How fit are Formula 1 drivers compared to other elite athletes?

Lewis Hamilton training with Mike Thurston

Formula 1 drivers aren’t often considered on the same level as elite athletes, given they sit down for a living, but they certainly should be and F1 performance coach Eliot Challifour is here to explain exactly why a driver’s fitness is up there with the very best.

Whether it’s a turbocharged V6 engine or the latest carbon-fibre chassis, Formula 1 is a sport where innovation and technological advances are king.

But while the power, muscle and endurance of F1 cars is renowned, the power, muscle and endurance of the men behind the wheel is often overlooked – certainly in comparison to other elite athletes.

If you were to list the top five fittest athletes in the world, names such as Mo Farah, Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Chris Froome and LeBron James would more than likely be on it. It wouldn’t be a surprise, however, if a driver like Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton was overlooked.

Because the five-time champion’s success is ultimately reliant on the car at his disposal, there is probably a perception that the physical requirements placed on him are less than on those who run, hit, kick, dunk and cycle.

The reality however couldn’t be further from the truth!

“Formula 1 drivers are extremely fit athletes,” says Eliot Challifour, a performance coach who has worked with former McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne and others over the course of his 15 years in motorsport. 

“When they are in the car, they are actually sustaining heart rates very similar to that of a high-level distance runner or cyclist – it’s 80 per cent or more of their maximum heart rate they're having to maintain for a couple of hours.

"They're coping with five or even six times their body weight.” - Eliot Challifour

“Although they're not running or moving, they've got a lot of forces that are being applied to them. They're coping with five or even six times their body weight.”

The downforce generated by an F1 car – which is enough to theoretically allow them to drive upside down – exposes drivers to huge G-forces, in excess of 6G, meaning they need a strong neck – strong enough to “hold five to six times the weight of their head” – to withstand the stress on their upper body.

That involves some specific training that you aren’t likely to see at your local gym, although Challifour is careful not to overstretch – literally – his high-profile clients.

“We do a lot of isometric work where you hold the muscle under tension, but it doesn't change length. You can also do isometric with a little bit of rotation, because obviously the driver needs to turn their head,” Challifour says.

“I'm not a fan of doing a large range of motions with neck training - lots of people do it but there's a higher risk of injury. If you're personally responsible for someone worth millions, from my perspective I'd rather take the slightly safer option.”

Another thing that’s “extremely important for an F1 driver” is a strong core, as it helps to counteract G-force while also enabling them to operate the car.

Endurance training is a massive part of Formula 1 fitness

“Brake forces often get forgotten – the actual force that drivers actively have to exert on the pedal is around 80 kilograms, multiple times each race,” Challifour says.

The physical demands of F1 are exacerbated by the extreme conditions that drivers are exposed to, with cockpit temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius at some races, such as Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Bahrain.

“They've got fireproof overalls on, a helmet, so all your usual mechanisms of cooling the body down, like sweat evaporating off your skin, are a lot less effective,” Challifour says.

Drivers lose an average of 1.4 litres of sweat over the course of a two-hour race, and sometimes as much as three litres during the hotter races.

That physical fitness not only allows drivers to drive the car, but also to remain concentrated as the race unfolds around them.

“It’s a very cognitively demanding sport – the fitness aspect is just making sure they're able to tolerate the physical stresses comfortably,” Challifour says.

“You don't want to have in your head that you're too hot because it's going to impact the other aspects - the mental aspects - of what you're undertaking,”

As with any elite athlete, diet is key for F1 drivers to maintain both their fitness and their weight over a long season, though things have relaxed a little with the new driver/car weight rules.

It is part of a performance coach’s job to make sure their driver is consuming the right foods – a healthy balance of carbohydrates, lean proteins, fats and vegetables – but timing of intake is also key.

“As soon as they get out the car we have to make sure they've got a healthy snack to get a quick bit of carbohydrate straight back in them and then get them a proper meal within an hour,” Challifour says.

Another factor to consider is travel, with the F1 travelling circus pitching up at 21 countries across five continents, meaning drivers clock up around 100,000 air miles a year.

“Planning recovery around travel is essential in making sure that their immune system isn't suppressed - that they don't get too sick,” Challifour says. “Setting your watch to the time zone you are heading to is important, as is getting your sleep cycles in the right balance.

“That means changing when you're eating, too – getting straight into that routine of having breakfast when you should have breakfast, lunch when you should have lunch, to get your body in sync as soon as possible.”

"In the past you have your images of James Hunt smoking and shagging chicks, maybe doing the odd run"

The physical conditioning of F1 drivers is taken far more seriously than it used to be in the early years of the sport.

“Among the generation of kids coming through now, fitness is seen as an accepted requirement – something that's part of your daily routine as a racing driver,” Challifour says.

“In the past you have your images of James Hunt smoking and shagging chicks, maybe doing the odd run, so there's been a big shift over that 50 years.”

There’s still a way to go, though, according to Challifour, who believes that F1’s approach to fitness “is not as advanced as other sports”.

“Considering the advanced engineering in motorsport, physical fitness, medical and health services could be better,” he says.

Which brings us back to the car.

“It’s not like you're a Tour de France cyclist where your physiology is everything,” Challifour says. “Motorsport is a technically complex operation, with a massive team, where the car has a massive impact too.

“You need a certain level of physical fitness to perform, but even if you're the fittest driver in the world and you have a poor car, that won’t make any difference.

“A Williams is never going to be beating a Mercedes [this year], for example. You could put Lewis Hamilton in a Williams and he'd still be bolt last. There's not that 100 per cent direct correlation that there is in other sports – there are lots of other factors in play.” 

The above interview was conducted by Betway Formula 1.