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Heart Rates, Leclerc, and Mental Strength: A Conversation With Dr. Riccardo Ceccarelli

Conducted by Juan Arroyo, Edited by Meghana Sree

Header Credits: Formula Medicine. Design: Juan Arroyo

This interview is the second part of ‘Track and Mind’, a series by Divebomb that takes an in-depth look into the mental preparation of young drivers in the world of motorsport. It explores the techniques and strategies that drivers use to stay focused and motivated on and off the track.


Through a series of interviews and expert analyses, the series provides a comprehensive guide to mental preparation for young drivers. From visualisation exercises to breathing techniques, ‘Track and Mind’ uncovers the secrets to success in motorsport.

 

Mental training was an afterthought for racing drivers forty years ago.


For those ahead of the curve, such as Formula Medicine founder Riccardo Ceccarelli, changing drivers’ mentality required a deep culture change– and legendary names to spearhead it.


“At that age [there weren’t] many drivers that had any support; some had a physio, but very few, because that time at the end of the eighties, not every driver was very professional.”


Ceccarelli, like many around him, initially pursued a career as a driver: “It was in the early eighties, the Formula 1 team was made by very few people, and most of [them] were there for the passion.


“When I started in Formula 1 in 1989, the team was made by less than 20 people, which is amazing if you think now, and most of [these people] — from the team manager, me as a doctor or engineer — maybe they were dreaming to become a driver, but they didn't succeed.


“And then they start to be in the environment and they became employed. The same was for me because during my attempt to become a driver, I met Ivan Capelli.”


Ceccarelli’s love for racing led him to driving courses in 1981 where he met this future Ferrari driver and formed a strong relationship, which turned into a professional partnership years later. In 1989, as a recent graduate in medicine, Ceccarelli became Capelli’s official doctor and masseur.


“He said: ‘Okay, why don't you join me? I need a person that can help me at the races.’


“At that age, [there] was not many drivers that had support. Some had a physio, but very few because at the end of the eighties, not every driver was very professional. I think [they were] the changing of [it]; if you go to the seventies, talent was the most important thing, just being strong.”


In the 1970s, Formula 1 and motorsport in general were a far cry from their current state. The focus was on enjoying the experience and lifestyle rather than maximising performance, and drivers like Niki Lauda were a rarity.


James Hunt, often seen as the face of that era, epitomised a life of thrill and frivolity where professionalism was not a priority.


But the coming generation looked for something different out of racing: “Something was changing [about] the process with [Alain] Prost and [Ayrton] Senna. With this kind of driver, they started to understand how important physical condition was.


“So when I joined Formula 1, Ivan Capelli was understanding how [important it was] to be trained, and that's why he wanted me.”

A cable connecting Ivan Capelli to a heart rate monitor. Credit: Formula Medicine

The nineties represented a clear shift in drivers’ priorities: the driver’s physical and mental aspects took centre stage.


“More drivers were using trainers, physiotherapists, or me as a medical doctor. I got the opportunity to know Senna from very close, to become a kind of friend of [him] and to know some other professional drivers.”


Ceccarelli also worked with Michael Schumacher, whose habits, he says, are “important to transmit to young drivers.”


“Their vision was not only the car. Obviously they were very good in that testing and the topic car, but they were also very interested to understand everything which could be useful for them from the kind of training, nutrition, the supplement, how much to drink.


“When I met them and they knew that there was a doctor in Formula 1, they had many questions for me, even if it was just [when] we met for charity for dinner outside of the paddock. They were asking me, ‘What do you think if I eat or train like this?’”


Experts’ recommendations in physical health were gaining popularity among drivers, but mental preparation remained a relatively new and under-researched area in the sport.

 

Cecarelli realised a driver’s heart rate had a strong impact on their performance, but he couldn’t rely on previous experiences to back it up.


“One of the challenges is that it's not the same being a tennis coach if you actually play tennis, or being a coach in ski if you used to ski, but when it comes to training a Formula One driver, nobody has been a Formula One driver before, and it's difficult to understand.”


The average heart rate of an F1 driver today is typically around 150 to 170 BPM (beats per minute) during races. Talent is of no use when you have no energy, the Italian doctor soon discovered.


“I started to understand, wow, this sport is not so easy, it's not enough, just the talent. You need to be fit and that's why I was pushing to do a lot of training. But then going deeper in the study, I could also see that mental performance was very important.


“If you want to stay in qualifying laps for all race long, that is the mind. Because the brain consumes energy. And if you consume a lot of energy to make a fast lap, you can do it for a few laps and then you have to slow down.


“So that was when we discovered at the end of the 90s that the difference in race pace was coming not from the muscle, but from the brain.”


They tested a number of drivers together with university neuroscientists using functional magnetic resonance. The results showed that the most successful drivers knew how to optimise the use of their brain. In short, they did more using less energy.


“They don't waste energy, which means they are able to face the stress without being affected.”


Ceccarelli made it a priority to help the brain function more efficiently in the 2000s: “So what we [said] is ‘Okay we need to train the brain to become economic.’


“It's like the brain is an engine, and in this life, if you give me the engine of your car, I work on optimising its performance and efficiency. I give you back the engine with increased horsepower and reduced consumption. You'll be happy because your engine will run faster and consume less fuel.


“We apply the same principle to the brain. We have developed a mental economy training system where we can assess your mental capabilities without any additional software.


