What it takes to be a race car driver, according to the drivers themselves

“They are not athletes.”

“I drive a car too, how hard can it be?”

“Fake sport.”

Writing about motorsports elicits a number of different responses. Inevitably, however, responses like the above pop up. Readers questioning the coverage, questioning the athletes, questioning the sport itself.

Over the past year I have been truly lucky to sit down with a number of different drivers, across various disciplines, in various stages of their career, to discuss what it is they do. Over that year I have learned more about this sport than I ever imagined possible, and it has made me excited to keep learning.

During those conversations I grew to truly appreciate what it is these men and women do, and just what it takes to be a race car driver. I wanted to share their insight, and outline just what it takes to climb in the car, and put it all on the line. During the course of my interviews with drivers I asked them questions such as “what is the hardest part of your job?” or “what is the one thing you want someone like me to know about what you do?” Some of these responses have been in previous features, others I have been saving for this moment.

All of them taught me something.

Training and physical demands

A common theme that has emerged over the past year of talking with drivers is the notion of relatability. Many people drive every single day, and as such when they watch a race, they have some notion of what it might be like to turn a lap around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or the streets of Monte Carlo.

But there is a massive difference in taking your average street car to the grocery store, and sending it at nearly 200 miles per hour just inches away from the wall. There is a lot that goes into that, including the training necessary to handle the physical demands of being in the car for an extended period, and simply being able to do the tasks necessary to complete a lap.

F1 Academy - Round 2 Miami - Race 2

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Abbi Pulling is currently the Championship leader in the F1 Academy, the all-female feeder series for Formula 1. When we spoke a few months ago, she outlined the physical demands put on drivers, and the training necessary to prepare for those moments.

“I think people don’t realize how physical it is. A lot of people will say, you know, ‘you’re only turning the wheel and pushing pedals,’ and they compare it to their road car,” started Pulling. “And yeah, if you’re in GT or so on and so forth, they have power steering and it’s easier in that aspect. But then we don’t have air conditioning. We don’t have things like that in single seaters.

“We don’t have power steering until you get to Formula One, so the steering is very heavy. The brake pressure that you have to hit is, I mean, it gets up to 120 BAR. So in F4, it’s a little lower, but it can be really, really, really hard.

“And again, nothing like what you’d have in your average road car.”

For those wondering, BAR is a metric means of measuring pressure. Roughly speaking, one BAR is equal to 14.50 pounds per square inch.

In other words, that is a lot of force you need to hit the brakes in time.

Beyond the strength needed to handle the car, and manage the braking, is the endurance factor. The higher up you go in the racing ranks, the longer the races. The physical and mental endurance necessary to put it on the limit for the length of an F1 race can be draining on even the most veteran drivers.

“So I think that could be taken for granted pretty often. Even the stamina and endurance you need,” continued Pulling. “F1 Academy is a 30 minute race. It’s more of a sprint kind of race. But when you get to F3 and F2 and F1, the race is longer than an hour. So that’s when you really need to have the mental capacity and strength to keep going and keep focused, but also just the physical strength as well.”

To that point Cosinuss GmbH is a medical monitoring company based in Germany, and they put together a study of the various vital signs found in F1 drivers over the course of a single race. As a result of the high speeds, for example, the G-forces the drivers endure over a race can be equated with being in the cockpit of a fighter jet:

Due to the very high speeds that are reached in Formula 1 races, the body of the pilot is exposed to extraordinarily high g-forces in the winding race tracks. The strengths of these acceleration forces are comparable to those in a jet. During a nearly full braking in the curve entrances, from an extremely high speed to shortly before the standstill of the cars, a Formula 1 pilot can be stressed with up to 6 g, which is up to 6 times his body weight. In long, high-speed curves, the driver is pulled against the steering direction by the centrifugal forces and loaded with approx. 4 g, which is an extraordinary load for the head and neck in particular. But also the muscles of the shoulders, arms and legs are exposed to heavy loads: During a race they cope with a total load of 40,000 kg in approx. 60 laps.

Drivers also endure high heart rates over the course of a single race, for the duration of that race:

Demanding Formula 1 circuits leave the pilots no time to breathe deeply between manoeuvres. During the race, the top pulse is 180 to 210 beats per minute. The mental stress situation in the racing car, the continuous maintenance of concentration in combination with the severe physical strain on the muscles caused by acceleration and centrifugal forces, as well as the excessive heat development, drive the heartbeat of a Formula 1 driver to heights that are at the limits of endurance sports. A moment of carelessness or weakness could have severe consequences for the drivers themselves, their competitors, the audience or the equipment.

