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Is F1 A Sport? Are The Drivers Athletes? (Here’s the Truth)

Formula 1 is an extremely physical and demanding sport. The cars are fast, but they are especially fast in corners. This massive cornering speed is where driver fitness becomes really crucial. However, some still debate the whether Formula 1 drivers are athletes.

Formula 1 drivers are athletes, need to be incredibly fit to keep control of their cars. The G forces involved means they need incredible core and neck strength. An F1 driver’s heart rate remains upwards of 170 bpm for the entire 2 hours of the race.

Their lower body also needs to be incredibly strong as they push upwards of 100kg on the brake pedal for cornering. Many Formula 1 drivers run marathons or participate in Iron Man events to keep fit for the season ahead.

Is F1 A Sport?

Many people argue that Formula 1 is not a sport. Drivers sit in cars and drive in circles for a number of laps until the race is over. Anyone can do that right? After all, most of us drive our cars every single day.

A sport is defined as ‘an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment’. This not only means that Formula 1 is a sport, but it is also a team sport.

In addition to the Wold Drivers Championship, there is also a Constructors World Championship in which the teams competing in Formula 1 earn points. Without the teams behind the drivers, there would be no cars to race.

Formula 1 teams are made up of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people who devote their lives to building the perfect Formula 1 cars. Over the course of the season, they are constantly working to improve their cars in order to get the edge over their competitors.

It takes a full team of people to assemble a car and work on it to prepare for a race weekend, then keep the car going at full performance over the weekend. Once the race is over, that same team needs to break everything down and ship it to the next race venue.

The team also plays a major role in the race. Teams have dedicated race strategists who analyse the perfect strategy in order to win races or make it to the end of the race. They are constantly reviewing and changing their strategies as the race progresses.

The pit crew can also be considered serious athletes. Red Bull holds the record for the fastest ever pit stop. The car comes into the pit box at around 50 MPH and they are able to stop the car, lift it up and change all 4 tires in under 2 seconds. You won’t find your average beer drinking mechanic in a Formula 1 garage. It takes a huge amount of skill and coordination to pull off the perfect pit stop that can make or break your race.

Are F1 Drivers Athletes?

Formula 1 drivers just sit down in their cars and drive it around in circles for 2 hours, anyone can do that. This is a statement that has been made by many people, even some top-level athletes. However, it just is not true.

If you put an average person in a Formula 1 car, they will firstly most likely not even be able to get the car going due to the complex clutch system, never mind getting the car from 0-120MPH in under 5 seconds when the start lights go out.

Once they get it going, it will most likely only be 5 or 6 laps (if they can get it up to its full speed that is) before their neck muscles give in. Formula 1 drivers experience upwards of 5 G’s in fast corners. That means that your head plus your helmet (approximately 7 or 8kg) weighs 5 times more during that time.

If they do manage to get the car up to its full speed of 210MPH down the main straight, they will need to push down on the brake pedal of 100kg with only their left leg in order to get the brakes to actually work and slow them down to 60MPH in under 3 seconds. In addition, there will be a force of 40kg pushing your head forwards while you are braking.

All of this is happening while adrenaline is rushing through your body and your heart rate is between 170 and 200 BPM. The level of concentration needed just to keep the car on the track is extreme. Formula 1 drivers do this, whilst being in constant communication with their team, and adjusting settings on their car according to their strategy.

If you want to take it even further, the cockpit of a Formula 1 car can reach a temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, and drivers can lose up to 5kg of bodyweight over the course of a 2-hour race. So, you don’t need to go on a diet to lose weight, just become a racing driver!

At the end of the day, Formula 1 cars can not be compared to driving your standard road car on the highway. These cars require an extreme physical strength to drive, but Formula 1 drivers do that for 2 hours straight.

Drivers Weren’t Always Fit

The drivers weren’t always fitness freaks though. If you have ever looked back at old Formula 1 footage, or have even watched the movie Rush, you would have seen a lot of drivers spending their time drinking and smoking, living a bit of a ‘playboy lifestyle’.

This was made famous by James Hunt as you would see in the movie Rush (highly recommended by the way). However, it all changed when a young German driver arrived on the Formula 1 scene some 30 years ago.

That driver was Michael Schumacher. He is the one that changed the game when it came to driver fitness. He was the first driver to really take his health and fitness seriously in Formula 1 and it showed.

He was able to perform much better in races and get the edge over his competitors. It showed in the longer, hotter races, where he was able to still push his car to its maximum potential while other drivers were getting tired, losing focus and making mistakes.

Ever since then, drivers have realised that Formula 1 demands huge physical strength, and that they can get the edge over their rivals if they are able to perform at their peak. Since then, the cars have become much faster and more difficult to drive, and now fitness is an essential for any Formula1 driver.

