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Physical challenge of Malaysia takes its toll on drivers

Mar 31, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT

F1 Grand Prix of Malaysia - Race Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton’s victory at yesterday’s Malaysian Grand Prix might have appeared to be a formality, but it was in fact one of the toughest physical challenges of the British driver’s career. Indeed, all of drivers that raced at Sepang yesterday will have been through a strict preparation regime in the build-up to deal with the extreme ambient temperature and humidity.

In Malaysia, there are two types of weather: extreme heat and thunderstorms. Qualifying was a case of the latter as rain showers made conditions incredibly tricky, but the downpours stayed at bay for the race on Sunday. As a result, it was important for drivers to take on fluids and adhere to a preparation programme that would have been tailored individually.

More than ever, this year’s race was a challenge because of the new regulations. Although the weight limit has been increased, the majority of this excess has been taken up by the new engines. Indeed, many of the drivers were worrying about their own weight as a result. There were even stories of teams rejecting Nico Hulkenberg for a drive because he was a portly 74kg, whilst Mark Webber – another heavier driver – was pleased to be getting out of the sport so he could stop “living off of rabbit food” as he put it. In a feature on the BBC’s F1 coverage in the UK, Webber was found to have gone up from having 4% body fat to 5%. LMP1’s not that laissez-faire about weight…

Quite a worrying story began to circulate on Saturday after former F1 driver Martin Brundle reported that a current driver had passed out at a media event earlier in the week due to severe dehydration, which is oddly part of the routine in Malaysia. Just as racehorse jockeys deliberately become dehydrated to be as light as possible, some of the drivers were using a similar tactic. It’s quite a brutal and worrying programme to have on a race weekend.

After the race in the cool-down room, race winner Lewis Hamilton quickly grabbed the bottles of water on offer and drank away. His overalls were totally drenched in sweat following 56 hot laps in the Mercedes, whilst Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg also looked exhausted.

The proof of the physical brutality of the Malaysian Grand Prix was put into a figure by backmarker Max Chilton. The British driver finished for the 21st race in succession (he has never retired from a grand prix), albeit as the last car on track, but he tweeted after the race that he had lost 3kg in fluids because of the hot conditions.

Given that he usually weighs in at 65kg, this equates to almost 5% lost across the course of the race.

In the pursuit of performance, the drivers are putting themselves through some quite brutal preparation routines. Although Malaysia is something of a special case, it does get you thinking about the extreme steps that are taken in this sport.

To quote Ernest Hemingway: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering, all the others being games.”

Anyone that says Formula 1 drivers are not athletes are much mistaken.

  1. worknman24hours - Apr 1, 2014 at 12:20 AM

    There should be no place in Formula One for the idea that ANY driver has to starve himself to make the car go faster.

    Until the sport addresses this by mandating a 250 pound weight requirement right where the driver sits-this will never get better either.

    If the driver only weighs 150 pounds then the 100 pounds of ballast has to be placed behind the drivers seat back above his seat bottom.

    Looking at drivers who look like they just got liberated from a concentration camp especially as the season moves on is extremely distressing and blatantly unhealthy for the drivers as well.

    The rest of the people on the team sure look like they don’t miss any meals.

    The richest sport in the world and it starves it’s drivers because it cannot make the car fast otherwise.

    As an engineer, I would be ashamed of treating my drivers like that.

    Telling the driver he has to lose weight to make the car faster means I have no more intelligence left to find solutions to make the car faster.

    • redrock81 - Apr 1, 2014 at 7:32 PM

      its not just weight limit just to make the car weight limit. there’s a reason why drivers target the 4% or 5% body fat… Mark Webber actually explains it quite well in this video

      the more body fat they have the more insulation they have. This plus race suit, heat from the car and etc. can be problematic as the race goes on.

  2. techmeister1 - Apr 2, 2014 at 1:04 PM

    IMO Malayasia should be dropped from the schedule. It has no intrinsic value and is brutal not only for the drivers but for everyone be it the teams, media, virtually everyone.

    As far as driver weight, I agree that the driver should not need to starve or pass out from dehydration to “train” properly. The primary problem with Malaysia is the humidity. People can cool via perspiration in hot weather but in hot humid weather the body can’t cool properly.

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