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Eye opening experience on Day 1 of Yas Marina Driving event
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Eye opening experience on Day 1 of Yas Marina Driving event
Posted By: James Allen  |  28 Sep 2010   |  9:48 pm GMT  |  70 comments

Today has been an astonishing day for me, for Neil Donnell our Fan Ambassador competition winner and the other attendees of the driving event at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

The two day event is all about giving the media and some fans like Neil a deeper understanding of what it takes to be a Grand Prix driver, ahead of the second Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November.

There are four driving disciplines, karts, Aston Martin GTs, Super sport two seaters and F3000 cars. In addition there are two off track elements which are a phyiscal and mental tests to give us an idea of how the drivers are assessed and trained.

Here to help us understand better and to mentor us are current F1 driver Bruno Senna, ex drivers Johnny Herbert and Jean Alesi as well as up and coming star Jules Bianchi among others.

We were split into four groups this morning and Neil and I are in a group with the BBC’s Jake Humprey, a very cool US Top Fuel drag racer called Rod Fuller and two presenters from German TV network RTL.

Senna checks the neck exercises


We started with some very intense physical tests, which included lifting weights attached to a helmet, to test the neck and simulate the G forces. The upper body is also very important for drivers so we did lots of exhausting shoulder and upper body weight tests and a really cool steering simulation using a wheel which lifts a weight on the bottom of a pendulum. Locked in a battle to the death with Rod to who could go the longest, I managed to hold the wheel in position for over 6 minutes.

Fan Ambassador Neil Donnell tries the steering weight test


Veteran F1 doctor Riccardo Ceccarelli and his team explained that there is a misconception that F1 drivers are not athletes, because we cannot see their effort. In fact the driver’s body is subject to very extreme forces and races like Singapore on Sunday are immensely taxing. The neck and upper body are extremely taxed and the heart is permanently between 180 and 210 beats per minute during the race.

What I had not realised before is that when a driver hits the brakes for a really big stop, like the end of a straight into a hairpin, his heart arrests to 50bpm and then shoots back up to 180bpm. I found that rather alarming.

Bianchi (r) and Vainio after the kart race


The whole morning was spent on this and then, slightly sore in the neck and with muscles tingling, we started the driving, with karts. Mutiple kart champions Jules Bianchi and Aaro Vainio showed us the ropes then it was into a full blown qualifying and race. Neil Donnell stuck his kart on pole.

I managed to get up to second place but then had a great battle with Jake to the flag. He beat me by a couple of kart lengths. Drag racer Rod Fuller won the race easily.

We then moved on to Aston Martin GTs where I had Jean Alesi mentoring.

JA Ready for the off with Herbert at the wheel


As the day light faded and the floodlights came on we had our ride in the Yas 2 seater F1 car, which is the old Minardi 2 seater. I went with Johnny Herbert and it was great to see him enjoying himself so much. It’s been a while since he’s driven anything with brakes like that and he was grinning. The track has a rhythm to it I hadn’t appreciated from my previous visit last year and perhaps you only get it from going at that speed. There are a few cookie cutter turns, but also some great sweeps and the fast right hander just before the one onto the pit straight is a hell of a corner. Going under the Yas Hotel is pretty cool too.

But by this stage we were all physically exhausted after a hard day in the heat. Also this is where you really feel the G forces on the neck and head. After two laps I could feel my neck giving up because of the effort we had put in earlier in the day. When Johnny hit the brakes at the end of the long straight it was around 3-4g deceleration. I wasn’t aware of my heart rate plummeting to 50, but I did wonder..

Again I keep going back to Singapore GP on Sunday, two hours on the limit in 30 degree heat and 75% humidity on a track with hardly any rest and Alonso and Vettel among others didn’t make a single mistake. It will be taxing here for the drivers in November two. There is at least the long straight to rest on.

After the insight I’ve had today, I can tell you that that driving is a much harder physical and mental task than you can possibly imagine. I have always had immense respect for all 24 drivers in the field, but even more so after today. They are supermen, who operate in an extreme and brutal environment.

JA, Jake and Neil


Neil has been talking F1 with fans from other countries, with the ex drivers and media and there’s been plenty of banter in our group with Jake and Rod and the Germans.

Tomorrow we do psychological tests, alertness, reaction times and much more as well as driving the F3000 cars, the closest we will come to the real thing.

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70 Comments
  1. Stephen says:

    GO ON NEIL MY SON!!! Do us proud eh!

  2. Ross says:

    Fantastic read, Very very jealous. Will any footage be appearing on your website soon? Or with Jake involved will it be part of the BBC show?

