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Performance in motor sports
  1. A J Klarica
  1. Olympic Park Sports Medicine Centre Swan Street, Melbourne 3004, Australia ajklarica{at}

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    Motor racing is one of the most physically and mentally challenging of all sports, not only for racing drivers themselves, but also for the teams that play an integral role in the eventual performance of the car. It is my belief that, for such a demanding and popular sport, sports medicine is seriously underused. Drivers and teams are faced with continuous pressure to perform, yet have far less involvement with sports medicine staff than many Olympic athletes, tennis professionals, and footballers of all codes, particularly from a preventive perspective. In this article, I will outline some of my experiences as a sport psychologist and fitness consultant with racing car drivers and teams, identifying some of the challenges in a growing field.

    Before going into detail, it should be noted that motor sports has depth well beyond Formula One. For example, motor racing is a major sport in the United States with Nascar, Cart World Series, and the Indy Racing League to name but a few. In Europe there is Formula 3, Formula 3000, and rallying. In Asia, there is also a huge number of categories in many countries—for example, in Australia alone there is the Shell Touring Car series, Formula Holden, Formula Ford, GTP, and Nations Cup series, and, in other parts of Asia, the Asia Pacific Rally Series and the Japanese sports car series coexist.

    In almost all of the categories identified above, particularly Formula One, motor racing drivers must execute numerous motor and cognitive skills simultaneously. They must remain calm and focused on their vehicle's performance, the track, and their competitors only centimetres away, while travelling at speeds of 150–300 km per hour. They must also manoeuvre gears and foot pedals while steering their vehicle, using highly developed coordination. Each movement must be rapid and precise. During this process, drivers must also have the ability to communicate effectively with their pit manager on their headset radio and ingest fluids through their specially designed hydration systems. Pit crews, including engineers, mechanics, tyre specialists, and managers, must work as a close team, follow the instructions of a leader, and conduct their physically demanding tasks, whether it be loading fuel or changing tyres. In this sport there is no room for error. Any mistake may cost a life.

    Sport psychology for motor racing teams need not be reactive, as many people perceive. Most sport psychologists, including myself, accept that a certain amount of work will be in response to crisis situations, but prefer to work in a non-reactive preventive environment. This allows skill development, team building, and equipping individuals and teams with the tools necessary to perform to their maximum. There are numerous research papers to verify the effectiveness of psychological interventions in sports.1 Goal setting, visualisation and imagery, anxiety control, effective communication and team building are some of the areas that can assist performance in motor sports, when tailored correctly and specifically. In my opinion any racing driver or team that does not take advantage of physical and mental professionals are themselves unprofessional.

    With racing drivers specifically, setting goals and reviewing track maps to plan how to best drive a course is vital. This enables the opportunity for visualisation and imagery to take place, so that the driver has practically driven the course many times before arriving there. This can be guided imagery, where drivers can have a “perfect” lap described to them. Modern simulators also assist enormously in this area. The mind is tailored for the conditions, the car, and the strategy. Educating a driver about breathing techniques and other thought control skills for remaining calm at times of pressure, such as in qualifying and at the start of a race, also plays an integral part of psychological development. For example, there are often many people around a driver, such as sponsors, fans, and the media, before he/she gets into the car. Some drivers use the clicking of their seat belt as it fastens as a trigger to block any distractions and “switch on”. At this time, deep breathing, using the force of the seat belt on the chest and stomach as a cue to relax and focus, may be used to lower heart rate and direct focus. In addition, reminding themselves of cue words developed earlier with regard to race strategy must be used. For example, “be aggressive and smooth” or “be conservative” may be used, depending on conditions. After competition, confidence, concentration, physical state, and ability to follow their plan and implement skills under pressure must be reviewed.

    The individuals and teams that I have worked with discuss and record goals for the year (or season), as well as for each race meeting. These are reviewed accordingly. Potential scenarios are discussed, as well as strategies for handling them. The roles of individuals in the team and exactly who they are accountable to on the day of the race are discussed. All of these sessions are prepared in advance with the team management, who are in control of this process. Visits are also made to the workshop, so that my role is integrated with the “team”.

