It’s hard to look at people who spend the exciting, demanding parts of their sporting career lying down and think of them as super athletes.
Because we can all drive a car, Formula One can tend to look like a bunch of over-paid, carefully coiffed, slim-hipped fellows turning a wheel with their wrists and occasionally flexing their ankles. And then poncing around somewhere like Monte Carlo, where this weekend’s Grand Prix is being held, being feted by the fabulously rich.
On a rare and recent visit behind the firewall curtain, at the top-secret Mercedes-AMG Formula One facility in the UK, we were asked to consider the weight of the average human head; five kilograms. It was then pointed out that this year’s F1 cars are, at the same time as regularly exceeding 330km/h, subjecting their drivers to 5G of crushing forces.
This means that, as he takes a long, sweeping corner, Lewis Hamilton’s head effectively weighs 25kg (roughly an eight-year-old child) and would thus attempt to roll right off his shoulders if he didn’t have the neck strength of an All Black prop forward.
“When he first came to F1 racing, back in 2007, Lewis had a 14-inch collar size, today he’s got an 18-inch collar. And that’s typical of all drivers these days, their necks just go straight down from their jaw lines, and they really have to train those muscles to do the job,” our guide, whose role is so top secret he can’t tell us his name, explains.
“The G forces are so extreme that their organs are constantly being squished, and in Melbourne this year, at the end of the straight, Lewis was telling me that it was was pulling the tears out of his tear ducts and he could see them splashing on to his visor under braking.”
You may know that racing drivers often “flat spot” their tyres by locking up their brakes, which leaves a visible burn mark on the rubber, thus reducing its effectiveness, in any form of racing.
In F1, however, it’s more of a problem, because it causes so much vibration at the car’s higher speeds that “the muscle that holds your eyeball still in its socket can’t cope and that means the drivers can no longer see the apexes of the corners properly, so they slow down”.
Another problem that can slow a driver is the fact that, by the final stages of a race, he might have lost as much as 40 per cent of his brain function.
It can get so hot inside an F1 car’s inhumane, carbon-fibre sarcophagi – up to 55 degrees Celsius – that drivers lose 4kg in fluids during the race, and according to Mercedes-AMG, each kilogram you sweat out costs you, temporarily of course, about 10 per cent of your brain power.
The drivers are so weak when they get out at the end of a race, in fact, that Formula One has strict maximum-weight rules for its trophies, to make sure they can lift them.
Unfortunately, the human brain has quite a lot to think about inside an F1 car, outside of constantly calculating braking distances, overtaking widths and, in the case of the legendarily dangerous Monaco circuit, just how close you can get to the barriers without destroying your car and banging yourself up quite badly.
During the 90-minute race this weekend, drivers will make more than 3600 gear changes, each, and will manage a steering wheel that looked to us, as we were fortunate enough to hold one briefly, like an IQ test for super-smart babies.
It features 25 buttons, offering some 500 different settings, some of which – like brake balance – the drivers adjust on every single lap.
We were also allowed to look inside one of Hamilton’s recent cars and it is truly astonishing how uncomfortable it is. Apparently the world champion likes to go without seat padding, so that he can “feel” the car around him. Honestly, it must feel like riding a skateboard, flat out, down one of Egypt’s bigger pyramids.
Then there’s the driving position, which is just cruel. Because weight is everything in F1, the goal is to keep the heavy part of the human – the lumbar region – as low as possible, so the driver is basically positioned as if they were lying in a bath, while the pedals are where the taps would be.
To top it off, there’s a giant battery positioned right under his backside – picture a mobile-phone battery the size of a barbecue, and giving off a proportional amount of heat. This battery gives the car’s performance an electric boost, but apparently it toasts the hell out of Hamilton’s buns, and he’s constantly complaining about it.
All of his suffering would be for nought, of course, without the stupidly large team of 1600 people who work at the headquarters in Brackley, many of them sharing four shifts, so the factory can run 24 hours, every day.
New and very expensive carbon-fibre parts are constantly being invented, built and tested, and most of them never even make it onto the actual racing car.
In 2018, some part of the car was updated, or redesigned, on average, every 20 minutes, 24 hours a day.
“The car that starts the first race is not the same as the car that finishes the last one and if you’re not constantly improving, you fall behind. Last season we’d gained two seconds over the course of the season. If we hadn’t done that, we’d be two seconds behind everyone else, and that would mean finishing last,” our secretive guide explains.
It might look like a series of fast-moving advertising billboards, grandiosely burning fossil fuels, but there’s a lot more for Formula One than a bloke lying down to put his life on the line.