There is a lot more to F1 than just slamming your foot on the accelerator and shooting around a track. F1 drivers are actually much smarter than you would think, and a lot goes on in the head of a driver in and out of a race, and this is not necessarily just about getting past the next turn. The same applies to a driver’s physiology- there is a fundamental requisite for any driver to be able to withstand the gruelling physical conditions of racing at very high speeds for lengthy bouts of time. Unlike any other sport- both aforementioned factors are aspects that F1 drivers must become acclimatised with very rapidly, in order to even be considered competitive. After all, several million pounds worth of technological research can only function aptly if the driver is capable of using it to its full potential.
Everything requires conscious attention when driving. When you first start driving, the number of things to keep track of is ridiculous to comprehend; the steering input, accelerator, breaks, clutch, along with keeping to the rules of the road and traffic. Our brains (the cerebellum and parietal lobe in particular, as these deal with cognitive functions such as attention) develop over time to deal with these inputs, allowing the conscious brain to focus on more difficult and ‘high-level’ tasks if you will, which include predicting the behaviour of other drivers and risk-avoidance. This is all amplified when it comes to F1 racing; a driver is strapped to his car, and his/her body feels every jerk, every twitch, as well as being affected by G-forces. This is all interpreted by the cerebellum. Then there’s the visual information – the driver has to look at the track ahead and assess where to go and what speed at which to do so, whilst avoiding a crash. A plausible theory would be that the speed at which information is passed between the different areas of a driver’s brain is a lot greater than the average person; this information crosses through associative areas – sections of the cerebral cortex where patterns are recognized and responses organized – and this is how drivers react so quickly. After all, if we consider the analogy of a computer, a fast-hard disk and lots of memory is all well and good, but it’s the speed of the buses that have an impact on overall processing speed.
F1 drivers can do extensive ‘mind-management’ training to enhance their brain function during a race. Kerry Spackman, a neuroscientist who worked with Lewis Hamilton, said that he uses principles of neuroscience to enhance sensory perceptions, analytical capacity, and memory to improve performance. Although the specifics vary from athlete to athlete, the main approach is to isolate the various sensory components of a particular task, study the neurological processes involved, and then develop training methods to increase brain capacity in said area. In Formula 1 racing, one section drivers would strive to improve on is the way they steer around corners. The sensory components of such a task include vibrations in the car, balance from the inner ear, and visual information from the track speeding by. Taking the visual element for example, we know that there are specific neurons dedicated to detecting visual flow fields in the peripheral vision; this helps you to understand how you’re moving through space. What a ‘mind-manager’ would do is measure the driver’s threshold for detecting this angle to motion, and then develop exercises to enhance their ability. Sensory systems (vision and touch) and systems that control movement are especially flexible in terms of neural plasticity, and this enables the drivers to improve their skills in the areas they require most. This form of training is similar to rehabilitation research after a disease or injury – the use of neuroplasticity to help patients learn mental and motor skills.
Finally, F1 driving isn’t purely about focusing on getting around the track – there are emotional elements involved too. In the end, it is a competition, and that includes a whole new array of systems in the brain. Professors in the University of Otago (New Zealand) found that neurons in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (a specific region of the frontal cortex) become active during decisions that involve competitive effort. These neurons store information on whether an action demands competition, what the intensity of said competition is and whether or not it is ‘worth it’. In a race, drivers compete with other drivers of course, but that includes their teammates in some cases. And when it comes down to it, drivers sometimes have to make tough decisions as to whether to let a teammate past or not. In scenarios like this, drivers have to balance their competitive natures in the frontal cortex with emotional intelligence in the left and right prefrontal cortex, in order to make a decision about what their main priority is, and put aside the idea of not being able to come first.
As mentioned earlier, making changes in brain function due to neuroplasticity can lead to improvements in these cases and areas – this process is known as neural integration, and can lead to drivers having increased skilfulness at decision-making as well as heightened mental activity and awareness, all of which contribute to performing well on the track.
Dealing with G Forces
During ordinary grand prix, drivers can expect to cope with forces exceeding 5G on a regular basis meaning that drivers are pulling up to 50kg in their neck through certain corners. Experiencing such high G forces leads to changes in blood pressure (predominantly towards the head) which can lead to unconsciousness. Additionally, the G forces can disrupt drivers’ abilities to respire by collapsing the alveoli in their lungs which can also affect consciousness.
To help counteract these issues, F1 drivers have a very high maximum oxygen uptake of 60ml/kg/min – almost double that of an ordinary individual. They also have very good cardiovascular fitness to ensure that blood is pumped throughout the body and to help deal with the heat and humidity within the cockpit. F1 drivers also have to build up their neck strength in order to cope with such high forces, which they do by loading weighted plates to their helmets and using elastic bands in the gym to emulate the loads they experience in the car. In order to prevent them sinking into the cockpit, they also need to work on their shoulders a lot in order to support their heads and arms for the whole duration of a race. Essentially F1 drivers focus on strength endurance and agility to ensure they reach their maximum potential out on track.
Diet and Dehydration
F1 drivers require a healthy diet mainly focusing on carbohydrates and proteins as well as high vitamin foods. They need to keep up their energy for not only 2-hour races, but also for pre and post-race media briefings.
An example breakfast would be porridge with berries and nuts as well as fresh fruit on the side. Along with this, they would often consume multivitamins. Lunch may include quinoa, chicken, rice as well as an assortment of fruit and veg. Dinner would often contain the most protein with items such as salmon, mackerel and chicken along with a salad. This diet ensures a large variety in micro and macronutrients which provide energy needed for training or races.
In the F1 car temperatures within the cockpit may easily exceed 50 degrees Celsius. Drivers are also required to wear fire resistant suits for their safety which also adds to heat which drivers have to deal with. As a result, the average F1 driver loses 2-3 kg of weight during a single race, most of which is due to water loss. The loss of so much water may lead to drops in performance and concentration levels whilst driving. To combat this issue, F1 cars are fitted with a bag filled with mineral water which the driver can sip at during the race by pressing a drinks button which is installed into their steering wheel.
In conclusion, F1 is one of the most physically demanding sports – drivers need to be light yet strong whilst also possessing the endurance levels of a marathon runner. They also have to be able to deal with excessively hot temperatures within the car and must be physically prepared to survive crashes at speeds in excess of 200mph.
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