    1. James Allen says:

      Yes there will be video on here soon and Jake’s experience will be on one of the BBB F1 shows

  3. LAK says:

    Great insight JA! That helmet exercise with the weight attached looks excruciatingly painful, and the weighted wheel exercise looks no fun either! We forget what the drivers go through while driving and expect them to preform flawlessly, where just simply driving the car is an enormous talent!

    I hear the G forces also take a toll on the body, it’ll be interesting if they give you an exercise on that.

    JA: “What I had not realised before is that when a driver hits the brakes for a really big stop, like the end of a straight into a hairpin, his heart arrests to 50bpm and then shoots back up to 180bpm.” – Yikes never knew that!

    I wonder how much this affects the designing of a circuit. I bet Hermann Tilke needed to factor in the health precautions whilst designing a particular circuit. Interesting thought…

    Glad Neil Donnell is having a good time, pole position great job! Enjoy it :)

    Looking forward to reading about more eye opening things tomorrow…

    1. James Allen says:

      THat’s what the neck exercise was for, to simulate the G forces

      1. Martin says:

        James, there are other things too. You are tied in by your skeleton, so all the organs get to stretch their connecting tissues. Also where and when you breath given the massage your torso is getting from the g-forces and the bigger spikes from the bumps.

        Then there is the carbon ceramic brakes and the smoke you get to breath in. The exhausts aren’t running anything like catalytic converters either.

  4. chris says:

    oh man, until now i have not suffered a feeling of envy all year. How good is this guy Rod?, i reckon i could have whipped him. It would be good if this becomes a yearly event.

  5. Ben G says:

    Great report. Here’s hoping we see more of you working closely with Jake next year….

    If you can, get yourself onto one of the Renault Feel It days too. They do them at the Hungaroring, which is pretty cool. And it’s with V10s, proper engines…

  6. Doug says:

    Fascinating piece, James. Thanks for sharing. I turned green with envy reading it, but am slowing returning to normal colour!

  7. Dave says:

    Amazing – you are a blessed man James! What others would give to be able to experience the things you do

  8. Jeff in Ohio says:

    “I have always had immense respect for all 22 drivers in the field ….”

    And no respect at all for the other 2 drivers, eh, James?

    Can’t wait to hear about Day Two!

    – Jeff

  9. Frenchie says:

    Wow… Looks like a pretty awesome day James.

    By the way, the F1 grid has 24 drivers this year. Don’t forget our HRT boys! Brunno might get upset. :-)

    On a more serious note, were there fan ambassadors from other countries Neil was talking to; or was it just interactions with the locals?

    1. Andy C says:

      Maybe the 22 were just the hrt drivers under contract :-)

  10. Andrew says:

    Jealous.

    1. Stevie P says:

      Ditto! But the insight (as always) is appreciated.

      For me, the modern drivers know the mental and physical effort required, it’s why they train so much and can easily participate in triathlons and other such endurance events.

      The more mind-blowing thing is that back in the early days, the drivers were smoking and drinking alcohol pre and post-race, then nipping off and driving in other non-F1 races. Ok, the g-forces wouldn’t have been as high as current levels, but still way off the scale.

      James – do you know who the first driver to really take training seriously (other than acclimitising by driving itself) was? I’m thinking maybe Schumi was the first to really push the envelope, but would maybe Lauda or Sheckter have done so? Or maybe even Jackie Stewart? I don’t think James Hunt would have been high on that list… ;-)

      1. Luke Osborne says:

        Senna ;-)

        Have a look for his driving book. I don’t think he could run a marathon or triathlon but he certainly put some effort in!

        I think MS took it to another level though.

      2. Stevie P says:

        Yep – I’ve seen footage of Senna on a running machine with a heart-rate monitor and other apparatus attached, but I s’pose I’m wondering more about drivers from older generations. Good point though Luke – cheers :-)

      3. Robert in San Diego says:

        James Hunt was a squash fanatic and played to county standard. I think he trained with an International coach. He was definitely a fitness fanatic but also enjoyed the drink, smoked and girls! Great guy.

      4. Luke Osborne says:

        Graham Hill was into rowing before he drove but whether he kept that up while driving I don’t know. I’ve heard very little, if any, in the way of a fitness regime before Senna. I am 27 so Senna is about as far back as my obsession goes :)

      5. Stevie P says:

        Cheers Robert in SD – nice place btw, I was there ooooh some 10 years ago and it was a great place to try and emulate Mr Hunt ;-)

        I was unaware of that – cheers – and he sure was a “great guy” :-)

        I got into F1 in the late, late 70′s, thus vaguely recall the 6-wheeler tyrell, brabham-fan car, Villeneuve driving at high-speed on 3 wheels etc… but I’ve never really known who was uber-professional about fitness regimes etc, etc. You’ve got to be fit to drive an F1 car, and these days the drivers always mention “training” in between PR and actual race events; whereas my impression of older drivers was that “training” was the last thing on their minds.