On average, the fit heart of a Formula 1 driver usually beats between 140 and 170 times per minute during a race. This value is a remarkable performance of the drivers, considering that a race lasts up to 2 hours and the high pulse rate is maintained over the whole duration. Depending on the popularity of the race, the daily form of the driver or the difficulty of the tracks, the values are often topped.

When I spoke with Jenson Button earlier this year we talked about racing in the Japanese Grand Prix, at Suzuka International Racing Circuit. It is a race Button has won before, and to hear him tell it, it is certainly not easy.

“There aren’t so many overtaking opportunities around Suzuka, but when it happens, it’s awesome,” described Button. “And just put yourself inside a driver’s body that the G-force they’re going through around there is so, so physical, you know, even just keeping your eyes on the road is difficult through the vibrations and the G-force or the change of direction, these athletes are being put through it at this race.

“And always remember that when you see them jump out of the car at the end of the race, you know, it’s tough.”

Weeks later I would be in the media pen following the F1 Sprint Race at the Miami Grand Prix, a 19-lap event. Fernando Alonso walked right by me after those 19 laps, and looked completely spent.

I immediately thought of that Button quote.

Given the physical and mental demands, training is critical for these athletes. And there needs to be a plan when preparing for the track.

“The F1 Academy car is not too too physical for me at the moment, because I’m training for the step ahead. As a racing driver, you always train for the next step,” described Pulling.

“So I’m training at an F3 level. So when or if I was driving that car, you know, I wouldn’t be struggling. The last thing you want as a driver is to be restricted from your physical, you know, abilities rather than your actual technical and your actual skill.

“So, yeah, for me, it’s lots of lots of upper body work. There’s low power steering as you move up and the more aero downforce, bigger tires, it gets harder and harder,” continued Pulling. “Then, yeah, balancing that with some cardio and obviously lower body as well is quite important.”

The technical elements of race car driving

In addition to the physical demands placed on race car drivers, there are also technical considerations that come into play. These come in many forms, from nailing the entry and exit to a certain corner, to handling the car around the track, or simply keeping it between the lines.

All of these factors happen at rather high rates of speed, when drivers are pushing everything to the limit.

Alexander Rossi has won the Indianapolis 500, the biggest spectacle in motorsport. He finished fourth in the event just a few days ago, and during his final qualifying run he averaged over 234 miles per hour on his opening lap while hitting speeds in excess of 241 miles per hour.

As he explained to me, there is a lot that drivers are doing in the cockpit while that is happening.

“Yeah, I mean so we have what’s called kind of tools in the cockpit, right. So you have the ability to move cross weight up to like 150 pounds from the right front of the car to the left front of the car, and you can change that weight and that will change the balance of the car,” outlined Rossi.

“And you have just like in a road car, you have front and rear anti roll bar, sway bars that you can adjust in the cockpit. And so what you’re trying to do is you’re understanding that [Indianapolis Motor Speedway is] a 2.5 mile track, right? So Turns One and Two are at one end and they’re very similar. Turns Three and Four at the other end and they’re very similar, but as individual sections are very different from each other.

“So you are usually adjusting the car twice end-to-end based on wind direction based on temperature. So like Turn One is always shaded because the grandstands are so large,” continued Rossi. So Turn One is actually the easiest corner on the track. Turn Two is one of the hardest because it’s the most exposed by the wind. Turn Three is the hottest because there’s no shade and Turn Four is [easy].

“So it’s really, really interesting because the radius, the banking, the corners, the width, everything is identical, but they’re all kind of their own special kind of beast. So really, you just have that understanding. And it is a challenge, you know, it’s something that you can’t pick up overnight in terms of kind of knowing how to read the track.”

Again, all of that is happening over the course of 500 laps, with speeds much, much faster than your Sunday drive to the grocery store.

Then there is the matter of nailing the entry and the exit to certain corners. Monza is known as the “Temple of Speed,” as its long straights and wide corners create conditions perfect for racing:

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But there is more to generating that speed than simply dropping the hammer, as Pulling explained to me when we talked.

