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Formula One drivers push the limits of their capacity, physically and mentally. Find out which conditions they have to endure and what special skills they have.
There is no car on Earth as fast as a Formula One car. Seventy editions of the F1 World Championship have passed and the development of automobile technology never stops growing. But the focus of the general public remains on the drivers. F1 drivers are indeed worthy of such adoration because they need to endure some of the most extreme conditions ever faced in sports.
The 8 environmental stressors for F1 drivers
For about 2 hours, drivers are confined to their tiny vehicle compartment reaching speeds over 300km/h along very irregular tracks full of curves and turns. This scenario exposes them to eight different environmental stressors (highlighted in bold throughout the text).
Four of these stressors are caused by the physical conditions experienced within the driver’s compartment: heat induced by temperatures above 50°C; high noise levels reaching over 130dB (way above the 85dB limit recommended by the World Health Organization); and high concentrations of carbon monoxide.
There’s also the g force, which substantially pushes different parts of the driver’s body at each change of speed or direction throughout the race (particularly the head and neck). It’s in the moments of most abrupt changes that F1 racers feel the most g force and they have to use their trunk and limb muscles to compensate for the force against their body posture. At some point, the muscles start to complain and a fifth stressor enters the equation: physical stress. The g force is the most responsible cause for this stressor, but there’s also contribution from the driver’s own actions (e.g. steering, breaking and gripping) and the type of driver-vehicle interface used (e.g. vibration as a means to provide feedback to the driver).
Constant physical stress relates to another stressor racers may experience, namely muscle fatigue, which has a negative impact on their performance in future races. On top of that, drivers also experience cardiovascular stress because their hearts beat at 90% of maximum capacity all throughout the race. This is not only due to heat and physical effort, but also to the actual speed of the car. Researchers show that the heartbeat rate of a driver at high speed is proportional to the average speed of their vehicle.
We are still uncertain about the additional causes leading to this increased heart rate, but one of them is definitely our eighth stressor: mental stress. From the moment F1 drivers are behind the wheel, their physiology shows a typical stress response that can last for up to one hour after the race is finished. This was observed back in the 1970s, when researchers found that the adrenaline and non-adrenaline hormone levels observed in typical stress experiments resemble those of car racers in the period following a race.
What distinguishes F1 drivers from the average person
Is glory and wealth worth the dangers of exposing yourself to so many environmental stressors? What do F1 drivers have that others don’t? Although drivers remain seated behind the wheel and despite the stressors they have to face, enduring the physical challenges of F1 racing makes them as physically fit as competitors are in more traditional sports like running or cycling. Next to physical fitness, racing simulation experiments have also expectedly shown that F1 and other professional car racers outperform non-racers in several driving criteria: higher average speed, shorter lap times, and higher speed through corners. Interestingly, eye tracking technology has found that racing and non-racing drivers show distinct eye-gazing behaviors. Non-racers follow objects with their eyes while driving, whereas racers keep their eyes stable and generally follow objects by moving their heads toward the direction they intend to steer.
Racers differ not only in their behavior, but also in their brain function
Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging have shown that a wide range of brain regions is involved in the activity someone exhibits during the act of driving. These regions tend to be the same for F1 racers and the average car user, since both have to use the same cognitive skills when they’re behind the wheel: vision, sensorimotor skills, spatial navigation, and so on. However, researchers found that many of these regions are more activated in F1 drivers, which may reflect their driving expertise.
Now that we know a lot about the special case of F1 drivers, are we ready to predict who will be the next winner? Will the current champion, Lewis Hamilton, with the help of his Mercedes squad, become the most successful driver to have ever lived? Will Sebastian Vettel find a way to bring back Ferrari’s former hegemony? Or will Max Verstappen fulfill his destiny to become the first F1 world champion from The Netherlands? We probably still cannot make those sorts of predictions.
For the moment, the kick-off of the 71st edition of the F1 World Championship has been cancelled because of the spreading of COVID-19. F1 fans will have to wait a bit longer for their favorite racers to come back and reveal all the answers we’ve long awaited.