Matters of moment, April 2017

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Of all the reasons to be excited about the forthcoming Formula 1 season, and there are many, the area of driver fitness and conditioning is one of the most fascinating – and mysterious. This season’s F1 drivers, from rookies to old hands, will need to cope with forces hitherto unseen in recent times. Wider tyres, more downforce and engine developments will yield cars that are anything up to five seconds a lap faster by the time of the last race of 2017 in Abu Dhabi.

‘Cope’. Actually that’s the wrong word. You and I would possibly ‘cope’ – well, for a lap or two. I have been fortunate enough to have a ride in a two-seat F1 car and Bentley’s exquisite Speed 8 Le Mans prototype. I’ve also driven an F1 car of early 2000s vintage, but within just a few laps I had no chance of maintaining a reasonable pace. If indeed I ever could.

No, the experience in the F1 two-seater and particularly the Bentley opened the door to a new world – that of the wild, tumbling, violence of a flat-out racing car. I ‘coped’. Just. And I wasn’t even driving. Extracting myself from the Speed 8 I felt dizzy, overwhelmed, bruised and light-headed. My driver, Derek Bell, who is 33 years older than I, hopped from the car like a spring lamb. Later I saw him nursing a sore arm. Ha! I thought – it’s not just me! “Old tennis injury,” he explained. Damn.

Since then I’ve been intrigued by the cockpit environment of a racing car. There is an extraordinary contrast at work; that the driver must absorb forces equivalent to five times that of gravity and yet his or her hands and feet are required to operate in deft, surgical movements. A moment of snap oversteer for a Formula 1 driver will create a cascading flash of g-force; like a savage Mayweather combination. Bang. Bang. Bang. The car is trying to tie itself up in knots, and only a perfectly timed twist of the wheel, or the tiniest throttle lift, will prevent an appointment with the wall. Or worse, a retirement. 

It is why now, as you read this, the current crop of F1 drivers will be punishing themselves in the gym, on the bicycle in preparation for the violence and brutality of the new breed of cars. They must condition not only their muscles, but also their reflexes in order to deflect the strain and pain of a 190-mile Grand Prix. They must also hope that their instincts and reactions are as sharp as they were the last time F1 cars were this fast, or in the case of the rookies, when they were karting. 

I discussed this over coffee with Dario and Marino Franchitti recently. Marino in particular was as articulate as ever in explaining the training regime that modern drivers must maintain in order to operate at the highest levels. His thoughts can be found at www.motorsportmagazine.com. As I was explaining my ‘experience’ of the Bentley, Dario was rather more enigmatic. “I’ll tell you more about g-forces another day,” he said with a glint in his eye. A few days later I received this email. It’s a reminder why you should never play a game of one-upmanship with a racing driver, and particularly not an Indycar driver…

“Oval racing provides the Indycar driver with a different physical challenge to overcome than a road course. The most extreme example of g-forces is at Iowa speedway. During the 0.75-mile, 17sec lap, in the corners the driver is pulling somewhere around 5g sustained lateral combined with a fairly tasty number of vertical due to the 14-degree banking (which requires the driver to exert and hold steering loads equivalent to having 25-30lb dumbbells in each hand).

“The torque and twisting on your core has to be felt to be believed. The big issues here is that as the gs build it’s impossible to reinflate your lungs – even on the start ‘straight’. The load is around 2g, so you find yourself breathing as deeply as you can on the front straight (g-loading and seat belt restrictions notwithstanding) then holding that breath as you brace yourself through Turns One and Two. As you exit Turn Two there are three or four glorious seconds when you’re actually on a straight bit of road and you gulp air then brace for Turns Three and Four. Then it all begins again. Don’t worry, the race is only 250 laps long!

“The craziest g loads I ever felt were at Texas Motor Speedway back in 2000. The cars had 1000bhp and we were averaging around 235-237mph round a 1.5-mile oval. The same issues as Iowa applied, but the lateral load combined with the vertical reached a tipping point and some drivers were close to blacking out. Drivers were coming back from runs with no memory of what they’d just done on track, with my own symptoms limited to a large reduction in my peripheral vision, so anything apart from my straight-ahead vision was lost. It returned after a few minutes sitting in the pit box – that is after I found the pit box, as it took me three goes to locate it after a 15-lap run! Fortunately common sense prevailed and the race was cancelled.”

I don’t know about you, but I was gasping for air just reading this.

* * *

Motor Sport welcomes another new writer this month – Richard ‘Dickie’ Meaden. Many of you who read modern motoring titles will know Dickie as one of the co-founders of evo magazine, but in recent years his skill as a driver has seen him compete and win in a number of historic events. He took the honours in the 74th Members’ Meeting Whitmore Cup in a Lotus Cortina last year (above), during a season in which he also partnered Gerhard Berger in a GT40 at Spa and compete successfully in a 3.4 GA Cosworth-engined Cologne Capri. He’s a tremendously modest bloke, and will hate me saying this, but apart from Andrew Frankel I can think of few others who write as well about the dynamics of a road or racing car – and the sheer joy of driving some of the world’s finest machines.

Dickie will write a monthly column and in-depth features for Motor Sport magazine plus contribute a column and video on our website. He may also find time to race this year – indeed a season in the new Peter Auto European F2 series beckons. I hope he’s in training….

Thanks for reading. Enjoy the issue and of course feel free to get in touch with me via @NickTrott27 or through the editorial team at [email protected]