    I do travel with the team when possible, which only facilitates my education and adds to my role, particularly with the drivers. Often, however, on the day, the work encompasses observing, discussing general matters, or dealing with crises.

    Recently, I travelled to hospital with a driver who had rolled his car on a corner at around 200 km per hour. The manager in the pits described how his radio had gone silent. No one in team knew what had happened or the condition of the driver. The emergency medical team (staffed by the local hospital) would not allow anyone to see him. The injury was eventually found to be a serious break in his right forearm, caused by his hand being caught in the steering wheel. The team was anxious and the driver was somewhat shaken. The team had no medical members other than myself to decide on the best course of action to follow from the advice given by the hospital.

    I have also been at a race track when a death has occurred. Naturally, the race was stopped, but the next race proceeded. This creates difficulties for many people, well beyond the immediate team of the driver killed. The motor racing community is a tight knit one, and if a competitor is seriously injured, there is a ripple effect.

    In addition to many of the direct challenges in this sport, there are also many indirect challenges. Raising money to drive or build a team is a difficult task. This implies many financial sacrifices in order to reach the start line, adding the pressure to not damage the car. This factor also means that many drivers are not young. In the lower categories, it is not unusual to see men in their forties participating. This financial factor also means that many drivers are part time. They are successful in business during the week, and race cars at weekends. Younger drivers who do not have sufficient funds, must adapt to performing in different lower category vehicles. This can be extremely difficult, the differences in vehicles often being considerable. This range of individual factors also influences the fitness of the driver.

    Having accompanied a driver around a racing track in a racing car, I have experienced first hand some of the physical demands of the sport. Often heart rates close to maximum are endured for extended periods of time (20–60 minutes), and it is not uncommon for a driver to lose 5–10% of body weight during a race because of dehydration. Needless to say, the fitness of the driver and the team is also vital for performance. Interestingly, however, this is a sport in which it is not uncommon for the participants to smoke, and they have certainly not historically been athletic or sport oriented. Nevertheless, on race weekends, demanding physical routines are performed. Developing a fitness regimen and convincing the team management that it would be worth while for the driver and team to follow it is sometimes not an easy task. Even though the cost of incorporating a fitness programme or employing a sports medicine team is relatively low compared with the other costs associated with motor racing, such programmes have in the past not been seen as a priority. In addition, the motivation of drivers to carry out fitness training is often lacking, even though those teams and drivers that are committed to such disciplines are often successful.

    Recently, ideas on the importance of the fitness and health of drivers and teams have begun to change. Positive role models from Formula One, a branch of motor sport that is beginning to take health and fitness seriously, are having some impact. This example is encouraging those involved in motor sport to think of themselves as athletes rather than “petrol heads”. Although, I have not found any scientific research in the field of racing driver fitness, there is controversy about the best form of fitness training for drivers. I am aware of a case study in which a high profile driver in Europe returned to his home country during a rest period. During this time, he became friendly with a rowing team who assured him that rigorous exercise on a rowing ergometer would be excellent training for him. He reportedly returned fitter, but in the first practice session injured his shoulder because his moulded seat no longer fitted him because of muscle development. It is also not unheard of for engineers to ask drivers to lose weight to reduce the overall weight of the driver and vehicle combined.

    Nutrition is also an area that should be considered. It is common for the food consumed during a four or five day competition not to be performance oriented. Considering the number of hours of physical work, nutrition is clearly important. From observation at race meetings, I feel that many teams have improved in this area, with sports drinks and carbohydrates replacing fast food. However, it is still not uncommon for teams to include hamburgers, sweet biscuits, and pastries in their meals during competitions.

    In conclusion, in the absence of data on the topic, I would like to argue that the motor sport industry is one of the highest profile international sports with the lowest presence of sports medicine. Furthermore, physical conditioning and mental preparation for the drivers and teams are absolutely essential. Many teams would benefit from input from sports medicine professionals working in a consultative preventive way, in addition to being available in crisis situations. Finally, motor sports is a field that would benefit enormously from further research as well as from education in relation to the potential benefits from sports medicine and sports sciences.


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