4 Reasons Why F1 Racing is the Hardest Sport in the World
A debate that gets all sports fans involved, but often times this one particular sport is left off of the list...
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Sports fans have long been engaged in a debate asking, which sport is the hardest in the world? It is a debate that has raged on in the public forum but has also been analyzed by popular sports networks across the USA. A common thread amongst these rankings is the particular absence of Formula 1 racing at the top of these lists. Whether it be a more comprehensive analysis like ESPN's "Ultimate Degree of Difficulty Grid", or a more general ranking like Bleacher Report's, F1 racing is either buried in the list or ignored altogether. It is these rankings and lists compiled by 'experts' that got me thinking, most North American sports fans or writers have absolutely no clue just how difficult Formula 1 racing really is. It is the purpose of this opinion piece to shine a light on the incredible physical and mental strength needed to be a grand prix driver at the highest level of motor sport. Often overlooked and quite frankly not given enough respect, I'm going to explain four reasons why Formula 1 is the hardest sport in the world.
1. Physical Fitness
The most common misconception around Formula 1 drivers is that "they're not really athletes, all they do is turn the steering wheel left and right." As a lifelong fan of this sport, it is the most frustrating and annoying stereotype portrayed about drivers. F1 drivers spend a large portion of their lives sitting in a car steering left and right, but they are some of the most complete athletes in all of the world. One of the most unique challenges that drivers face is the repeated g-forces put through the body during qualifying and the race. The high g-forces produced by a modern Formula 1 car are key to explaining the rigorous physical fitness needed by the drivers. As an example, here are the peak G-Forces reached by Lewis Hamilton earlier this season at the high speed Mugello circuit.
Lewis Hamilton's hot lap of the Mugello circuit in 2020
Hamilton hits a peak of 5.6G laterally through the corners and repeatedly exceeds 4G throughout the lap. Intense g-forces on the body will increase a driver's heart rate and make it harder to breath as the load is generated through a corner. In order to sustain these tough loads on the body, Formula 1 drivers need to properly prepare each part of the body in order to cope throughout a grand prix weekend. Let's take a look at the parts of the body that F1 drivers need to train in order to handle a Formula 1 car.
NECK & CORE
McLaren's Lando Norris using a routine neck training excursive for F1 drivers
The neck is not something that most professional athletes train but in modern Formula 1, neck strength is a crucial part of driver fitness. Studies have shown that Formula 1 drivers have the strongest neck muscles in all of motor sport and can shift up to 88 pounds with their neck alone. If you're new to the sport, you might be wondering why neck strength is so important? As I mentioned above, extreme g-forces experienced in a modern Formula 1 car puts a massive strain on the human neck. As a driver turns into a corner, he needs his head and neck to to stable enough to focus on the apex and exit of the corner. Without proper neck training, most human beings would only last a few laps in an F1 car due to the neck fatigue they would experience.
The core is another important part of F1 driver fitness. Although drivers are strapped in the cockpit via six point harness system, a strong core is key to maintain stability in the car. Once again, the lateral g-forces produced by an F1 car would throw a driver all over the place without strong and stable core strength.
Former F1 World Champion Jensen Button regularly participated in triathlons during the off-season
If an F1 driver is sitting down most of the time, why do they need strong legs? Well, this may come as a surprise to many outside the F1 world but their is an immense amount of pressure needed to apply to the brake pedal in order to stop the car. During the course of a race, drivers will apply brake pressure as many as 1200 times per race. That brake pedal is not like the one in your road car either. You need about 120 bar of pressure to fully depress the brake pedal and then the driver will slowly ease off that as F1 cars do not have an Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS). It's safe to say drivers don't skip leg days as it's a crucial part to their training. If you don't have the proper leg strength, you will not be able to slow the car effectively. To give you an example, at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, drivers have to apply over 930kg of pedal load per lap which adds up to 65,590kg over the course of the 70-lap race. The intricacies of modern F1 aerodynamics assists in decelerating the car, but the drivers left leg is still taking the brunt of the load.