“See, Monza is a really different track. You almost think ‘Oh, it’s gonna be, you know, pretty pretty simple, pretty easy, because it’s three chicanes and one kind of mid speed corner.’ But it’s so much more than that,” outlined Pulling.

“You’ve got to really keep your momentum going. Especially in a car that is a little bit more underpowered on the straights. You’ve just gotta make them as long as possible. You’ve just got to get on power as soon as possible and just use the momentum that you’ve got.

“And it’s a really fine, fine line. Overshoot the corner, and then you affect your exit and that’s just the lap ruined,” continued the Alpine driver. “As soon as you don’t get the exit, it’s just ruined. So yeah, you’ve just got to be very mentally switched on where you’re gaining and losing the time. Because you don’t have a delta [on your steering wheel or dash]. In F1 and other championships, you have a delta on your dash, whereas in this you don’t.

“So you’ve just got to be like, ‘OK, right? That exit wasn’t great. That entry wasn’t great or so on and so forth.’ And, yeah, work it out from there.”

Then there is this.

Keeping it between the lines.

Watch an F1 race, for example, and you are likely to hear the phrase “lap time deleted for exceeding track limits.” At each circuit there are white lines along each side of the track that outline the “field of play,” so to speak. But if all four tires go wide of those lines, you have exceeded the track limits, and your time will be deleted for that lap.

Do that during qualifying, and you might fail to post a time in a certain segment of qualifying. Do that enough times during a race, and you might get penalized.

At first blush, keeping the car within the limits might seem like an easy thing to do. But, as Logan Sargeant explained to me, when you are fighting for every tenth of a second over the course of a lap, it gets much, much harder.

“Yeah, the ones that drive me crazy are the, “[j]ust keep it on [the track]” like when we’re talking about track limits,” said Sargeant to me earlier this season, laughing. “And then you look at Bahrain and first through 20th in Q1 is covered by eight tenths.

“Especially when you’re on the, you know, the back end of that [lap], trying to make it through Q1 and you’re always on the cusp. Imagine, you know, leaving a bit of time on the table can shuffle you down two or three positions if you’re too safe and then when you add the tires overheating through the lap, the wind gusting and changing throughout the lap,” continued Sargeant. “Even just having a slight slipstream from the car had completely changes the corner. You know, I think so much more goes into completing a lap than people realize and also being able to keep it within the white lines and still getting the most out of it. It’s a lot more complex than just, you know, ‘keep it within the white lines.’

“There’s so many variables and, I think people forget that a lot.”

Dealing with failure

All athletes lose. All athletes have dealt with failure.

But in a sport like F1, when there are only 19 other drivers on the grid, dealing with failure is a different matter altogether. To reach the pinnacle of single-seater motorsport you have enjoyed tremendous success along the way.

Then you arrive in F1, and everything changes.

That is the experience Jenson Button had during his career. Button won championships in karting, won championships in Formula Ford, and finished third in F3 before arriving in F1.

His first F1 season he finished eighth. He placed 17th in his second F1 season.

Failure is simply part of the game.

Former driver Jenson Button in the paddock before final...

Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

“You know, we’re racing in, at the pinnacle of a sport and a sport that’s so difficult to get into. So, yes, however short or long your career is, you really do need to try and enjoy it because this is such a pivotal point in your career and in your life racing in F1,” described Button to me recently.

“So yeah, I think being reminded of that is, is really important and yeah, there are going to be tough times through a season, but every literal moment where you think you’ve achieved something, whether it’s finishing just inside the points or finishing 13th but [you] make, you know, a great overtaking move in that race, remembering those moments and being happy about those moments, they should make you smile if not, you’re in the wrong sport.

“I think in Formula One, you’re gonna fail more than you’re gonna win. That’s just the way it is. So every single moment that you’ve achieved something, enjoy that moment and and it will give you confidence moving forward.”

The demands away from the car

One of the biggest things I’ve learned about this sport over the past year or so is this: How little time is spent in the car, and how big the demands are away from it.

It is enough to make you question why anyone would do it.

Certainly there are reasons — and in some cases millions of reasons — but the demands placed on race car drivers away from the actual driving are countless, and according to some drivers those demands are the hardest thing about the job.

“It’s a good question,” said Rossi when I asked him the hardest part of his job. “And it’s an easy answer.