The Strength Required To Drive A Formula 1 Car

Let’s start with the basics, acceleration and braking. Acceleration is the easy one, you will most likely experience a maximum of 1G if you accelerate heavily, but this is still the kind of feeling you get when a plane accelerates off a runway for take-off, but a little bit more extreme.

Deceleration is the tough one. Formula 1 cars can go from 210MPH to 0 in just about 3 seconds. Formula 1 drivers experience around 5Gs during this heavy deceleration. So, if your head with your helmet weight 8kg, it would suddenly weigh 40kg, and it would be pulled forward with that much force.

It’s been proven that this deceleration is so extreme that the driver’s face actually deforms for those few seconds of extreme braking. On top of that, your neck needs to be strong enough to keep your head upwards and looking into the corner while braking. So, Formula 1 drivers can move a weight of 40kg using only their neck.

Included in the braking is the force you need to put on the brake pedal in order to get the car to slow down. Drivers need to put 100kg of force on the brake pedal to get the brakes applied for these heavy braking zones. On top of that, their driving position means that they aren’t able to use their full leg on the brake pedal, so the force is actually coming from their calves and their ankles.

Next time you go to the gym, try to put 100kg on the leg press machine and lift it only using your left leg. Now try ad do that for 2 hours straight 15 times every minute!

When you get to high speed corners, the drivers go through them anywhere between 100MPH and 200MPH. These corners mean that the drivers pull 5Gs laterally. Same scenario as before, imagine taking a corner at 150MPH and then a 40kg force pushing your head to the side.

The G-forces also have an effect on a driver’s core strength. Although they are strapped tightly into the car, they still need to be able to steadily hold their steering and keep their body in position while these G-forces are pushing their body is all different directions.

Finally, the drivers need a lot of grip strength in the car. With all the G-forces included, drivers need to be able to hang on to that steering wheel for the duration of the entire race. If you have ever gone karting before, you would have noticed that despite how slow they might be in comparison to a Formula 1 car, your hand will start to cramp after about 30 minutes of holding the steering wheel.

In most cases, the cockpit of a Formula 1 car reaches intense heat. Drivers need to cope with the extreme heat in the car, while having adrenaline flowing through their body for 2 hours. A driver’s heart rate can easily stay above 180 beats per minute for the duration of the race. Resting heart rate is 50 beats per minute. This is the equivalent of a marathon runner.

Resting breaths per minute is 10-12. However, while driving a Formula 1 car at full speed, a driver’s breaths per minute can reach up to 40. This is also similar to other top athletes such as long-distance runners.

Drivers can lose up to 5kg of body weight during a race. So, it is crucial for them to stay hydrated in the build up to a Grand Prix weekend, and also during the race. Drivers have a drinks bottle filled with a sort of ‘energy drink’ that they use to keep hydrated in the race.

Formula 1 drivers have incredible reaction times. Very much like Usain Bolt would do at the start of a sprint race, Formula 1 drivers need to react within a fraction of a second when the lights go out in order to get a good start. But it doesn’t end there. Drivers use their reactions during a race as well.

When you are traveling at 200MPH and a car spins in front of you, you have about half a second to react and avoid crashing into them. These reactions are instinctive with racing drivers. When traveling at that speed, your brain will most likely only register what has happened a few seconds after you have passed the spinning car.

On top of all these physical requirements, driving a Formula 1 car also takes huge mental focus. Take a look at all of the different buttons and settings o a Formula 1 car steering wheel. Drivers need to know exactly what all of these do and when they need to use them.

Sometimes drivers even change these settings multiple times over the course of a lap. There have been cases where a driver needs to change settings to override the electronics on the car, which requires scrolling through multiple menus all while going at 200MPH and their race engineer explaining to them what to do.

Driver Fitness

So how are these drivers able to train in order to stay fit enough to endure these extreme conditions in a Formula 1 car? Most drivers train every single day, sometimes even twice a day. However, the best fitness is their race fitness which you can only experience from driving a Formula 1 car.

Drivers use weight helmets to train their necks and simulate the G forces they will experience in the car. They also focus heavily on core training in order to stay strong enough to keep the car under control for the entire duration of the race.

Many drivers use marathons and Iron Man events during the off season to stay fit enough and to prepare for the upcoming racing season. Drivers focus on overall strength and stamina during their training sessions.

However, you won’t find these drivers looking like bodybuilders. They stick a strict diet and training regime and most weigh under 80kg. This is because in formula 1, the teams try to keep everything on the car as light as possible to make the car as fast as possible.

Final Thoughts

Formula 1 drivers are elite athletes. They have superhuman strength despite how little they weigh. They have the reaction times of a sprint runner anticipating the start of a race, and they have the stamina of a marathon runner. On top of that, they experience G forces that no other humans except fighter pilots have to deal with.