivers practice their driving during the winter, as well as how winter testing works.

How Do F1 Drivers Practice In The Off-Season?

F1 drivers practice in the off-season by facing a heavy regimen of physical and cognitive training. They’re put through extreme workouts that test the limits of their body, along with ensuring their mind is kept up to the best shape. They also use driving simulators.

F1 drivers are high-performance athletes, with the physical demands of the sport requiring them to maintain perfect weight and physique. This means that a lot of the training regimen in the off-season is based on fitness and cognitive training, as well as driving technique. Teams will monitor every aspect of a driver’s diet and exercise to ensure they are ready for the season ahead.

During the off-season, most drivers will train for up to 6 days a week to fully prepare themselves for the physical strain of F1. As the driver’s ability to navigate a track is almost second nature to them, the physical and mental side of their training will take priority.

Physical Training

Each driver will have different physical training regimes depending on both their team’s preference and their individual body type. Many drivers will employ their own team of personal trainers and physiotherapists to ensure they maintain their fitness levels all year. 

Neck Training

Formula 1 drivers must make sure they are training individual parts of the body that make the most difference during a race, for example, their neck muscles. This may not be a common muscle for other athletes to have to utilize, but because of the extreme G-forces that F1 drivers deal with, especially when cornering, drivers must be able to shift up to 40 kg with their neck muscles.

To mimic the forces felt by their necks during a race, drivers will use resistance bands and weighted helmets in order to build up adequate levels of strength. These resistance bands will pull against a driver’s head, much like G-forces would in a turning F1 car, requiring drivers to pull the other way to keep their heads level.

This makes an F1 driver a tailor’s nightmare, as their collar sizes increase dramatically during off-season training, and even further during the actual season. Lewis Hamilton’s neck is said to have grown 4” in diameter during his time in F1, from 14-inches in 2007, to a current 18-inches.

Body Training

A driver’s arms, legs, and core muscles are also essential to their performance and require rigorous training to maintain. Having strong arms will make the process of steering the car much easier for a driver to manage, especially when the strain on their body starts to take its toll late in the race. Bicep, tricep, and forearm exercises will be crucial during the off-season preparations. 

Leg exercises will also take up a significant portion of the driver’s pre-season training, as adequate blood flow is required around the legs to stop them from cramping up during a race. They will test their calves and hamstrings, which will also help them manage the force required to brake efficiently. A lot of work will also go into the quadriceps, which help improve a driver’s stability. 

One of the most important aspects of a driver’s physique when navigating a car around a corner is their core muscles. Weights, sit-ups, and planks will be commonplace in a driver’s workout routines in the off-season to prepare for this.

Cardio Training

Drivers will keep up cardio training throughout the whole year, including the off-season as they need to ensure their hearts will be able to cope with the physical exertion of an F1 race. This exercise will be tailored around what the driver enjoys, whether that be running, cycling, swimming, or even cross-country skiing.

Cognitive Training

For safety reasons, as well as the performance benefits on offer, Formula 1 drivers will be put through intense cognitive training to make sure their reflexes, decision-making, and attention spans are all at the highest level. There is very little room for error when driving at speeds of over 200 mph, which is why drivers will make sure their reactions are lightning fast as well as consistent.

There are many training exercises that drivers will do to ensure this, from catching tennis balls that are thrown at walls by their trainers, to practicing on reflex machines. For all the technological brilliance in F1, these reflex machines operate in a similar way to whack-a-mole, where buttons will light up at certain times and have to be pressed by the driver as quickly as possible. 

Simulator Training

As well as the physical side of off-season preparations, drivers will use specially designed racing simulators to get back up to speed with their driving technique. These simulators are far more advanced than just a wheel, pedals, and a screen, and often have motion technology that simulates the movements of the car, as well as wind machines that help to make it feel realistic.

