Formula One race-car drivers need the fitness of a triathlete and the strength of a rugby front-rower. Joshua Dowling goes behind the machine that is F1 star Mark Webber.

You could be forgiven for thinking there’s nothing athletic about driving a car — but there’s nothing normal about driving a Formula One machine.

With a top speed of 360km/h, they’re among the fastest cars on the planet. Yet it’s not the top speed that the body must be conditioned for.

The acceleration and braking are so abrupt, they exert forces of between 2G and 4G every time the driver floors the accelerator or hits the brakes.

The wings on the bodywork create so much downforce and the tyres have so much grip, when cornering, F1 cars generate up to five times the force of gravity (5G). Without proper training, the human brain can black out after more than a few sustained seconds beyond 4G.

And while all this is going on, drivers must not only endure such forces on their bodies, but function at their mental peak.

This punishment lasts for up to two hours in most races, but that’s not the end of it. They also have to withstand cockpit temperatures of more than 60C while wearing a fireproof helment, suit, gloves and boots that barely breathe.

So while, strength and endurance are key to F1 survival, but the drivers also have to be light and slight of frame. The smaller the body, the narrower the car can be built around them (and the easier it can slip through the air at top speed).

Given the unique toll F1 takes on the human body, most drivers train for up to five hours a day — and end up with necks as thick as a footballer’s (to handle the G forces) and bodies like jockeys (to keep overall weight low and to slip into the tight cockpit).

Webber finished second in the Turkish GP in May.

Steered by Experts

Australian F1 driver Mark Webber, 34, is among the fittest in the field and has a full-time physiologist consultant who determines what he eats and drinks, how he trains and when he sleeps.

Simon Sostaric was formerly the Director of the Exercise and Sports Performance Unit at Victoria University in Melbourne (1998-2006), but now runs his own practice, Melbourne Sports & Allied Health Clinic.

For most of the championship season, he manages Webber’s regimen from Australia, but also attends the F1 races where he’s needed most, such as in the humid conditions in Malaysia and the searing heat of the Middle East desert.

When the Heat Is On

Given the competitive nature of F1, Sostaric can’t go into detail about Webber’s diet and fitness schedule, but he is still able to give a crucial insight into just how fit F1 drivers are.

“Heat demands in F1 are among the most extreme experienced in sport,” he told Men’s Fitness. During F1 races in sweltering climates, Sostaric says the core body temperature of an F1 driver can exceed 40C — several degrees above the normal 37C. In most races, the heart rate can reach 170 beats per minute, several times per lap.

Keeping drivers hydrated is a challenge. Most F1 drivers sip on an electrolyte drink from a 1-litre bladder stashed in the cockpit, but race survival is all down to preparation.

Sostaric won’t say what Webber does before a race to help control his core temperature, but he has a few “specialised scientific methods” to manipulate core temperature before and after races.

Sostaric also takes blood samples from Webber after each race to determine the level of energy demands, muscle damage and which, he says, is similar to that which top-level footballers, triathletes and marathon runners experience after their events.

Webber's F1 car can top 300km/h down the straight.

Combination Training

“Physical-training regimens are in many ways similar to endurance athletes — that is, a mix of endurance and high-intensity training to develop physiological characteristics that improve cardiovascular function, cognitive function, skeletal muscle endurance and strength, and the ability to regulate energy and heat demands.”

In Webber’s case, his training includes a combination of cycling, rowing, running, swimming and neck-strength work.

Sostaric says nutrition is also tightly controlled, to ensure essential nutrients are consumed to meet the rigors of training and racing — and travel in international time zones.

“In general terms, Mark’s diet is low-fat, moderate-protein and high in complex carbohydrates. A typical day will include a low-GI breakfast cereal, toast, eggs, salad sandwiches, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, some fish or chicken, pasta, yogurt, fruit juice and, of course, plenty of water.

“In essence, F1 drivers need the fitness of a top-level triathlete and the strength of a rugby front-rower.”