The Final Tenth: How to unlock a racing driver’s full potential, Part 1
By Mat Coch
Saturday 25th December, 2021 - 11:49am
In a sport which sees millions invested in the pursuit of fractions of a second, there is one area that is yet to be fully exploited; the driver.
While on the surface motorsport is a mechanical and engineering battle, digging a little deeper uncovers the very physical and human underbelly of the sport.
It is an extreme sport, with athletes at the wheel performing feats of remarkable skills to the awe of us all – it’s a complicated task, one which requires the full dedication of more than just the driver themselves.
In this series, Speedcafe.com takes a deep dive into the efforts and challenges a driver faces to perform at their peak, and the untapped potential that remains.
The driver coach
A racing driver is a finely tuned machine; a blend of endurance athlete to withstand the prolonged efforts required during a race, but one which must perform regular explosive efforts.
It’s a contradiction, one which requires an enormous amount of work and training, particularly at the elite level where the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo have a permanent trainer whose responsibility is to ensure they’re physically capable of the job at hand.
That’s more than scheduling gym sessions and setting a meal plan, it’s an all-encompassing responsibility to ensure the driver is in a state at any point during the race where they are not physically overcome.
At racing speeds, a lapse in concentration for any reason can be catastrophic.
Mentally, driving a modern Formula 1 car is extremely taxing, placing a critical emphasis on fitness and strength so that the driver can complete the physical requirements almost without thought.
“They’re 100 percent athletes. Simple as that, I think that that generalisation of the non-athletes comes from a misunderstanding of what they actually do,” Michael Italiano tells Speedcafe.com.
Italiano is Daniel Ricciardo’s coach, for lack of a better term. Originally a strength and conditioning coach, he’s worked with athletes in golf, rugby, mixed martial arts, and Australian rules.
He’s with Ricciardo at every event, preparing him physically and ensuring his nutritional needs are met.
It’s an all-encompassing role which sees him effectively living with the McLaren driver as they develop and maintain a physical level suitable for the demands of an international sport like Formula 1.
“From my experience I think people put themselves in their car driving to work in the morning and think ‘oh this is easy’,” he says.
“I think people are relating it to the wrong example.
“If people ever experienced g-force, they would know what these guys are experiencing; it’s a serious force that these guys feel in their necks and in their bodies.
“Honestly, I’d love to see someone drive a Formula 1 car and slam the brakes on – their head will literally fall in their lap from the g-force!”
It’s those forces Italiano and his peers throughout motorsport work with their drivers to withstand, only it’s not as simple as scheduling a few gym sessions and avoiding fast-food.
With races lasting in the region of two hours, motorsport is an endurance sport, meaning excellent cardio fitness is needed.
To withstand the g-forces ravaging the body muscle is critical, but so too is body mass – a driver’s weight has an impact on car performance, meaning too much muscle can in fact be detrimental.
“They have extreme braking loads and that extends through their calves, hamstring, glutes and their lower back,” Italiano says of the physical demands a driver is placed under mid-race.
“They’re enduring this for two hours, throughout a race, so there has to be a lot of muscular strength endurance, so they have to be damned strong on their posterior chain – so the back of their body.
“Also, there’s a lot of, I guess, core temperature difficulties happening,” he adds.
“They’re wearing their thermal suits and their core temperature does heat up quite a bit because the car’s hot, and they’re right next to the engine.
“So there is a big hydration difficulty with these guys, where they’re trying to perform under very, very high temperature levels, which is very hard to do.
“By the end of two hours, they’re pretty much dehydrated, to say the least.
“Yes, they’ve got a litre of fluid in their car – do they drink all of it? Probably not, because the engine heat turns it into tea.
“It’s insane if you think about it; they’re trying to drive this car 300km/h, they’re trying to hit the perfect lap times consistently within one or two tenths every lap, their core body temperature is elevated, they’re dehydrated – obviously when you’re dehydrated that’s when your athletic ability starts to deteriorate and your cognitive function starts to lapse a little.
“These guys show none of that, which just shows how well conditioned they are.
“So they have to be super strong,” Italiano adds.
“And they have to be super lean, because there’s weight restrictions, and have to be super fit.”
Add into the equation a 22-race calendar in 2021 that saw the season run from March until December with precious few breaks, making consistent training all but impossible.
That also doesn’t take into consideration the athlete’s own advancing age, which in time will see a natural deterioration, while typically the demands they’re placed under increases as the sport becomes ever faster.
To stand still in Formula 1, it’s often said, is to go backwards. It’s a statement as true for driver fitness as car development.
“You have your PB’s (personal bests) and your KPIs (key performance indicators) where you come back after the off-season and you’re like ‘hey, these are the levels you have to hit – as long as you hit these levels, we know you’re ready for Round 1,” Italiano explains.
“With Formula 1, it’s one of the most innovative sports in the world, so every year these cars are getting faster.
“So if these cars are getting faster there’s more downforce, which means they’re going faster around corners, which means there’s more g-force.
“Technically, if Daniel just keeps hitting his targets every year, eventually those targets are not going to be good enough anymore.
“So they’re (racing drivers) actually one of the only athletes in the world where if you’re not improving they’re actually falling behind.”