  11. Spenny says:

    Quite some years ago, Olivier Panis did a video with Ligier where he was strapped up to all sorts of monitors, and a mike to record his breathing. He was filmed doing a test lap and they showed it on EuroSport I think.

    Every time he came to a corner his breathing became panicked, and then he stopped breathing round the corner. His heart rate was all over the place.

    It would be interesting to get that original footage and also to reproduce it with one of today’s top drivers. I wonder who would be more stressed, the McLaren drivers or the HRT team? :)

    1. Andy Fov says:

      I do wonder whether all drivers’ heart rates follow the same pattern. Given Button’s laid back nature and aerobic fitness, I can only imagine his HB going over 100 when he’s moaning about understeer.

      Amazing piece, James, and it’s some life you lead.

      I wonder if the Beeb will sit on Jake’s piece till the last race, given he’s on CWG duty over the next GP?

      1. Andy C says:

        “Given Button’s laid back nature and aerobic fitness, I can only imagine his HB going over 100 when he’s moaning about understeer.”

        That made me chuckle :-)

    2. KNF says:

      I’ve never seen the video, but the way you describe the breathing sounds like an Anti-G Strain Manuever, a breathing exercise fighter pilots do to delay blackout while pulling high-G turns…

  12. JohnBt says:

    ‘Veteran F1 doctor Riccardo Ceccarelli and his team explained that there is a misconception that F1 drivers are not athletes, because we cannot see their effort.’

    Alonso, Webber and Vettel looked totally drenched after the race. In fact, you could see Alonso’s weight lost on his face immediately.

    One prominent mark of F1 drivers are their necks, the only exposed area, looks very similar to Mike Tyson. They’re the toughest athletes physically and mentally.

  13. racyboy says:

    Absolutely drooling with envy reading this.

    I’ve heard, read and seen artilcles,interviews and stories about what it takes to be an F1 driver, and I can’t for the life of me comprehend what they put themselves through.

    I realise it’s a gradual progression from being kids in karts to racing F1 cars but still, I’ve always had great respect for the entire grid, regardless of who they are or how long they last.
    It’s too easy for us to take these guys abilities for granted,and I still shake my head when someone refers to an F1 race as boring. (Occasionally processional maybe, but now with all that the internet brings,there’s rarely a dull moment).

    Athletes? Oh they’re more than athletes could ever hope to be. As safe as F1 is, lives are still at risk.

    I remember when F1 drivers could smoke, drink and shag their way though a race week-end, and even a career.Now that’s superhuman.

    1. Martin says:

      Yes there is risk, but if you look at something like professional cycling, where injuries are more likely and deaths do occur on training rides and mountain descents, F1 isn’t too bad these days.

      The drivers are conditioned for the requirements. I wouldn’t call it special, just professional athlete behaviour.

  14. Ihsan says:

    James,

    Thanks for great insight to the modern F1 driver. What I’d like to know is, if you can ask Dr. Riccardo Ceccarelli on the second day, is there a set procedure or any means to check drivers for doping like the blood boosters cyclists are using.

    Thanks

  15. johnpierre rivera says:

    awesome…after being a little envious, i also really enjoy reading this kind of insight concerning F1 witch is rarely ever covered by the media. looks like so much fun. james, maybe you could dedicate a paragraph or two to neil as it would be interesting to get his perspective on the event.

  16. Phil says:

    Hope there’ll be some video of this James. Sound fun and fascinating!

    Be nice to live vicariously through Neil as well.

    Cheers,
    Phil

    1. James Allen says:

      Yes there will be. There’s a crew following us and also Neil’s done some Flip camera stuff.

  17. duke says:

    I’m not a couch potato. I exercise a lot, I know that I am fitter than most guys out there. But I feel you, James. Even driving a fun kart with only 9hp at full speed on a decent, twisty track for 15 minutes is enough to make my arms, shoulders and neck sore like hell. Can’t imagine the stress levels these F1 drivers took on every race. Not to mention the fighter pilots too…

    1. Frenchie says:

      I don’t want to start a debate on fitness, however, if a 9bhp go kart makes you sore, you might want to re-assess your fitness levels. :-)

      Besides, I must recommend you try at least a 12bhp for greater straight line speed meaning you get to brake a lot harder for the following corner.

