In his first full season of racing in Formula One (F1) since his debut in 2005, India’s lone F1 driver, Narain Karthikeyan, is struck by how different the cars have got over the years. But the one thing that remains constant is how the drivers spend their days before they get their first taste of the track in the Friday practice session.
The first challenge is maintaining fitness. Hopping from race to race in different countries takes a severe toll on the body, and F1 drivers have to follow a carefully monitored fitness plan to ensure they are primed for the race. It’s an unvarying schedule. The teams spend Wednesday and Thursday setting up the cars and checking the track. The practice sessions are on Friday (drivers are not allowed to drive on the circuit before that), qualifying ones on Saturday, and the race is on Sunday.
“We are a small team,” says Karthikeyan, who drives for the Hispania Racing Team, “so sometimes we stay in hotels without a gym. But when we do get one, the focus is on core strength, cardio and the neck muscles.” An F1 driver can lose up to 3kg of body weight after the 2 hours spent behind the wheels during a race, and endurance and stamina levels have to be of the highest level to absorb that kind of stress. Drivers are also subject to serious g-force pressure through the race due to the rapid acceleration and deceleration and high-speed cornering. At some turns, the g-force can build up to 5G, which means the body experiences forces five times that of its own weight. Keeping your head steady and your eyes on the road is serious business, so drivers have to make sure their neck muscles are up to the task.
Karthikeyan now works with trainer and physiotherapist Balbir Singh, who worked with Michael Schumacher for nearly a decade, to cope with the stress. “Race-specific neck exercises are very difficult to do on your own,” Karthikeyan says, “because it’s very easy to damage the neck muscles. So I do them only with Balbir.”
Out of the gym, and straight to the track.
In the pit lane at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida, hundreds of crew members from the 12 teams that make up the F1 field are finishing setting up the cars ahead of Friday. There’s no fuss, but everything is being done rapidly, solemn faces hunched over gleaming machines.
Karthikeyan has long conversations with his mechanics and engineers—their skills will make or break his race. They discuss the “set-up” of the car, the way it will be put together so it can perform at its maximum potential under the specific track and weather circumstances, and keeping in mind the driver’s comfort and handling ease.
F1 cars feature more than 6,000 custom-made components, a majority of which the mechanics will take apart and put back together many times over the course of the race weekend to test and fine-tune each.
Finally, it’s time for the hour-long “track walk” on Thursday, where race engineers and drivers from each team walk the length of the circuit to refresh their minds about the layout, and discuss track-specific strategies. “We look out for surprises on the track,” Karthikeyan says. “New bumps, degradations, any change in the tarmac, even the most minor undulations have to be seen and taken into account. This year, there were changes to the length of the kerbs on turns 6, 7, 8 and 9 so drivers are forced to go through the chicane (back-to-back opposing turns). ”