Rob Widdows

To be first you must first be fit

To race a 21st Century sports car flat out round Sebring for 12 hours you need drivers who are not only fast but fit. Not the kind of fitness you feel from a swim before work each day. No, the modern professional racing driver needs to be at an entirely different level.

For the past three decades Dr Christian John has looked after Audi’s race and rally drivers, and he was on duty again in the humid southern Florida heat last month for the R18 e-tron quattro’s final appearance at the Sebring 12 Hours. This man is much more than a doctor; he is Audi’s guru, whose calm, confident treatments keep the team on its toes at all times of the day or night Over the years he has eased the aching muscles of some of the sport’s greatest names, taking them hot from the cockpit and returning them to the fray cool as a beer from the icebox. Audi doesn’t go racing without Dr John.

“Every driver is special, in his own way’ he tells me. “They have a natural gift and are totally committed; that’s the difference between the top drivers and the others. Now they are fitter, yes, and they follow a regime because they have to. They are working at the highest level. To drive at 180mph for two hours you have to be mentally and physically fit, the two go together If they are not properly fit, it’s a showstopper. Dehydration is one problem; if you don’t have enough fluids your brain is not working properly. You can make bad decisions. Nowadays we supply a constant stream of nutrition, but it has to be the right kind, high in carbohydrates and whole foods. Otherwise you cannot race for two hours, take a break and race again for another two hours. So we have a programme we follow with total consistency.”

Racing cars are now more comfortable to drive than they used to be, but the g-forces are far higher, the demands on the driver far greater.

“Yes, it’s like a marathon runner, but it’s not just the body fitness, it is also the mind. You cannot concentrate for two hours in a racing car if you are not completely prepared. We take every distraction away from them — that might be their families, or rivalries between them, so they are completely focused. This is vital at a 24-hour race. It was in the old days of rallying, when the drivers had very little sleep, that we started to take far more interest in their fitness. Once it was just an emergency doctor on duty; now we spend a lot of time and effort on their general health and creating a sense of relaxation and wellbeing within the team”

Friendships are difficult in motor racing, and Dr John has lost close friends during his 30 years in the paddock.

“You know, they are very aware of the risks, they have chosen to do what they do, and any doctor faces tragedy, whether he be dealing with his local surgery or working in a race team. I was close to both Henri Toivonen and Michele Alboreto and there were times when I thought about quitting and going back to a more normal life. But you must be professional, stay calm, and I do have the gift to stay focused on the routine we have when there is an accident”

Inside the car, comfort and temperature are important, DrJohn working with the Audi engineers to ensure that every driver has the best possible environment in which to work.

“Allan [McNish] is always the smallest,” he chuckles, “so we spend time on getting his pedals and his seat as perfect as we can. The thing that fascinates me about working with racing drivers is that I am dealing with unusual people; they are on the borderline of normal. I have been out on the track with some of them and I tell you, they are special. Sitting alongside them you feel the forces on their bodies. For a few laps, ok, but for a long stint they need to be at the peak”

Every team needs a man like Dr John. Problem is, he’s unique, one of Audi’s most valuable assets.