      1. Frenchie says:

        …and Aston Martin GT and F3000 and Dragster and New PS3 game and two seater Minardi.

        Life must be tough being you. :-)

      2. duke says:

        Haha you got me there :-)

  18. Rafael Lopez says:

    So awesome.

  19. Red5 says:

    FANtastic.

    Hope this will turn into an annual event.

    Can you post more pictures and video?

  20. Mark V says:

    If modern F1 drivers are supermen, what did that make James Hunt with his equally intense off-duty “regimen”?

  21. Galapago555 says:

    “After the insight I’ve had today, I can tell you that that driving is a much harder physical and mental task than you can possibly imagine.”

    I have always admired this roughness, and of course believed that this men are simply extraordinary athletes.

    But it is even more amazing when you see the pre-season tests, where they drive – under almost “real” GP conditions – maybe twice (or more) the actual distance of a GP per day… two consecutive days! I think that you can not see such an exhibition of endurance in any other sport.

  22. Scott says:

    That’s a great experience James and I’m sure gives you a bit more appreciation of what the drivers have to do just to get up to standard.

    As a matter of interest, how have you pulled up physically after your “taste” of what it takes?
    The odd sore bit?

  23. Michael says:

    In the world of track and field (I’m a coach for sprints, hurdles and strenght training) there’s a saying that anything that looks easy to the untrained eye is extremely difficult to achieve.
    Formula one is on of those sports that looks very easy (after all, everybody can drive, can’t they?). Which tells me how massively commited these guys (even the so-called “driving chicanes” at the back of the field) must be.

  24. Kenji says:

    Fantastic insight into what is required to participate at the pinnacle of motorsport. Thank you James for putting this together so that many others can gain a better understanding of the stresses and strains of an F1 driver. Looking forward to reading the next part of your experience.

  25. Quick question – I’ve seen it mentioned a couple of times that the drivers have to excert massive pressure on to the brake pedal (a previous blog suggested 100kg of pressure). How?

    The F1 drivers looks like very fit atheletes and don’t appear to have the muscle mass necessary to sustain such a huge pressure, lap after lap after lap. Is there a trick such as 100kg of pressure at the piston, but the brake pedal acts as a clever pulley / lever?

  26. Alchemy says:

    This is well worth a retweet and facebook share!

  27. Glen D says:

    What a fantastic experience!
    I would love to do those tests!! (I would probably be really back though!)

    And whats a cookie cutter?? Not heard that phrase before! lol

  28. Bolaji says:

    Great Stuff James, truly fantastic I must confess. Events like these are the kind of thing F1 & Motorsport need. I think that the FIA needs to do more to make F1 and the other formulas more popular. While you can catch live broadcasts & re-runs of lower league soccer matchces on most local & international TV stations its very hard to find live coverage of F1 or the lower formulas. More Info, more interviews, more live coverage, more opinions & perspectives from experts , MORE MORE MORE F1!!!!

  29. Jon Rowlandson says:

    It’s easy to get carried away dismissing drivers like Yamamoto, Grosjean or Petrov, but something like this Yas Marina experience really hammers it home that these guys are immensely skilled.

    To keep control of these vehicles; maintaining tyre temperatures and pressures, brake temperature, clutch control, wheelspin, managing not to put it into the wall every 5mins and still concentrate on being quick is a massive task that most of us would be laughably unsuccessful at – never mind having to cope with the physical exertion of it all.

    If ever I catch myself being over critical of a drivers talents, I’m always quick to remind myself that they’d completely destroy me in a kart race.

  30. jonrob says:

    Were there any women competing in this?

    When I have previously said in this blog that women don’t want to develop huge neck muscles and that mostly they are simply not strong enough, I have been shouted down, but now James perhaps you understand why I said so.

    1. Michael says:

      Actually women are physically better wired to be good drivers or pilots than men, as they are – on average – better at multitasking and have better reflexes. They are also better able to withstand fatigue than men. Men do have higher muscle power output, but, despite the formidable power Formula One drivers need to have, it is nothing untrainable, even for us lesser drivers. It just needs a lot of hard work. Also, with current knowledge about strength training it is also no problem at all to make women strong enough to become jet fighter pilots (many have, including some of the very best) or racing driver. So any reason why there are no women in Formula One has to come from socio-cultural causes. If you’d take it from a pure physiological viewpoint a male racing driver should be the exception, not the reverse.

  31. Kevin says:

    that is so awesome…… now i will go in a corner and cry

  32. JR says:

    I’m not surprised about your findings, James.

