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AUGUST 1, 1991

F1 drivers as athletes


In the intense heat and humidity of a race like the recent Brazilian Grand Prix, drivers are working hard in extreme heat. They are encased in triple-layer nomex suits, balaclavas and full-face helmets. The body's reaction is to sweat. If, in the course of a race, fluid loss becomes too serious, drivers will pass out. It is only natural. Unconsciousness is the body's inbuilt protection mechanicism, yet when a driver does collapse everyone throws their hands up in horror. How can it happen?

What is often forgotten is that, prior to collapse, the driver's state is constantly declining. Plenty of tests, carried out by NASA and various air forces, have proved that before blacking-out people under such stress gradually lose their ability to perform to the same degree as in normal circumstances. They cease to function efficiently, suffering physical and mental fatigue. There have been many attempts to solve the problem, ranging from cool helmets to high-energy drinks.

High-energy drinks? Racing drivers, cyclists, rowers, marathon runners, boxers, tennis players, even snooker players, use them, but what are they? Until recently high-energy drinks have consisted of a glucose-loaded, salt-based solution, which boost energy and fluid levels. One man who has been particularly involved in this particular field is Neil Swan, known in rally circles as "Dr Spock" - a registered osteopath from Oxfordshire.

Osteopath? (A quick dash to the dictionary). 'Manipulative surgery', eh? What has that got to do with drinks?

It's a long story, dating back to Swan's first involvement in motorsport with the Austin Rover Group, at the start of the Metro 6R4 rally project. He was hired by ARG to look after the rally drivers, who were being bashed and battered in the fearsome Group B rally machines. In the course of his time with Rover Swan found his brief developing from that of pure body manipulation. He was asked to find ways to improve driver performance by investigating such things as seat design, steering position and high-energy drinks.

After Austin Rover, his work continued with Ford and various other rally teams. There were occasional telephone calls from people such as the Toleman Paris-Dakar crew and then one from Williams Grand Prix Engineering.

"I was asked by Williams to sort out the seating arrangements," he explains. "And I did some work and a few tweaks to the harness and shoulder pads, various pieces like that. At the end of 1987 Nigel Mansell had his accident in Japan and, over the winter, I was called up by Nigel who asked me to go out to the Isle of Man and help him get back to full fitness."

In the mid-season last year Nigel caught chicken-pox and Martin Brundle was called in to drive for Williams at Belgian Grand Prix.

"Martin asked Dave Stubbs, then the Williams team manager, if he could you arrange some drink. I had tried every single drink I could get my hands on back in the Austin Rover days and I sent him the one we had used. After that Martin asked for that same drink for the Mount Fuji sportscar race.

"Well, there is a continuous development process in the field. Cars get better, tyres get better, engines get better and so do the high-energy drinks!

"I sent him another type. He won the race and the World Championship at Fuji. Now very little of that was to do with the drink, these things are relative, but every little fraction of a percent makes the difference between coming first and third."

"The principal difference in this drink was that instead of pure glucose, which most high-energy drinks have, it was a complex carbohydrate polymer.

"That is a lot of long words, which mean that the glucose molecules are joined in a long chain. It was found in testing that during exercise, this was absorbed at the same rate as water, the difference being that there are calories in the drink as well. So as well as putting water back in, it was also putting in energy.

"High-glucose drinks, as far as I am aware, super-saturate the body. They are absorbed into the body and produce a high blood sugar level. The body then reacts by producing insulin, which lowers sugar level.

"The knock-on effect of this is best seen in the simple example of motorway driving. You have a long way to go and you are tired. You have sat in same position and your circulation has slowed down, oxygenation in blood is not as good as normal. You stop to fill up with fuel, a walk around the car stimulates circulation, re-oxengenates the blood. You feel better. Then you buy a bar of chocolate (which is made of simple sugars) and go hammering away down the slip road, feeling like a million dollars.

"Fifteen minutes later you suddenly jerk youself awake and you've just been looking at the wrong end of a bridge parapet!

"I think what is happening is that, in this state of general fatigue, the insulin is getting to work on the high blood sugar level produced by the chocolate. Sitting in the car, your circulation has slowed down again and you're in an even worse situation than before. It's happened to virtually anyone who has driven a car and the same thing can happen with racing drivers.

"University College, London, conducted a series of tests on drivers some time ago. The findings were that top racing drivers were equally fit, if not fitter, than ultra-distance and profesional marathon runners!

"If there is a problem with the car there is a whole crew of engineers and mechanics. Their job is to sort out the problem. When it comes to the poor old driver, there is a lack of knowledge about human engineering, about how the human body is put together. In cost terms, I would question how much money is spent on weight-saving, replacing steel with titanium or finding more power from an engine, to get that extra fraction. It's amazing that all the professional teams do not actively look at improving the driver.

"Something which is not done, to my knowledge, by many people in motorsport but which is done in most other top sports, is carbohydrate-loading. This basically means eating a high carbohydrate diet -- pasta, potatoes, rice -- in the three days prior to an event. What happens then is that the muscles are preloaded with glycogin, the intermediate energy source which your body changes into blood sugar to keep the levels at normal.

"Of course, there is a limit to how much carbohydrate loading you can do. You can only eat so much pasta!

"By taking a complex carbohydrate drink you can increase the concentration of the carbohydrate intake by 40-50 percent, which results in a 35 percent improvement in endurance"

But it isn't just the drivers who can benefit from this. Swan was recently asked by Stubbs, now with Brundle at Brabham, to supply the whole of the team.

"He felt it would be a good idea for everyone to have the drink because of the terrific heat and energy problem associated with Rio. The mechanics are working their hearts out. They spend many hours working, they don't necessarily eat properly, so they are getting no energy back into the system. There is a limit to how long they can do that and there are knock-on effects from lack of concentration."

"I think," says Swan, "it is about time people started saying, 'Well drivers really are athletes'. And maybe we should treat them like athletes as well."