A simulator is a vital tool for an F1 team to have, as they reduce the risks that come with practicing in a real car, such as having to deal with the cost of any crashes, as well as potential injuries to the drivers. The driver can race on any track in any conditions in the simulator, helping them prepare for all scenarios. Some drivers even have simulators set up in their homes.

Can F1 Drivers Practice In Their Cars During The Winter?

F1 drivers are not allowed to practice in their cars during the winter. This is due to a ban on the practice by FIA, as they don’t allow drivers to drive their cars in the off-season unless it’s during official sessions. This helps to even the playing field between the differently funded teams.

There will be very little time spent in the actual F1 cars by the drivers during the winter break. For a start, the teams won’t want to take the risk of damaging the brand-new car before the season has even started, due to the huge amount of money they would have invested in it. But as some teams wouldn’t be able to afford this, the FIA doesn’t allow out-of-season testing outside a nominated period.

Instead, drivers will have to settle for the simulator until the 6-day winter testing session, usually spread out over February and March. The FIA’s reasoning is understandable, as the more a driver practices in their new car, the more data the team can gather both from the car itself and the driver’s feedback, meaning they will be able to further alter the car before the season begins.

This might not be too much of an issue if all the teams were operating on the same budgets, but as that isn’t the case, there would be too much risk that the richer teams at the top would pull away even further from the teams at the bottom

There may be some cases where the driver will be able to step inside the car and take it for a spin at various showpiece events designed to demonstrate the car to sponsors, but any real meaningful practice will have to wait until winter testing.

Can F1 Drivers Only Practice On Simulators?

F1 drivers are not required to only practice on simulators. They may practice with older, unused F1 cars. These practice days are only approved if they are not using any modern car components. This is to ensure that the playing field is fair between all of the different teams.

Formula 1 drivers will spend most of their practice time on the team’s simulator system, located at their headquarters. As the system is hyper-realistic it can provide incredible statistical analysis of a driver’s performance and will be hugely beneficial for a driver when learning new tracks as they are photo-scanned and true-to-life. 

One issue with simulator practice is that it won’t replicate the pressure of a real F1 race as there is no danger involved in virtual racing. Therefore, simulators are used to test a driver’s technique and reaction times rather than their mental capacity to deal with the pressure of a race. They also cannot provide the same levels of G-force as stepping into a real F1 car.

Some drivers will have simulators set up within their homes for even further practice, although these won’t have the same level of detail in terms of motion simulation and wind tunnels as the mega high-tech HQ simulators will have. There is also less detail about tire wear and various other nuances on home simulators. They do offer the same high-level detail in terms of track layout and speed.

Team Practice Days

Teams may occasionally set up practice days where drivers will test their skills using older F1 cars that are no longer used during the current season. Often for promotional or media reasons, these practice days are permitted by the FIA, if it is ensured that they are not testing any new components. 

These practice days can sometimes happen during the off-season, but often take place in between race weekends during the active season.

Is Private Testing Banned In F1?

Private testing is banned in F1. It was banned in 2009, with testing only allowed in FIA-observed sessions. This is to ensure all the correct procedures are being followed. Teams are also allowed some promotional track days to show off the cars, but they don’t generate as much useful data.

In previous eras of Formula 1, it was common that teams would test their cars before, during, and after seasons outside of the watchful eye of the FIA. After the death of Brabham driver Elio de Angelis in a testing session in 1986, safety rules were brought in to avoid a repeat of the situation. Before 1986, a lack of marshals on track for testing meant that these sessions were hugely unsafe.

The amount of private testing was reduced in the years that followed before the FIA permanently banned it in 2009. Testing is now only allowed in two 3-day sessions, as observed by the FIA. By reducing the number of testing sessions, the FIA can ensure that the correct procedures are being followed, with enough marshals and medical staff present to make sure it is safe.

As well as the winter testing sessions, teams are allowed promotional track days to show off their new cars, but these are often very low-key affairs that don’t tend to generate too much useful data collection for teams. Of course, if the car is deemed totally undrivable, they would then be able to modify it accordingly.