    Many years ago there was a one-off BBC programme called something like ‘Sports Superstars’. The contestants were all athletes at the pinnacle of their respective fields, which included such things as boxing, football, cricket, running, cycling and so on. They included the then current world F1 champion at the time — and I’ve been racking my brains to remember — who was probably someone like Jody Scheckter, which would make the programme around 1980; hence why my memory is so poor.

    The tests were not to do with any particular skill but rather about strength, endurance, reaction times, fitness, agility, stamina and the like.

    What I do remember clearly is that the F1 driver won conclusively — much to the amazement of my father who was a football fan and always scathing about my liking for the ‘lazyman’s sport’ of motor racing.

    Pleasant memories of smug satisfaction!

    1. Michael says:

      We had similar TV shows in The Netherlands. They are usually won by track and fields athletes (but never by middle distance runners) or racing car drivers. Even when competing against Olympic Champions from other sports (rowing, hockey, cycling). Football players indeed tend to end in a low rank in these events.

  33. Paul Mc says:

    Really fascinating stuff James. I guess we all take for granted what extreme forces F1 drivers are under for 2 hours on a Sunday.

    Makes me appreciate how amazingly fit Schumacher must be to do that at his age.

  34. Mike says:

    James,

    Thankyou – your information and description is a great insight. I have been a close follower of F1 since the late sixties and aside from the technical aspects of engineering/design, been keen to keep up with the medical/physical impacts on drivers during racing and how these stress levels have altered over time. I have always considered F1 drivers to be athletes of the highest order with the ability to process information rapidly and make judgements while their whole bodies are under great pressure.

    You are a lucky man to be able to exoerience some of this first hand. This type of information is often difficult to obtain so we are indeed fortunate that you are sharing it with us.

    Thankyou again

  35. Carl Craven says:

    As ever James nice article. Thanks for all your insights.

    We are mega jealous.

  36. Just says:

    Another great article, thanks James. I’d kill to be able to get a ride in the 2 seater F1 car.

    “What I had not realised before is that when a driver hits the brakes for a really big stop, like the end of a straight into a hairpin, his heart arrests to 50bpm and then shoots back up to 180bpm.”

    I’m not sure I understand. Why would his heart rate dive to 50bpm?

  37. Jason C says:

    Wow, sounds amazing. Thanks for posting about it. I’m sure it was quite an effort after all that!

  38. Luke Robbins says:

    Make sure you let us know how day 2 goes, interesting to find out the nature of the mental tests.

  39. AndyK says:

    Could I ask what karts you were driving James? And if you found them to be surprisingly physical?.. People dont seem to imagine that driving a little go kart could be so demanding; as i know it is!!

    1. James Allen says:

      Quite good ones, with Honda 13 hp engines

  40. S.J.M says:

    Sounds like you all having an excellent time. Not going to lie, im utterly envious of you all (not that i had the time free to enter the competition).

    Enjoy the rest of the experience James & Neil

  41. james bowie says:

    i heard massa was ay mercedes today, is this true?

  42. Andy C says:

    Good man Neil for sticking it on pole. If you’re representing us, its great to do it in style :-)

    The F3000s will be amazing tomorrow!

    ON another note, anybody who has recently bought F1 2010 on the PS3, we should organise a James Allen on F1 race at some point over the net. Any takers for a championship? That would be great fun.

    1. Tim Parry says:

      How does the F1 game work with a wheel? Thinking of taking the plunge but I’d like to know it works better than GRID.

      1. James Allen says:

        I liked it, but I’ll get Neil Donnell, our fan ambassador on the trip, to write about it. He is a games developer.

      2. Andy C says:

        Tim, I dont have a wheel (and its a bit of a nightmare on PS3 with the joysticks as they are really difficult to take long sweeping bends smoothly), but I’ve read up on them, and the majority of the effectiveness (or not) in peoples reviews are on how good the wheel is.

    2. Kenji says:

      +1 on that mate. Great idea =D

  43. Bobby says:

    Rod Fuller is a former NHRA Full Throttle Series Top Fuel driver with seven wins in the “premiership” and second in the 2007 title (the last to be run with the quarter-mile; in July 2008 the distance was cut to 1,000 feet / 301 metres after a fatal crash) losing only on account of a National Record set in the final round of the final race (in drag racing, points are awarded for fastest three runs in each qualifying round (of up to five), making the first knockout round, winning each knockout round, and overall fastest time in class as long as it is backed up by one percent).

    Drag racers are required to react quickly because of the format of the Christmas Tree. In a Pro Tree, the three ambers light immediately, and green turns on 0.400 seconds later. If you jump start, you lose unless your opponent crosses a boundary line.

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