I never knew just how out of shape my garbage marshmallow body was until I attempted a brief sample of what the Red Bull Racing Formula One drivers put themselves through in order to handle the brutal forces of an F1 car. F1 drivers have to be strong, fit and able to react quickly in order to win, and they’re constantly training when they’re not in the car to stay on their A-game.
Oh, and I now know what it feels like to experience true shame.
[Full disclosure: Red Bull Racing’s oil partner Mobil 1 and gas partner Exxon wanted to make a point about having “energy to perform” by giving us exactly none of that here. They paid for travel, food and lodging, arranged interviews with members of the Red Bull Racing team, and threw us passes to the Italian Grand Prix Thursday media day.]
Formula One drivers focus on core and neck strength along with their reaction time in order to be able to last for an entire race, according to endurance coach and professor of physiology Greg Whyte, who was there to show a bunch of journalists a taste of how and why drivers train. The cars are brutal on a driver’s body for two main reasons: heat and G-forces.
G-forces—where the measurement of 1 G is equivalent to the normal force of the Earth’s gravity—are responsible for the sensation of being thrown around inside a car. Normal cars hit somewhere around 1 G in turns.
Formula One drivers can experience up to 6 G of forces, which is nearing the point at which blacking out is possible. Bodily fluids tend to slosh around just like any other liquid in a car, and if you aren’t getting any blood to your brain, you will lose consciousness.
This is why fighter pilots wear G-suits to compress their lower body and keep consciousness. While F1 drivers don’t wear those, Whyte has noticed that F1 drivers instinctively hold their breath in turns, not unlike how pilots do in high-G maneuvers.
Drivers’ heads take the brunt of the G-forces, which is exacerbated by the additional weight of the helmets that they wear. Whyte said that the force can be equivalent to half the driver’s body weight pressing against their heads in a turn.
One G of force in the car is equivalent to a 5 kg (a little over 11 lbs) weight hanging from your head. There were weights on straps to try this out, and honestly, the 5 kg on my head wasn’t bad. But 4 G feels like having 20 kg (just shy of 41 lbs) dangling off your neck, and that kind of hurt. I won’t be cracking any walnuts with my neck anytime soon.
Helmets and all the other fireproof kit drivers wear also exacerbate another issue in the car: Formula One cars generate up to 300,000 watts of heat.
That intense heat generated by the engine sitting right behind a driver’s back can raise a drivers’ body core temperatures over 104° F. Mind you, normal is 98.6° F, and your doctor usually has a proper freakout any time it’s in the triple digits.
Sweat is how the body usually regulates heat—specifically, through the evaporation of sweat. In the car, that doesn’t happen as much. Sweat just gets trapped in a driver’s firesuit and helmet, becoming soggy instead of being allowed to evaporate right off.
Drivers have an onboard drinks tube to replenish what’s lost in sweat, but what’s there is a carefully-formulated sports drink that’s sort of the bare minimum to get drivers by. Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo explained that they have to carefully ration the fluid in the car because teams don’t want to add any unnecessary weight:
There’s not as much fluid as we’d like, more for weight reasons as well. If we said that we want five liters, [the team is] going to say, well, you can have five liters, but you’re probably going to qualify last. So, we have to be really selective when we drink. If we drink it all at the beginning, then by the end, we’re not going to be...in a good place.
As a result, drivers can lose around 5 percent of their body weight in a single Formula One race—equivalent to about 3 kilograms, or 6.6 pounds. Whyte says that it’s enough to cause a loss of cognitive function.
The end result of training for such punishing conditions is that even the worst modern F1 drivers could probably take your weak goober body in a fight—including the kinds of pay-driving grid fillers we all love to make fun of.
Fortunately, even they can take solace in the fact that I have suffered greatly for your amusement in this article.
I like to think that I care about staying in shape. I mean, just ask me about my manual steering rack. But right now, I am embarrassingly off my game. A recent death in the family resulted in me eating my feelings in funeral food, and normal, routine things like working out weren’t a priority for most of the previous month.
Our workout day was simple: Whyte took us through some of the exercises that focus on the parts of the body that F1 drivers train, and then put us back in an F1 simulator all tired out to simulate how an F1 driver feels towards the end of a race.
First, we had to set a baseline of sorts, and that meant starting off with the simulator. The simulator we used was the stuff of any racing nerd’s dreams: a whole little replica formula car up on a giant mechanical stand that moved as you changed direction to mimic the forces you’d experience on track.
Three 24-inch LCD screens fill your vision with a virtual-reality racetrack, and a 5.1 surround sound system makes fairly convincing F1 car noises. The entire thing is controlled with a removable replica of a F1 steering wheel. (Stuff has a better look at it here, for the curious.)
I don’t do a lot of sim racing and sucked accordingly, getting occasionally distracted by the clunks as the car changed movements and the directions of the guy standing next to me talking me through a baseline lap. But I did better there than I do on most racing sims thanks to the movement of the car.