“The hardest thing about being a race car driver is if you look at a calendar year of 365 days, we drive a race car 50 of those days. And the rest of the time is all of the other stuff that it takes to be a race car driver. Whether that’s, you know, training, sim time, media commitments, sponsor commitments, stuff for the series, promotional activities or whatever,” continued Rossi.

“And sometimes you have to remind yourself that if you had asked 10-year-old Alex, ‘[o]k, you’re not going to get to drive a race car as much as you’re driving a go kart right now. But, you have to do all of these other things. Would you still do it?’

“Of course, 10 year old Alex would say yes.”

Rossi continued, drawing on an explanation from one of the other drivers in IndyCar.

“And the other analogy that or example that I give is actually I’m stealing it from Scott Dixon. But Scott always said ‘[y]ou know, I get paid to do all the other stuff and I drive the race car for free.’ So I think that a lot of people don’t realize that unlike other sports, you know, we can’t, we can’t just go get in the race car and work on our craft, right?

“You show up to the racetrack on the Friday, like I said, and you’ve got your two hours of practice and, and that may have been the last time you’d seen a car in three weeks.

“So that part is certainly the most challenging, but you still wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The sentiment from the Arrow McLaren driver is one shared by his counterpart on the F1 side, McLaren F1 driver Oscar Piastri. When I spoke with Piastri earlier this week, he touched on those same points.

“Quite a lot of people think that we just kind of turn up on the Friday, practice, and then do the race and then, like, that’s it. And then we come back a week later or two weeks later and then we go again, but there’s so much more behind it that you don’t see,” described Piastri. “I guess with other sports, of course, you don’t see the practices and stuff like that, but it’s quite easy to, I guess, visualize.

“If you’re a basketball player, it’s quite easy to visualize that. You know, you go and play the game and then maybe you have a day off, but then you’re practicing and you’re doing drills, you’re doing passes, you’re playing practice games with your teammates. It’s quite easy to visualize that.

“With racing because we don’t have practice outside of it, and because you can’t just pick up a race car and, and drive it, I think it’s very hard for people to kind of understand that and what goes on outside of the races.”

Oscar Piastri of McLaren looks on during the F1 Grand Prix...

Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

Piastri also outlined something that many workers might also relate to.

Meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. Probably not what first comes to mind when you think of being a race car driver, but the sport requires lots of meeting time.

“We have so many meetings about, you know, what we would do differently and with the car, what we would do differently with the driver, what we do differently with the strategy. You know, so much discussion about all of that kind of thing. Then you go on the simulator, you try different things,” described Piastri.

Then there are the other commitments, like dealing with answering questions from people like me about how hard the job is.

“We have a lot of other commitments as well, outside of just the driving that I think most people don’t [understand] or maybe underestimate that. More of our job is probably spent with engineers talking about stuff, with partners who are funding our racing or helping us go faster.

“More of our time is probably spent doing that than actually driving the car.”

The relatability factor

In speaking with drivers over the past year another theme that emerged is the “relatability factor.”

Not everyone can dig into the batter’s box and try to hit a 99-mph fastball. Not everyone can try and back down Victory Wembyanama in the post. Not everyone can try and save a penalty kick from Lionel Messi, or put a one-timer past an NHL goalie.

But many people have driven a car.

That makes understanding the sport difficult, according to those who have been in the box.

AUTO: MAY 20 INDYCAR Series The 107th Indianapolis 500

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“It’s a lot harder than it looks on TV,” explained Rossi to me last week. “You know, I think that the biggest thing that we struggle with as a sport and this just isn’t specific to IndyCar. It’s the relatability, right?

“You can watch the NBA playoffs right now and go pick up a basketball and realize how hard it is to do what those guys do. You can’t watch Indianapolis qualifying and go get in an IndyCar and go try and go 234 miles an hour.

“Like, that’s, there’s no crossover there.”

Rossi even mentioned how people try and draw comparisons when speaking with him.

“And so I think what we struggle with is, is on TV you see us doing this and then you have some people who are like, ‘oh, well, I have a Ford Mustang and I drove 150 miles an hour on the way to work the other day and it’s like I can do that.’

“It’s like, ‘well, no, you can’t.’ But there’s no way to explain that to people. So I think that’s the hardest thing that we struggle with. But yeah, there’s no solution for it because like I said, you can’t just go pop in an IndyCar if you want.”

