That is a question that many of us have asked and probably you also if you are reading this. It’s true that if a person is in good physical conditions they can better handle the stresses that motor racing produces on the body as a result of driving a vehicle at its limits. The key word in that last sentence is stress and what that means to driver.
Having asked the same question ‘how fit do you need to be a race car driver’ we teamed up with Wireless Motorsport that developed a device to collect drivers Biometric data and integrate the data with the existing on-board telemetry systems. In essence we made the driver like every other sensor on the car – so a driver’s heart rate, oxygen levels and temperature are logged concurrently with oil pressure, speed and brake pressure. For years we have been monitoring everything we can in the car, everything except for the driver so we decided to change that.
With six months of data collection from different categories, different drivers and teams we have discovered much more than we were expecting and have clarity on what is important to be a fast driver.
So again – should a driver be fit? From a race engineer’s perspective and a media perspective and a lot of research shows that yes they should be fit. If a driver is unfit they will fatigue earlier and with fatigue comes slowed reaction time and mistakes. So how fit? We have seen examples of very successful drivers that are not fit athletes and we have seen the reverse where a very fit driver does not perform that well. So we can say that fitness does not directly equal speed.
So the important key element that we have observed is not the drivers’ fitness level but how they handle stress. What we are referring too as stress is the involuntary response a person has to situation. This is an instinctive reaction where thousands of years ago we would have been in a stressed defensive state ready to fight or flee in an instant. Our heart rate increase, oxygen is readily available, sensual awareness is heightened. For those reasons some stress for a race driver can be a good thing and is normal but there is a limit.
We have observed what we call ‘too much stress’ which can have devastating results. An example of too much stress is being startled by a snake and by instinct jump clear of the harmless creature and right off a cliff. Too much stress means has very high heart rates and is only sustainable for a short period of time before going into fatigue. With too much stress a person becomes 'reactive' and is more prone to making mistakes or non-optimal choices.
So – how fit does a driver have to be. This is the wrong question, where the question is should be how well does a driver manage stress. In all our observations the fastest drivers are relatively calm and don’t get flustered in different situations – so a faster driver does not show signs of high stress and stays calm and confident.
So instead of a driver training their body to handle high levels of stress for prolonged periods of time the driver should concentrate on coping strategies for controlling their stress levels and thus prolonging fatigue and minimizing mistakes. Controlling stress levels is first done by recognizing what causes their stress to increase – traffic, qualifying a hard braking marker to hit. These vary for each individual and in many cases it’s very simple things – a deep breath, talking to themselves or finding some visual reference points again the solutions vary with each individual. In some cases we may modify the vehicles setup as this is could be a large contributor to their stress.
In conclusion – how fit does a driver need to be? Being fit will always be a positive and should be encouraged but controlling and managing stress levels will have a bigger effect on lap times.
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