It's hard to imagine that anything performed while seated is physically taxing, and yet, Formula One is one of the most physically demanding sports a competitor can undertake. While it's true that at a base level drivers are seated inside a car, it's the intense physicality of the sport, the g-forces exerted on the body during acceleration, deceleration, and corning that begin to make it difficult for drivers. Pulling 4g's through a corner makes the drivers weight increase by a factor of 4, so a 10kg head suddenly weighs 40 kilos and the neck must be able to support that strain.
Formula 1 is a sport where success is measured in the thousandths of a second and maximum concentration must be applied to an entire qualifying and race effort, with races up to two hours in duration. The effects of the tight confines of the cockpit, the high temperatures of the track and car, and the gforces exerted on the body all work together to drain the body, through sustain high levels of physical exertion. Once the body starts to fatigue, concentration starts to be effected and lap times can increase, or worse, the driver can have an accident.
Besides the physical effects of motor racing on the body, the act of concentrating itself can increase stresses on the body and increase fatigue, effecting concentration.
While we only compete in a virtual environment with force feedback wheels, and the few of us with more expensive additions, we're all still subjected to high levels of sustained concentration and elevated stress levels, as the pressure of having to perform at 100% manifests during qualifying and the race, particularly the start.
During the Season 4 Germany Grand Prix in my league I strapped a heart rate monitor to better understand just what virtual racers, and to a tiny extent, racing drivers themselves, undergo as they battle for a win.
The following graph is the recording of two qualifying sessions and a 50% full distance race of the Nurburgring circuit in Codemasters F1 2011. During this event I was one of the favourites to win the race, my first win of the season, and had plenty of my own high expectations, also increasing my stress levels. I started from pole position and on the first corner was tagged and then on the second last corner of the first lap was tagged again, this time relegating me to ninth place, requiring a strategic rise up the grid if he was to recoup even some of the potential points haul I was expecting. This strategy saw me save fuel during the early stages of the race, with the intent of focussing 100% on a series of 'qualifying' style laps at the end of the race, when fuel loads would be light and the stickier Option tyres fresh.
My typical seated heart rate is about 72 beats per minute. Already the anticipation of racing had my heart rate elevated to over 100 beats per minute.
There are 4 marked segments of this graph where the drivers heart rate spiked and interesting these spike events all map directly to a typical period of high stress during the race.
- Qualifying Session 1 - Dry running. I tried an alternate strategy in stint one, on the slower prime tyres, before coming back out for another run on sticky option tyres.
- Qualifying Session 2 - Wet Weather session where I set pole position in one run then waited in the garage for the other drivers to complete their laps. An initial dramatic rise in heart rate was evident during my focussed qualifying run, with the heart rate dropping once I sat in the pits.
- Race start - Suffered two hits on the first lap which knocked me back to 9thplace and only a few seconds from last.
- Final stint on Option tyres and Rich fuel, catching the cars in front at seconds per lap and ultimately finishing in 3rd position, less than 10 seconds from 2ndplace.
It's evident in this graph that it's not just the physical demands of racing that take their toll on race drivers. The mental aspect and the stress of the sport itself also plays a significant part.
A future study could be conducted using stress inhibitors such as alcohol to see if that both lowers heart rate and increases performance. It's possible, even likely, that increased heart rate and stress level help to improve reflexes, reaction times, and ultimately lap times.