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Eye opening experience on Day 1 of Yas Marina Driving event
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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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.


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 on that mate. Great idea =D


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.


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.


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


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


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


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!!


Quite good ones, with Honda 13 hp engines


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


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


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?


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

We are mega jealous.



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


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.


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!


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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!!!!


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


This is well worth a retweet and facebook share!


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?


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.


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.


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?


“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.


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



Hope this will turn into an annual event.

Can you post more pictures and video?

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