CARDIO & WEIGHT MANAGMENT
Daniel Ricciardo is one of F1's most fittest drivers in the current field
The preparation of an elite Formula 1 driver is actually quite similar to that of an IronMan athlete. A strong cardiovascular system is critical to the success of an F1 driver. During the race, a driver's average heart rate hovers around 170 BPM. Compare that to the average resting heart rate which averages around 60-70 BPM. High cardio levels need to be maintained by grand prix drivers as it is key to their success. A driver that is not adequately prepared will struggle with mental and physical fatigue which in turn results in a loss of performance. Another physical and mental challenge a driver will face is one that begins before he even steps foot in the car, and that is the challenge of the scale. F1 drivers maintain a strict diet and weight in order to fall within the minimum drivers weight regulations. In 2019, the minimum driver weight was increased by six pounds to 80kg or 176lbs. More weight means more loss in lap time so drivers have had a history of 'cutting weight' in order to save a few grams or even pounds for the car. In 2017, Force India asked their driver Sergio Perez to lose four pounds ahead of the season. Now to most people (especially MMA fighters) that might not seem like a lot, but here is an idea of the gains it would bring. "It is widely accepted that during a hot lap in a Formula 1 car, 10kg (22 pounds) of extra weight adds 0.3 seconds to one's lap time. Perez's extra 4 pounds (1.8kg) theoretically adds .054 seconds a lap." Those few tenths of a second could mean a difference of one or two places on the grid when the cars line up for the race. Some of the fittest F1 drivers in history have used triathlons and IronMan events as off season training to help their fitness. Australia's Mark Webber regularly participated in these events and would be around 4% body fat during the F1 season. Not only does fat add weight but it is also an insulator. For the extreme hot races like Singapore for example, the less body fat that you have, the easier it will be to cope with hot conditions. It doesn't make it easier though as F1 drivers are covered in four layers of fireproof clothing, racing boots, helmet, and sitting in front of a near 100°C engine.
This is just a brief summary of the many physical demands an F1 driver faces inside and outside of a Formula 1 car. They are often not considered athletes, but that couldn't be the furthest thing from the truth. These are elite athletes who are at the top of their physical fitness and it is evidenced by 2009 World Champion Jensen Button. in 2014 at the age of 34, Button finished 11th out of 1,675 competitors in an IronMan competition. It's pretty clear to see that these drivers sitting in a cockpit aren't merely just turning the steering wheel left and right. Their bodies are being pushed to the absolute limit in terms of physical capabilities and their strict preparations are a sight to see.
2. Mental Fitness
Possibly even more important than physical fitness is the mental strength and focus of a grand prix driver
What separates the good athletes from the great ones is an ability to handle, and excel under immense mental stress and pressure. The mind of a modern Formula 1 driver is something along the lines of a really expensive computer with a super fast hard drive. Their abilities to process information at such high speeds and then react at mere tenths of a second is quite remarkable. This is another reason why F1 racing is the hardest sport in the world. Not only is the physical side strenuous, the mind is also pushed to the limit of stress and fatigue throughout a race and a season. The complexities of modern F1 cars ensures that the drivers are constantly busy behind the wheel. Throughout a practice session or Grand Prix, a driver will make dozens of changes on his steering wheel to help him find a better balance with the car. One look at a modern F1 steering wheel may be enough to make your head spin with dozens of fancy buttons and switches -all for the driver to play with. Take Nico Rosberg's 2016 pole lap around the streets of the Marina Bay circuit in Singapore.
Regarded as one of the toughest races on the calendar due to the intense humidity and tightness of a street circuit, Rosberg made 16 adjustments on his steering wheel along with 37 downshifts and upshifts over the course of a 1:42.5 qualifying lap. It is almost difficult to comprehend that a human's brain could work that efficiently at such high speeds and under incredible stress. Street circuits like Singapore and Monaco are more of a mental challenge due to their unforgiving nature. A split second of a mental lapse and next thing you know your car is smashing into a wall and your race is over.
Another impressive part of an F1 driver's mental fitness is the ability to relay information back to their race engineers. Memory is so important to drivers as they must be able to accurately recall in detail what the car was doing at different points on the circuit. As Nico Rosberg revealed in his training video from a few years prior, he'll often do some mental exercises to sharpen his attention, focus, and memory, all skills he would need to use during a grand prix or practice session.