Next, there was a model of a Formula One steering wheel mounted up on a machine to measure my reaction time in a pretend-start situation. We had to release the clutch on the wheel when the lights went off, just like they would for an F1 start.
Valtteri Bottas I am not—but since I am good at making excuses like any mediocre racing driver, I’ll say jet lag was to blame for my slow reaction time.
After that, it was time to get to the real work of the day: getting sweaty. The first exercises were part physical, part neurological—aimed at getting quick reaction times.
First up was a Batak wall—a big board of lights you’re supposed to hit as soon as they light up. I felt a little short for the tallest lights there, but did my best, nailing about half the lights that popped up.
Next up was about the most fun thing I’ve ever done in a gym: a contraption called a Reaxboard. It’s a board that moves around randomly, sort of like you’re on a rough-seas boat ride without the horror of falling into the ocean to your cold, damp death. You can do whatever you want on it—planks, burpees, lunges, one-foot balancing poses, you name it.
It is impossible to get on one of these and not feel a bit silly. I probably did the sloppiest exercises of my life on it, but giggled through it. Everyone looked a bit silly trying to keep their balance on here, so laughter is only appropriate.
After a light lunch, Red Bull’s Pain Train really started showing off some of the core-strengthening exercises F1 drivers routinely do. A strong core—that’s the middle part of you including your abs, back and pelvis muscles—helps you stay upright when the G-forces of a car are trying to rip your entire body to the side, for example. Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo explained:
Normally, the tracks with higher-speed corners—more G-forces and that—that’s where you feel it. Your core, your neck. Your core because even though you’re tied into the car, you still twist you’re still trying to hold on in long corners where there’s a constant load.
Monza is surprisingly one of the least physical tracks, according to Ricciardo, since the car is set up to slide around more to maximize speed on long straights. Meanwhile, this weekend’s upcoming race in Singapore is extra demanding due to the heat, short straights, high downforce that pushes them down in long corners, length of the race and the lack of breeze flowing in between the buildings.
“Normally, the straight is the time you actually get a chance to breath a little bit, to rest,” Ricciardo said. “Singapore doesn’t give you that.”
So we did a series of exercises that made my gut feel like it was on fire: planks (where you pretend to be a human coffee table), side planks (where you prop yourself up on one side instead of both) and a couple different kinds of crunches.
Obviously, that’s not everything drivers do—Whyte mentioned that Ricciardo likes to use a round weight to roll himself out flat in a plank-like position and then fold back up again—but it was enough of a sample to make a bunch of journalists sweat.
After that, everyone got put on a stationary bicycle and told to pedal as hard as we could—with the explicit goal of tiring us out. Then it was back in the simulator, where we had the added distraction of Sky F1 commentator David Croft badgering us with F1 trivia questions as we all tried to beat our earlier lap times. He wouldn’t go away, either. I asked nicely, just in case.
“I usually love to hear your voice,” I told him. “But not right now.”
My sentiment was frequently shared among others in the group. Croft called us a “bunch of Alonsos.”
We also re-did the steering wheel, Batak wall, and Reaxboard exercises, just for good measure. I improved just a little bit over my morning times despite Crofty’s best efforts. Weirdly, every single member of our group did better at the Batak wall in our second, much more tired attempts.
“So, do Batak after masturbation,” Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo chimed in, clearly concluding that we’d all done better while tired. Somehow I don’t think that’s the key.
If you’ve ever doubted that modern racing drivers are athletes, please feel free to walk around with 41 lbs of weight on your head for a bit—just for fun.
These drivers train obsessively, especially in the off-season. Driver Max Verstappen told us that he trains twice a day, six times a week in F1's pre-season months of January and February. Training nearly takes over their whole lives then, as he describes:
I have one day of rest and then start [training] all over again. I would say that’s pretty tough, and also, you don’t want to do any other things during the day. You start in the morning, then you finish and have like an hour to relax. You’ve got lunch, then after lunch, again. You feel quite sore, so you have like an hour to prepare before the next session. Then once you finish that second session, then you have another hour to shower and stuff and basically, get ready for dinner.
It’s not the most enjoyable days of your life, but it’s definitely worth it once you jump in the car and you feel good.
This year’s cars featured major aerodynamic upgrades that are more physically demanding to drive as well, forcing Verstappen to train longer and with more intensity.
During the season, Verstappen says that he still tries to train as much as he can on the days where there aren’t any other commitments.
“At the moment, I feel like a granddad because yesterday I had quite a tough session, so everything hurts. But that’s good. It needs to hurt, otherwise you’re not doing it good enough,” he said.
Verstappen said he’s even been training in a sauna some to acclimate to the heat at this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix.
Either way, I don’t just feel like I’m soft right now. I’m ten-ply toilet paper in human form. Please do not come at me, bros. I may need to catch my breath.