Fitness for F1 drivers starts with two wheels
May 24 2013 12:00 AM

Formula 1 driver Jenson Button after a qualification session at the Hockenheim Ring racetrack in Germany. McLaren’s Button pounds out kilometre after kilometre on his bike. On top of that come mega-miles of running and swimming.

By Jens Marx

“Hey, how’s the heart rate?”” shouted Formula 1 driver Nico Rosberg as he glanced back at his personal trainer cycling behind him. “104,” replied Daniel Schloesser. They were climbing a slight grade.
A smile flickered across Rosberg’s face. For weeks the 27-year-old German, who drives for the Mercedes team, had been training on his road bike “unplugged” — without a heart rate monitor and watt-meter, unlike Schloesser.
Asked the duration of his two-tyred workouts, Rosberg said, “Normally two to two-and-a-half hours.” He was pedalling away from the Grand Prix circuit in Barcelona. The route was familiar to him — he had ridden it the previous day. The previous year, too.
Monaco, his adopted home, is where Rosberg usually trains. He likes the tough stretches, preferably 12km climbs. He likes, he said, to “push it to the limit on mountain time trials.”
Rosberg is not the only auto racer with a passion for pedalling. McLaren’s Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula 1 world champion, pounds out kilometre after kilometre on his bike.
On top of that come mega-miles of running and swimming. Last year the 33-year-old Briton, an accomplished triathlete on the side, managed to qualify for the world championships over the Half Ironman distance.
Then there is Fernando Alonso, the No. 1 twitterer among Formula 1 drivers. The Spaniard, who drives for Ferrari, seldom fails to inform his followers whenever he hits the road on his bike. This makes for a lot of tweets because Alonso covers 9,000 to 12,000km a year.
The number is about 5,000 for Rosberg, who has had to cut down on his running because of nagging knee problems. Cycling is just part of his all-round training programme, however.
 “Formula 1 drivers can’t train specifically for their sport,” noted Schloesser, who has spent more than 200 days with Rosberg in each of the last four years. On the other hand, he added, they can train more diversely than other athletes.
 “How’s the heart rate now?” asked Rosberg at the head of the mini-peloton. It was a good 20 minutes into the ride. The question was directed, of course, at his physiotherapist, motivator and “sparring partner” Schloesser, a fellow German and an avid Ironman participant.
 “107,” replied Schloesser after checking his monitor. Rosberg knew that his own rate was not much higher, and probably lower.
You do not really notice how fit Rosberg is when he descends the steps of his imposing caravan truck parked next to the Mercedes motor-home on the Circuit de Catalunya. Brawny he is not. He does not have thick thighs, nor well-defined calves when he pedals his neon-coloured bike. His upper body is not as strikingly muscular as his trainer’s.
But after the first few metres of a bike workout, it is clear: though Rosberg may not look it, he has got what it takes. This is true of Formula 1 drivers in general. They are in top physical condition, but not musclemen, because every kilogram counts when the combined weight of race car and driver is at least 642kg.
Take Sebastian Vettel, the youngest three-time champion in Formula 1 history. When the 25-year-old Red Bull driver from Germany strolls through the paddock in a T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, he looks a little like a bright high-school student who has won a behind-the-scenes look at Formula 1.
It is hard to imagine how he copes with the centrifugal forces in a 750-brake-horsepower race car and keeps his cool in extreme situations despite the physical strain. “Since the 1990s, the demands on Formula 1 drivers have continually increased,” remarked Johannes Peil, chief physician at the Bad Neuheim Sport Clinic in Germany. “Basic attributes such as strength, co-ordination, quickness, endurance and reaction time are trained to an extent that was previously unthinkable.”
Peil and his team treat German as well as non-German athletes, the most prominent being the German Michael Schumacher, who holds the record for most Formula 1 drivers’ championships (seven) and re-retired at the end of last season.
Schumacher’s replacement at Mercedes, the Briton Lewis Hamilton, recently gave a demonstration of how Formula 1 drivers tick.
When the rear brakes on his Silver Arrow failed at a speed of more than 200kph at Spain’s Circuito de Jerez, he deliberately ploughed through the gravel trap head-on into the tyre barrier. If he had gone in sideways, the car would have suffered worse damage, Hamilton explained.
Split seconds decide more than victory or defeat.
To be alert at critical moments, Vettel, Alonso, Rosberg and the rest begin their preparation for the Formula 1 season — which runs from mid-March to late November — with alpine cycling tours no later than January. The training is complicated. “In contrast to other sports, for us it’s even difficult to make training schedules,” Vettel pointed out.
There are 19 or 20 races each season, and various obligations for drivers and trainers often arise between races. So the two-man training teams can work relatively undisturbed only before the racing season starts.
Spot-specific training focuses particularly on improving stability of the spine and strengthening the forearms and hands.
Rosberg’s typical training schedule is three days on, one day off, with the greatest intensity or greatest extent — and sometimes both — coming at the end of a workout.
The less time he has, the more intense the workout. And the more time he has, the more he trains his base endurance. This keeps his heart rate comparatively low even at altitude. Pedalling back in the direction of the race course now, Rosberg was relaxed.
 “It’s hell,” he said, talking about the Malaysian Grand Prix. Known as the “Sepang sauna” after the district where the track is located, it presents drivers with sweltering heat along with humidity well over 90%.
Rosberg said he knew of nothing more arduous, either on or off a bike.
His countryman Vettel pointed to another problem for Formula 1 drivers. “You shouldn’t forget that all the travelling takes a toll, too,” he said.
Long flights weaken the immune system. The dry cabin air and lower air pressure at altitudes over 10,000m — similar to that on top of a mountain 2,000 to 2,500m high — put the body under strain.
Heart and respiratory rates rise. The body’s oxygen supply is diminished. “The flights are a very, very big problem,” Schloesser agreed.
“Demands are made of the immune system, the biosystem is attacked. If you train excessively afterwards, you’ll fall ill straight away. It’s not always easy for drivers to gauge this correctly and — with a guilty conscience — not to train.”
“It simply does no good to get on a bike right after a flight,” Vettel said flatly. The constantly changing time zones are an added burden for drivers, and for the racing teams as a whole: Australia, Malaysia, Bahrain, Europe, then a side trip to Canada, back to Europe and on to Asia, the United States and South America.
It is not easy to maintain top physical condition for months, especially considering that care must be taken at all times not to overstrain the body, the physician Peil stressed. That is why Rosberg’s personal trainer always has his back. — DPA

1 Formula 1 driver Nico Rosberg (foreground) and his personal fitness trainer Daniel Schloesser on race bikes on a road near Barcelona, Spain. Driving a Mercedes-Benz race car requires top physical condition and Rosberg develops it mainly by biking about 5,000km annually, limited only by nagging knee problems. Cycling is just part of his all-round training programme.

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