Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Monitor The Drivers To Raise Our Pulse Rates

When F1 cars are on the track the incredibly complex machines are monitored in minute detail. Yet the vital human dimension of the equation, the private dramas unfolding in the cockpit, remain a mystery left largely to our imagination.  

Faceless and impersonal beneath their helmets, we have no real insight into the drivers’ physical and mental states, the stresses and strains on their bodies, the fluctuations of their emotions - whether they are experiencing anxiety, exhaustion, elation, rage, frustration or perhaps just plain fear.

Meanwhile, graphs on TV screens show us car speed, engine revs, gear changes, DRS/KERS activity, g-forces, heat centres via thermal imaging cameras and so on. Our solitary link to the drivers is via cryptic radio communications from the pit wall engineers - “Speed Up, Slow Down, Take A Drink” – which tend to make the drivers sound like mindless automatons.

Only when he gets angry - Kimi Raikkonen: “Leave me alone. I know what I’m doing!” - or when he wins – Sebastian Vettel: “Yippee! Thank you boys!”) - do we get a sense of what a driver is really thinking and feeling.

In 1981 a team of French medical doctors conducted scientific studies on F1 drivers in action. The doctors categorized the various stresses that must be endured as Physical (through acceleration, deceleration, g-forces and vibration), Thermal (from heat buildup), Energetic (work using the arms and legs and bracing the body) and Emotional (from consternation in the cockpit as well as tension caused by outside social pressures). One way of measuring these factors is to monitor heart rates, which are indicators of both mental and physical states.

Among those wired up with a heart monitor was the noted daredevil Gilles Villeneuve. When he had a big 140mph accident that destroyed his Ferrari in practice for the French Grand Prix at Dijon Villeneuve’s resting heart rate of 70 beats per minute  registered a flash reading of 168bpm. When trying to set a quick time in his spare car during qualifying his highest reading was 182bpm. During the race Villeneuve’s pulse barely blipped above 127bpm. By way of comparison his team mate Didier Pironi’s racing pulse ranged from 180bpm to 207bpm, the higher number clocked when Pironi was being blocked by a slower car. From his low numbers the doctors concluded that Villeneuve, whose spectacular risk-taking style caused millions of hearts to beat faster, was some kind of unflappable phenomenon.

In another study the pioneering Austrian fitness guru Willy Dungl
worked closely with the very brave Niki Lauda, whose miraculous comeback from his near death in a fiery accident in his Ferrari at the Nurburgring in 1976 was considered an act of outstanding courage never before seen in any sport. Only later, in his memoirs, did Niki reveal his inner feelings when he first returned to the cockpit four weeks later and finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix. “At Monza I was rigid with fear. Heart pounding. Throwing up. Diarrhoea.”

In 1982, after sitting out two seasons, Lauda returned to F1 with McLaren. During pre-season testing at the Paul Ricard circuit in France his car’s suspension broke and he crashed at 190mph. His McLaren was a writeoff but less than five minutes later when Willy Dungl checked his pulse Lauda’s heart was calmly ticking over at 90 beats per minute. Dungl found that prior to getting in the car Lauda’s usual pulse rate registered between 80 and 85bpm, while in qualifying and during a Grand Prix it peaked at 190bpm. Dungl believed that other drivers whose heartbeats rose as high as 220, even 230bpm, were courting disaster by exceeding human rev limits. If they experienced such stress for prolonged periods the drivers risked placing themselves in a danger zone of debilitating physical exhaustion and disorienting mental confusion.

Lauda’s friend and rival James Hunt regularly puked before he got into the cockpit, where his legs shook like a jackhammer, causing chassis vibrations that made it seem as if the engine was running. Hunt then harnessed his nervous tension and applied it to the job of driving where his volatile mixture of testosterone and adrenaline made him one of the hardest of chargers. Eventually his fears got the better of him and he abruptly retired “for reasons of self-preservation.”

Mercifully, though today’s drivers don’t have to worry nearly as much about dying on the job it remains one of the most dangerous professions. Moreover, the job is more involving than ever. Modern cars, which subject them to greater speeds and g-forces, require drivers to deal with potentially bewildering  complexities in the cockpit (think of the profusion of buttons on the steering wheel, distracting voices chattering away in their ears) - conditions that demand ever more mind and body management

So why not monitor the modern men at the nerve centre of the action? Enliven the sport by animating its human dimension. Wire up our heroes. Show us their beating hearts, soaring heat centres, surging brain waves - in ‘real time.’ F1 technology is mind-boggling so why not apply some of it to flesh out the characters of the sport’s main attraction: the drivers.




  1. Hello Mr. Donaldson,

    Regarding your words:
    "So why not monitor the modern men at the nerve centre of the action? Enliven the sport by animating its human dimension. Wire up our heroes. Show us their beating hearts, soaring heat centres, surging brain waves - in ‘real time.’"
    I couldn't agree more!

    I've saved this precious piece of footage and had my brother upload it 2 years ago.
    The quality is poor and you must listen very carefully to hear both heartbeat and respiration, but isn't it marvellous?
    I use it to introduce friends & family to the fitness of "driving a car in circles" (this one and the Martin Brundle fitness video too).

    Perhaps we really should go on a crusade to have this introduced again in the live coverage of F1.

  2. Thanks speedy_bob...
    Heavy breathing gives us an extra insight into a breathtaking ride.
    Sounds like his pulse was pounding too.
    So it can be done.

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