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Behind the Visor - Part One: Physiotherapy and Training

Written by Thomas Bergamo and Sasha Macmillen, Edited by Harshi Vashee

Image Credit : Dan Istitene / Getty Images

Formula One drivers are complex athletes who are often underestimated or misunderstood in terms of their physical output. Today we’re not going to discuss the qualities of our favourite drivers, but who and what is Behind the Visor.

First chapter: Physiotherapy and Training

Whilst reading a Sebastian Vettel biography, I discovered an interesting character who was influential in much of the German’s world championship successes: his name is Tommi Pärmäkoski. Mr Pärmäkoski was born in Riihimäki (Finland), and for most of his childhood, he played hockey for his under 20 team: the Ahmat Hyvinkää U20 team. Later in life, he moved to the USA to live in Minot (North Dakota), where he continued to study physiotherapy and to play hockey at the Minot state university. Then, in 2008 he teamed up with a wunderkind, a man-made of 100% pure talent. The wunderkind? Sebastian Vettel.

From then on a solid friendship began between the Finn and the German. This relationship brought results, and in 2011, when Vettel won his second title in a row in Suzuka, one of his first remarks was: “I want to thank my physiotherapist Tommi Pärmäkoski for what he has done for me in those years”. Indeed, the duo enjoyed a fruitful friendship. Mr Pärmäkoski once stated in an interview: “Me and Seb spent a lot of time together because a physiotherapist follows the athlete every single day, and this has increased the confidence between us”. Tommi Pärmäkoski left Red Bull Racing, and his role with Sebastian Vettel, at the end of 2011. After he left the racing world, he re-joined the hockey world as an athletic preparator and physiotherapist.

Tommi and Sebastian during the Red Bull days (Image: Mark Thompson/ Getty Images)

Formula One is often looked down upon, with many of those unassociated with the sport claiming that in fact, F1 is not a ‘sport’ and that the physical element of driving a car is non-existent. Let’s take you through an F1 driver’s physical workload. The sweltering cockpit temperatures result in a fever-like temperature increase, with core temperature remaining around 38-39.8 degrees celsius for the duration of the race. The G-Forces produced by the cars would render movement near-impossible to ordinary individuals. The braking force that your left leg has to produce is immense, and maintaining that force output is an arduous task.

One man who certainly summed up Grand Prix car driving was Ayrton Senna: "You can drive a Grand Prix car whether you are fit or unfit. But for how long you can drive, how precise, how consistent you can drive, from the stress of the high temperatures, the physical conditions during a race is another thing."

Low-intensity cardiovascular training is a large portion of a drivers’ training, as this is a scaled-down replication of their race performance. A driver has to be able to deal with the physical strain, whilst also undertaking a huge cognitive load, with over 20 buttons on his steering wheel, and maintaining constant radio communication with your team. Drivers who are fitter, and therefore experience less cardiovascular strain, are better equipped to maintain their precision and consistency throughout the race’s duration.

Nutrition is another aspect of a drivers’ preparation that goes hand in hand with their physical training. Drivers can rarely afford a cheat day, as they must maintain their weight. Complex carbohydrates are crucial for a driver as they provide large amounts of energy, alongside vitamins and minerals. Long flights become a constant for drivers, and adaptation is crucial to your physical condition once you arrive at your flyaway destination. Poor dietary choices can leave them vulnerable to illnesses, as well as the eventual task of learning to live with jet lag.

James Hunt enjoying a drink and a smoke after a race

Michael Schumacher was a figure who really pioneered the establishment of drivers needing to train, and physical excellence being a priority. This was a far cry from the James Hunt days, who would drink excessively and smoke, often as soon as he got out of the cockpit. Yuki Tsunoda spoke during the 2021 season about how he would often find the motivation to train something difficult to come by, which really gave us an insight into how the drivers' mentality also plays into their physique.

Perhaps a perfect example of the driver’s physical strain is Lewis Hamilton at the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix. Hamilton found himself in a difficult race position, and he had to push to the absolute maximum throughout the race to recover the most points possible. He drove every lap as if it was a qualifying lap, and he was visibly exhausted after the race, struggling to manage during the podium ceremony. If you ever needed proof of an F1 driver’s exertion inside the cockpit, this is it.

Lewis Hamilton visibly exhausted after an intense 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix (Image: Florion Goga - Pool/Getty Images)

The driver's physique cannot be ignored in terms of its impact upon the driver's performance. As Formula One progresses, and the cars get even more mind-bogglingly fast, the intense g-force and physical strain placed onto the drivers forever becomes heightened. The make-up of a driver will be first and foremost, their physique, and it will remain that way for as long as Formula One races.

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