Italiano has been working with Ricciardo since the start of 2018, accompanying the Australian to every race and offering him a front-row seat.
The past 12 months have offered something of a microcosm of experiences, from the tribulations of adapting to an all-new car with foreign driving requirements to victory at the Italian Grand Prix.
It’s a season Ricciardo himself has described as the toughest in his career, while from the outside he’s faced criticism from fans and even pundits who’ve written him off as not the driver he once was.
Only it’s not that simple.
“The obvious one is results, right,” suggests Italiano when asked to define a driver’s ‘form’.
“From the outside, the obvious answer is results.
“I think from the inside it’s probably a lot deeper than that.
“If you’re referring to what is ‘in form’ in motorsports, then it could be a number of things.
“Consistency over a weekend can definitely relate to form, and what I mean by that is, in your practice sessions, progressively learning, developing and getting that car right for qualifying, and then putting in a really good qualifying stint and then, ultimately, just finishing off strong on a weekend with a strong race.
“But for is hard to measure in Formula 1.
“I’ll take Daniel’s team-mate as an example, Lando [Norris] technically didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend; poled and sitting first and ended up finishing P7,” he explains, referencing the Russian Grand Prix.
“From the outside, is he in form? Technically, from an inside perspective, yeah he is… the data and the times internally show that.”
As a coach, an out of form athlete prompts a different response, and a different way of interacting.
For Italiano, the key is to steady the ship and help stop any panic or doubt.
“You can very quickly panic or go into you know a second nature mindset, where you’re second guessing everything,” he explains.
“What I mean by that is, if you’re going to make that move, just be first – you don’t actually have that doubt in your head, you’re not weighing all these expectations on you because the more races where you don’t get results can easily build up more pressure internally in your head, and make the next race even bigger than what it really is.”
Expectations in Formula 1 are high. It’s the pinnacle of world motorsport, and Ricciardo has been one of its star performers in recent years.
His adaptation to the McLaren over the course of 2021 therefore came against the backdrop of expectations of a driver who has raced with, and beaten, Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, and co.
There is of course the natural understanding and realisation that not every kick of the ball will find the back of the net, and that over a driver’s career there will be high and low points for all athletes.
“I wouldn’t change the training on nutrition because I don’t change what’s working,” Italiano says of managing an athlete’s low points from a coaching perspective.
“Sometimes it’s even just a little thing of changing the environment.
“This calendar is probably the longest sporting calendar in the world; we start in March, end in December, and we’re always on the road.
“We’re always living in a suitcase, and we’re always together – and sometimes that can get quite repetitive.”
That’s seen Italiano and Ricciardo go hiking between races, taking in a different environment and connecting with something that resonates with the athlete.
“Rather than bottling up all these emotions, and just really just filling up his head with everything he’s thinking about, I think it was just nice to completely park that to the side for the time being and just have a bit of balance in his lifestyle,” Italiano reasons.
“I guess that’s where I’ll just change the environment and change the mood, because when you are struggling you receive a lot of different vibes from everyone, so you feel this tension – it’s coming from you, it’s coming from them because it’s always everyone’s concern.
“It’s like ‘okay, let’s remove ourselves from this, let’s do some fun stuff’.”
There is though a limit to the impact a coach can have on a driver.
Italiano works hard to keep Ricciardo physically fit and healthy, not to mention working to manage his mental health where possible.
But he cannot drive the car, only the driver can do that, and in motorsport there are no silver bullets; when a driver is out of form or struggling, it’s usually a longer road to recovery.
“I think an element of that is confidence,” Italiano suggests, referencing Ricciardo’s own comments about his tribulations coming to grips with the McLaren MCL35M.
“You’re putting yourself into a new beat, and you’re trying to drive the absolute crap out of this car.
“And there’s an element of danger and risk, so it’s easy to just say ‘oh just try and find the limit’.
“It’s friggin’ scary trying to find the limit; these guys, when they’re trying to find a limit, it’s scary, I don’t care who you are, you’re going to have a little bit of fear in you.
“So I think helping Daniel with his confidence is probably one – he’s a confident dude in general and knows his abilities, and he actually believes that he’s the best, which is what I love.
“When he says it, I hear the clarity and the firmness in his voice when he says that, so as a coach that’s pleasing because that’s what I want to hear, because I think the same.
“I honestly do think he’s the best, so from that standpoint it’s like, ‘okay, we just need to build your confidence back up, how do we do that?’
“I won’t go too deep into what we’ve been doing this year, but there’s been a lot that we’ve done internally to help him bridge that gap.
“You also just have to be patient. He’s seeing the results and that’s the main thing.”
A driver’s coach or trainer is just one part of a puzzle that, when all the pieces come together perfectly, maximise a driver’s potential and see it delivered on track.
And yet, underlying it all there remain key areas that are wholly unexplored – potential laptime going to waste for each and every driver on every race weekend.
How a driver learns their craft, refines their abilities and adapts their skills over a career, and in a specific scenario, are perhaps even more critical.
It is that alone which can turn around a potentially career-defining form slump and single a driver out for greatness.
In the next part of this series, and with the help of a world champion, we look into what makes a racing driver tick, and transforms potential into results.