F1 Winter Testing Explained

Winter testing in F1 takes place during two 3-day sessions in February and March. This time on track is vital for both the teams and the drivers as it allows them to see whether their hard work in developing the car is worthwhile. The 2022 testing sessions took place in Barcelona and Bahrain.

Winter testing also allows the drivers to become accustomed to their new car, helping them get used to any new changes that have been made from the previous season. They will then be able to offer feedback to their teams that don’t get picked up via the data analysis reports. 

Testing offers drivers a release from the confines of the simulator, allowing them to gauge whether they are physically ready for the new season. It is a reintroduction for them back into the dangers of racing F1 cars, especially with the added pressure of not wrecking their team’s latest creation.

The 2022 F1 Winter Testing Session 

The main issue exposed by the 2022 testing sessions was a large amount of ‘porpoising’ that seemed to occur in many of the new cars. Porpoising is when the car bounces violently up and down on the track. This is primarily an aerodynamic issue caused when the downforce pushes the car’s front wing close to the ground, which pushes air in between the tarmac and the bottom of the car.

As much of an issue as this proved to be for the teams that experienced it, having a testing session to find out what the problem was with the car gave them more time to try and fix it before the season commenced (at least to a tolerable level). 

The Difference Between The First And Second Testing Session

Although they are both 3 days long, the 2 testing sessions are designed to offer the teams different information about their cars. The first session is usually a quieter affair, where teams will be able to sort out smaller issues with the car before (hopefully) hitting the ground running at the second session. 

The first session is behind closed doors, away from the TV cameras, while the second session, named Official Testing, is available for fans to watch. Barcelona was picked for the first session as it is a relatively short circuit with various types of corners throughout. Both tracks are predominantly dry, allowing drivers to really let loose in the new cars.

What Does Testing Tell Us?

Pre-season testing allows viewers a vague insight into how the teams will be performing in the coming season. Although speed is an inevitable factor that the teams will be looking at, it is not the be-all-and-end-all, with some of the fastest teams during the season not necessarily throwing all their speed into testing sessions.

Although we won’t be able to gauge who is going to be the fastest, testing allows viewers to see some of the technical changes made to the cars’ designs. We also get to see what the early problems are with some of the cars, including the previously mentioned porpoising. Usually, a good pattern to look for is consistency, as this will help gauge who the favorites are for the next championship.

Ultimately, testing will be more beneficial to the people behind closed doors, as they will pick up information and communication unavailable to outsiders. It is also unlikely that teams will go into huge detail about what they will change on the car before the first race weekend of the season.

What Else Do F1 Drivers Do During The Winter?

F1 drivers do a variety of activities during the winter, ranging from cooking to surfing and skydiving. A lot of the things they do are centered around exercise, as that helps them get prepared for the next season. Other drivers will do racing-related activities like sim racing or rally driving.

During their off-season break, drivers tend to get up to all sorts of activities, ranging from Sebastian Vettel’s fondness of cooking in the Swiss Alps to adrenaline-seeking Lewis Hamilton taking up surfing and skydiving in Australia. A lot of the things that drivers get up to in their spare time seem to be centered around exercise, which helps when they’re getting into shape for the new season.

Some drivers feel the need to scratch the racing itch, with Lando Norris competing in sim racing tournaments and streaming them live from the comfort of his home. Valtteri Bottas even took up rally driving before the 2019 season, finishing fifth in a rally championship. A lot of drivers will probably appreciate time at home with no need to travel anywhere else.

However, the break is often short-lived, with teams expecting their drivers back at HQ very early on into the new year in order to begin preparations for the new season. And so, the hectic lifestyle of a Formula 1 driver begins again. 

Final Thoughts

Formula 1 drivers practice in the off-season through intense physical and mental training that pushes them to their limits. They also practice through rigorous simulator training, but pre-season testing is the first time before a new season that drivers get to properly practice in an F1 car.