The physical challenge of driving in the Malaysian Grand Prix is often overlooked, because it’s not obvious to the spectator watching on TV.
Now in its 14th year on the F1 calendar, Sepang has always been one of the toughest races of the season on drivers. With ambient temperatures of 32 degrees and 70% humidity, the drivers lose around 3 litres of body fluid in sweat.
Since Singapore joined the calendar in 2008 that has established itself as the hardest and bumped Malaysia down to number two. I’ve heard drivers say that they are almost crying with pain in the cockpit in the closing stages of the Singapore, so hot and stuffy is it in the cockpit with no respite for almost two hours. Any ventilaton they manage to get is always just more warm air so it has no cooling effect at all.
Sepang at least has the two 850 metre straights for the drivers to rest and for some air to blow in. Drivers have various tricks they use to get some cooling. One told me that he lifts one hand off the wheel on the back straight and the other on the pit straight, turning his palm and back of the hand to face the airflow, which sends jets of cool air down his sleeves and makes a significant difference.
Some drivers, like Alonso, leave their visors slightly open at the bottom. Mika Hakkinen used to open his visor as he came into the pits to get a blast of air on the face. But this is a dangerous thing to do as there are small particles of dust and metal and even carbon in the air and it’s very easy to get one in the eye.
To avoid visors misting up, these days drivers have an electrical element in the visor for wet or humid conditions, which is connected to the car, so when the visor begins to steam up, he pushes a button on the steering wheel and it demists the visor.
Of course the main preoccupation is hydration. Drivers are losing three kilos of body fluid lost during the 90 minute race, which is roughly 5% of their body weight in most cases. They have a drinks bottle in the car, but it contains only a litre of fluid and in any case the drink gets so hot after a few laps its not drinkable. The risk is that they get fatigued in the closing stages, lose focus
So drivers have to drink fluid constantly during the weekend and especially on race day. So what do they drink?
Some light was shed on this this weekend when McLaren’s new partner Lucozade revealed a new drink specifically for F1 drivers to drink during races. It focuses on carbohydrates, sodium which replaces salts lost through sweat and interestingly it also contains caffeine to help with focus and concentration.
I was slightly surprised that drivers would want to drink caffeine when the job of driving the car on the limit is stressful enough, but it seems a bit of caffeine is a good thing. Shortly before qualifying I was chatting with Jenson Button in the McLaren hospitality area and he was sipping at an after lunch espresso as we talked.
Lucozade has also made a formulation for the mechanics to drink at any time with hydration salts, carbohydrates and proteins to keep the energy levels up during the long working days in the intense heat. This is likely to be in demand in the paddock from photographers, especially and journalists as well as anyone else who struggles in the intense heat and humidity of Sepang and Singapore.