SSA Blog: Neck on the line

It’s been another disappointing weekend for Ferrari in the Formula 1 Driver and Constructor Championships. After such a promising showing in pre-season testing in Barcelona, they returned to the Spanish track and failed to gain a podium place. Sebastian Vettel is now under considerable pressure. His failure to challenge Mercedes and the early promise shown by new teammate Charles Leclerc has meant an increased focus on the former world champion.     

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In such a technologically advanced sport it’s easy focus on the tech often overlooking the athleticism, physicality and training needed to produce race winning performances. Drivers are now required to train to levels associated with sports such as football, rugby or even boxing.

An area now commanding particular focus is neck strength. The forces the drivers experience in the car can top 6 G. This means a driver’s head would ‘feel’ as though it weighs round 40kg at these points.  As an open cockpit sport, neck strength, in order to maintain head position, has become a major performance factor. Last season Vettel struggled with neck injury during the congested European season and almost missed the British Grand Prix (a race he went on to win). Vettel wasn’t the only one to suffer, a number of drivers were not physically prepared for the increase in force production and towards the end of races had to rest their heads on the side of cars in order to maintain something approaching race pace.

Recognising the need for greater strength, driver’s training regimes have totally changed over the past two seasons. Previously, 100% of a drivers’ training was focused on endurance. Now around 40% of their training is devoted to strength in order to cope with the extreme forces experienced throughout a race weekend. This must be among the most dramatic training shifts of any sport. Most sports have evolved so athletes are now fitter and stronger, but very few have necessitated a signifiant shift in basic training principles between seasons.   

The research regarding physical preparation in elite motor racing is sparse compared with other major professionalised sports. However, with the changing physical and mental demands, drivers are now focusing on these aspects more than ever to maximise their performance in the car. A recent paper written by McKnight et al (2019) showed that F1 drivers registered higher scores across a number of physical benchmarks, including neck strength when compared to their counterparts in other racing championships.  

Now that benchmarks are beginning to be set as to the strength needed to compete at the very top of motor sport, drivers know the physical side of the sport is going to be increasingly evaluated. In a sport often separated by hundredths if not thousandths of a second, every rep in the gym is going to count.

As Vettel contemplates a way back into the Driver Championship and Ferrari consider how to make up ground in the Constructor award, spare a thought for the four-time world champion as his neck is truly on the line…