“It's like having a mental check-up over the weekend. We analyse the results, similar to telemetry data in a car, to gauge your performance, brain activity, and heart rate.”

Credit: Mental Economy Gym

This is the theory that built the “Mental Economy Gym” at Formula Medicine’s Viareggio facility. A gym entirely dedicated to mental training, it features a number of workstations and screens for drivers to simulate real-life scenarios or improve very specific aspects.


It’s made to purposely take drivers out of their comfort zone, be it through competition or noise distractions. Drivers are put through a variety of “games” while a monitor measures their brain activity, which is then translated into a measurement of frontal lobe activation.


In essence, it measures how much of the brain is used in each activity.


“So I tell you, ‘Hey guys, be quiet because you're just sitting and pushing a joystick and you have 80% of strain, 120 [heart rate], it’s too much. You are spending too much energy.’ And then we use different tests. So we can evaluate focus, attention during strategy, dual-task [capability] during different conditions.”


Whether a driver is overconfident, overthinking, stone-cold, or emotional, the tests paint a clear picture of their character and weaknesses.


Charles Leclerc is a notable alumni of the Viareggio facilities. He joined the program aged 13, when most drivers are in karts, yet he performed admirably, as if he was much older.


“Something that surprised us is how his mentality was already mature. Normally when you are 13 you're just kids and you want to drive fast and you ask ‘How can I be faster?’”


But Charles is different. There is no ego serving as a barrier to self-improvement — a trait Dr. Ceccarelli doesn’t attribute to drivers lightly. His eagerness to win, however, turned to anxiety when things weren’t going his way.


“He was losing the car and getting nervous too easily, like the football player that gets a red card, because he reacts maybe instinctively.


“But that's when we noticed Charles was saying, ‘Yes, it's true. I am like this.’ That means self awareness. It means, ‘I know myself, I know my weak point,’ and this is difficult to find when you are 13. Normally when you work with a 13-year-old, they are babies, they don't recognise the weak point.”


Stubbornness comes along with confidence. It’s no secret many good drivers have it. But what separates the good from the great is the ability to listen, as Ceccarelli has repeatedly emphasised.


“It's difficult to find such a young driver with this open mind, that clever attitude. That's why we could do a good job with him from 13 to 18,” said the doctor before conceding they’ve been unable to work with him since he joined Scuderia Ferrari.

Credit: Formula Medicine

Ceccarelli had a close working relationship with Leclerc during challenging times in his career. Leclerc faced personal hardships, including the passing of his godfather, Jules Bianchi, in 2015. Bianchi had been a significant influence on Leclerc during the early stages of his career.


Another difficult period came in 2017 when Leclerc's father passed away. This was a sombre time for Leclerc, coinciding with a crucial stage in his career while competing for the Formula 2 title.


Despite these challenges, Leclerc's talent allowed him to shine even amidst the darkness of his father's death. Ceccarelli recalls the time when it occurred: “The race before Baku was Monaco, and during the race, his father was already in the emergency department in Monaco.


“He was driving 1 kilometre away from his father who was already in a critical situation and he has been the only one to do the pole position at the first attempt in Monaco.


“If you consider that in this category, you have only half an hour of free practice and then qualifying and, if you are [driving] for the first time in Monaco, even if you know the circuit, the simulator and everything, it’s very difficult to reach the experience of a driver that has two, three, four years in Formula 2.”


Despite the undesirable results later in Monaco, Leclerc bounced back in Baku. Days after his father’s tragic loss, the Monegasque claimed pole position and the Feature Race win.


“So for me it was more impressive in [Monaco] compared to Baku. Then, the father unfortunately passed away, and he went to Baku; but this is another capacity of the great champions. “When they wear the helmet they switch off the brain from the problem. Some drivers arrive at the circuit with many problems and when they wear the helmet, they still have the problem in the head and they don't perform well.


“The top champions, the moment they wear the helmet, they’re clean and they are just focused on driving. This is only the characteristic of top drivers. That's why for me, Charles is a top driver, because he has an impressive capacity to forget everything and to stay focused on driving.

Credit: Zak Mauger/LAT Photographic

What’s made Ceccarelli and especially Formula Medicine so successful over the years is their ability to evolve.


Formula Medicine was the first to introduce electrocardiographs in a Formula 1 car, they introduced heart rate monitors, and today, they train numerous drivers and teams at a time.

The future, like much else in the world, looks digital for the Viareggio team: “We are investing a lot in mental economy training these days. Currently, even today we are involved in implementing artificial intelligence in our mental training.


“The goal is to have a system that every driver can use remotely. So some instruments and tools and an access to the cloud where the driver can train every day on the mental side.”


The idea behind the project is that it will act as an automatic coach to help drivers in improving specific areas of their performance.


This would aid in maintaining their regimen’s vital continuity as most drivers’ time is too restricted to travel to Italy for regular training.


“At the moment we have already, I would say more or less 12 athletes from different sports from Formula 1, Moto GP, ski, tennis, that are privately using this to help us in the development because it's just a trial.


“The goal is next year to have this, so that it can go to every one of our athletes to have daily mental training.”


Providing drivers with accessible tools is going to greatly enhance their mental health and development in the future. While not every driver is a Leclerc at first glance, stars are born everywhere, even when nobody is watching.


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