Few races test the physical fitness of the modern-day F1 driver quite like the Malaysian Grand Prix at the Sepang International Circuit which was built in 1999 to host a round of the Formula 1 World Championship. Situated just 3 degrees above the equator, ambient temperatures average more than 30°C and humidity is typically around 70%, with torrential rainfall often a possibility.
“Racing in Malaysia… it’s like being in a mild sauna,” said Mercedes-AMG driver, Valtteri Bottas. “We have all of our gear on – plus the helmet – and the car is hot as well. The seat itself is warm, and then we’re surrounded in the cockpit by the electrical boxes. It gets really hot!”
At Sepang, cockpit temperatures frequently hit numbers approaching 50°C. And for the driver – cocooned in a hot, stuffy, confined space, tightly packaged themselves in layers of fireproof nomex and fighting extreme g-forces on their body – it’s a serious test of physical fitness.
For this reason, many drivers tend to arrive in Malaysia as early as possible in an effort to acclimatise to the heat and the humidity. Fortunately this year, the previous round was in Singapore which is essentially in the same region although being an island, things are a bit cooler – not to mention the Singapore race is run at night as well.
“It takes three or four days to get your body used to the heat,” explained Bottas. “You’ll start off with some training outside, so that your body can sweat properly. We won’t be able to withstand the heat like a local – but those days of acclimatisation make a difference.”
This is one of the races on the calendar where all the physical training drivers put themselves through during the off-season – and then maintain over the course of the year – really shows. During a typical Malaysian Grand Prix, a driver’s heart rate can reach as high as 170 beats per minute (BPM). A healthy adult human would normally have a bpm of between 60 and 100 if not under the stressful conditions of racing around a circuit.
F1 racers will burn up to 1,500 calories and lose around 3 litres of body fluid in sweat. Over a 90- minute F1 race (the total distance travelled at Sepang from start to finish is 310 kms), that’s roughly 5% of their overall body weight, making hydration management crucial if they are to see off the threat of fatigue.
“One of the main things is to keep hydrated,” Bottas said. “If you dip just once with your hydration, it takes a long time to get back on track. We have to drink lots of water as well as sports drinks containing electrolytes to keep the levels at the right place. You absolutely need to make sure you’re well hydrated.”
Many F1 drivers now wear a cooling vest pre-race while waiting on the grid to keep the harsh heat off them. “The vest isn’t actually cold – it’s at a comfortable room temperature,” he explained. “It takes the heat off rather than cooling your body. Body temperature rockets during the race, but the vest helps you to keep it under control before the start. Even if the vest saves you just 0.4 degrees in body temperature before you set off, that’s 0.4 degrees you’ll save by the end of the race – it can make a difference.”
During the race itself, drivers rely on the drinks bottle in the car. This is filled with a mixture of sports drink and electrolytes which helps to replace lost fluids from sweat. It’s a battle against fatigue. And if there’s any race you don’t want your drinks bottle to fail, it’s Malaysia or Singapore…
“We sweat more than 3 litres during a race like the one in Malaysia,” said Bottas. “If we can’t replace that, it affects our focus. Fatigue sets in. It’s more difficult to be consistent and, in the very worst cases, you can develop cramps or even problems with your vision.”
The end of the race is not the end of battling the gruelling conditions. Post-race, the immediate focus for the driver is on cooling their body and rehydrating. Those enticing bottles of water don’t last long in the cool-down room before the drivers have to go to the podium for the slightly sweeter taste of champagne!
And it’s not just the drivers who have to contend with the sweaty conditions. Working temperatures in the pit garage can also exceed 40°C in Sepang, with humidity often rising above 90%. It’s a ‘double whammy’, meaning increased sweat and a greater chance of dehydration for the engineers and pit crews. The team – especially the mechanics, who have to suit up during pit-stops – are constantly reminded to keep up their fluid levels, or risk dehydration.
Long-haul flights, too, have a dehydrating effect, owing to the recirculated air. So, the battle for the team starts before they even hit the track, on the flight over to Kuala Lumpur. Again, flying from Singapore isn’t so bad as it’s just 45 minutes and the track is right next door to the airport too.
For the Silver Arrows team, Hintsa Performance are on hand to ensure the team are well educated on staying hydrated so that everyone – from the drivers and management to the mechanics and garage technicians – arrive in the right state to go racing. From the balance between staying active and relaxing at the right times outside of work to managing water consumption and hydration sachets during busy periods and even levels of exposure to bright light, there are a plenty of tricks of the trade to keep everyone on their feet. No matter where you turn in Formula One, performance optimisation isn’t far away.
Handling the heat in Malaysia isn’t easy. The men and women soldiering through the sweat do all they can to stay cool as the title battle hots up in Sepang today. But it will also be the last time they have to come to Sepang and face such conditions since there will be no F1 round in Malaysia after this year.