The mental fitness of Formula 1 drivers is arguably the most important. I could go on for hours about the mental capacity needed for driving an F1 car but I don't want to keep you guys around all day! Many other sports require split second decision making that alters the outcome of a match or athletic contest. What makes it even more crucial in Formula 1 is the added aspect of having to make those calls at ridiculous speeds. Keep in mind that these drivers are on average doing over 200KM/h in what can only be described as a fighter jet on Pirelli tyres. And it's at these breakneck speeds that drivers can process dozens of pieces of information at the same time, all the while battling 19 other cars on the track. I honestly do not think there is another sport in this world that requires the mental strength and fitness like Formula 1 drivers do.
3. The Danger Aspect
F1 safety has drastically improved in recent decades but the element of danger remains
There really are only a few sports in this world where the competitors are legitimately putting their lives on the line every time they suit up to compete. Formula 1 is one of those sports and thankfully the safety improvements of the last couple of decades has seen the danger aspect largely mitigated. But it is also because of these safety improvements that we often forget the dangers of Formula 1 racing. We don't have to go back very far to prove the very real level of dangers associated with F1 racing and just motor racing in general. A few months ago, Romain Grosjean miraculously survived a 53G impact in which his car split in two and caught fire. Grosjean was able to extricate himself in 28 seconds from the burning remnants of his Haas machine and escape with only second degree burns to his hands and legs. Romain's remarkable survival is also a testament to my two earlier points on why F1 is the hardest sport in the world. Thanks to Grosjean's exceptional physical and mental training, he was able to remain calm and successfully get himself out of the burning wreck. The crash was awful and can only be described as a miracle when you take into account the violence of the incident. It's a showcase of the safety of modern F1, but also a stark reminder that what these drivers do is incredibly dangerous to this day. It's unfortunate that this reality only comes to light in the face of these horrible accidents or even driver fatalities. At the end of the day, no matter what safety devices you put on the car, motor racing will always be inherently dangerous and life threatening. As Ernest Hemingway once said; “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Now although that quote is outdated, there is something to Hemingway’s sentiment. It's an added element to the difficulties of F1 racing that is always in the subconscious of the drivers. If you make a mistake in a football match or a basketball game, your team might lose or you might get benched. In F1 however, if you make a mistake or your car has a mechanical issue, it could lead to serious physical harm of not just yourself but competitors, track marshals, and spectators as well. I consider past and present Formula 1 drivers to be the modern gladiators of the sporting world for what they do.
4. Cut throat Competition
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If you want to become a professional footballer, (although difficult) you have dozens of clubs around the world each with more than 15 roster spots available for a chance at achieving your dream. Now let us consider the difficulties of trying to become a Formula 1 driver. There are 7.8 billion people on this earth today and only 20 Formula 1 seats available. Math was never my strong suit so I'll leave it up to you to calculate the chances of becoming an F1 driver. Bottom-line is, you have to be one of the best drivers in the world to compete in F1 and even sometimes talent isn't enough. As we've seen in recent years, financial motives and the expenses of the sport has led to some teams going down the 'pay driver' route. With that being said, you still have to be incredibly talented just to step into a Formula 1 car. The very best drivers from all walks of life compete against each other in one of the most cutthroat sports in the world. It is such a pressure cooker environment to be in, especially if you are part of a contending team. The last few seasons in F1 have shown just how brutal the sport can be to young drivers who do not deliver for the big teams. The difference between F1 and other sports is that one bad season in another sport might lead to relegation to the bench whereas in Formula 1, one bad season can lead to losing your job and never returning to the sport. Team bosses and executives want results fast and the media can forget about you just as quickly as an F1 pitstop.
F1 teams are multi million dollar enterprises with, in some cases, thousands of employees working on just two cars. Mercedes F1 spent $442 million on winning both driver and constructors titles in 2019 and still recorded a profit by the way. That is a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of your two drivers who have to deliver results week in and week out. Thousands of hours go into the delicate work of developing these cars but, at the end of the day, the driver has to deliver the results on track or else it is worth nothing. That makes what Lewis Hamilton has accomplished in the last few years quite impressive as he's constantly delivering the best results for Mercedes despite the monumental pressure from a massive company like Daimler. F1 and motorsport in general are very special in that there are no other sports where your team builds the athlete's equipment and then the said athlete has to go out and deliver on behalf of not only himself but also the team.
These are just four reasons as to why I believe Formula 1 is the hardest sport in the world. Do you agree or disagree? We always enjoy hearing your thoughts and opinions so please leave them in the comments below!