Rossi’s boss, McLaren CEO Zak Brown, mirrored those points when I spoke with him ahead of the Indianapolis 500. Before moving to the management side Brown was a driver in his own right, working through various disciplines including British Formula 3.

He too pointed to the relatability factor.

“Oh, it’s a hard sport,” started Brown. “I almost don’t know how you describe it.

“You know, I was at a [St. Louis] Cardinals game a couple of days ago and I love baseball and I think I know what a 95 mile an hour fastball looks like, but I don’t, and 70 miles an hour probably feels pretty damn fast.

“I think it’s the same.”

Brown then elaborated, drawing on conversations he had with professional baseball players to drive his point home.

“You know, I was talking to some of the ball players, [who asked me] ‘What would it be like if I drove a car when I crashed?’ Put aside crashing, you would probably think you were on the limit and that would be about a 65 mile an hour fastball.

“And, you know, so to describe what’s it like to be hit by Michael Strahan on a football field?The [Mike] Tyson punch feel like. What’s it like to go 240 [mph] around [Indianapolis Motor Speedway], what’s it like to hit a 95 mile an hour Roger Clemens fastball?

“I think it’s almost impossible to describe the level of which the difference between a amateur or semi professional.”

Brown then mirrored Rossi with his concluding thoughts.

“And so I think, because everyone drives, I think there’s maybe less of an appreciation. Because no one thinks they could get in a boxing ring with Mike Tyson. No one thinks they could hit a golf ball like Rory McIlroy.

“No one thinks they could.

“There’s some people that are like, ‘[w]ell, I drive fast.’

“So I do think there’s a lack of understanding with some people of just more how physically demanding race cars are,” continued Brown. “Time outs [in] all these other sports. [In race car driving a] time out is a five-second pit stop. Which by the way, it’s not a time out because you’re readjusting, you’re getting drinks. In Formula One, it’s two-second time out.

“It’s a sport of no timeouts [and] consequences that are pretty catastrophic if you get it wrong. [All] combined with the physicality of a race car.

“I just don’t think people that are that not that close to it, fully understand and appreciate what athletes these drivers are.”

Risking it all

Brown’s point regarding catastrophic consequences leads to our final section.

Risking it all.

Drivers push themselves and their cars to the absolute limit. Sometimes that can mean the difference, as Sargeant pointed out, to finishing Q1 in P20 or up in P1.

Sometimes it can mean a lot more than that.

In recent weeks F1 paused to reflect on this point, honoring 30 years since the tragic weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. F1 lost two drivers that week, rookie Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying on Saturday, and the legendary Ayrton Senna in the race a day later.

While that weekend helped propel a safety movement within F1 in particular, the risks are always there. The opening lap crash in the Monaco Grand Prix last weekend involving Sergio Pérez, Kevin Magnussen, and Nico Hülkenberg may be a good comparison point, as all three drivers walked away despite suffering substantial damage to their cars, Pérez in particular. Images of debris flying as all three cars crashed into the barrier have made the rounds on social media, and the sport itself shared this message on Thursday, noting the photographers who were also in harm’s way:

But risk — severe risk — is always at play.

Alpine reserve driver Jack Doohan made that point critically clear to me when we talked ahead of the Miami Grand Prix.

“It’s a unique profession. There’s a common, I guess like misconception that there’s now a lot of safety. Obviously, we’re very well looked after with, with our equipment with how far regulations [have] gone,” described Doohan. [But] there’s still some circuits, some places, and some examples where your life is on the line.

“So juggling that motorsport is also dangerous and that it’s not just like a given that everything is always gonna be ok, you know, mentally, but as well, you know, it’s a cruel world outside.

“So it’s a difficult world that we live in that we’re competing in.”

Doohan revisited that point later in our conversation, when i asked him which of Alpine’s new investors he was most excited to meet. Last season a number of athletes joined Alpine’s ownership group, including Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce.

Doohan’s answer? Former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, and for an unexpected reason.

“Anthony is also in a position where, you know, your life is on the line. You’re getting hit in the head, or hitting your opponent in the head, to win a fight.

“And it can be life or death.

“So he’s in a similar position where he’s putting all his eggs in the basket. So great to speak with him and understand his mentality.

“Because there’s a lot that goes into that for sure.”

Indeed there is.

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