Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, April 27, 1996

Stayin' Alive, or the Care and Feeding of a Formula One Driver

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
When some drivers get out of a car, says Erwin Göllner, a Formula One physiotherapist, ''you can't believe they've been driving through a whole race. They are completely dry. Others can barely get out and they are wet from head to toe. It just depends on their physical condition.''

While it's true that behind every successful driver is a great car, behind many of the drivers is an equally important physical trainer.

Göllner, an Austrian, follows the championship leader, Damon Hill, to all the races, and even spends time at the driver's home in Dublin to ensure that Hill doesn't sweat too much during a race.

''A race car driver must be born with the sense of speed inside him,'' said Göllner, ''but he may not be born with the physical strength and condition necessary for driving a Formula One car. That must be developed through hard work and a program of exercise.''

For that, Göllner created a metal device that looks a little like an electric chair in which the driver fits his personally molded racing-car seat and steering wheel. A computer attached to the machine simulates the G-forces of a real Grand Prix race. It presses against the driver's head, causing it to feel up to four times its normal weight.

''There is not a video image of a track on the computer screen,'' said Göllner, ''but instructions that tell the driver when to turn, and how much he should turn.'' The drivers arms also feel the corresponding strain turning the wheel.

Hill keeps one of the machines in his home -- where he also built his own gym -- and uses it when he is not driving, to stay in shape.

Other Formula One trainers depend on more earthy methods. Pierre Cornetet is an osteopath, a physiotherapist, a graduate in gestural and postural ergonomics, and he has also studied Chinese acupuncture. His driver, Ukyo Katayama, claims the therapist's physical presence alone is enough.

''I don't know what it is,'' he said to Cornetet over lunch recently at the track, ''but whenever you're around I don't feel any pains in my neck. When you're not here, my neck is stiff. I have pains in my arms and my shoulders hurt.''

That's why the Japanese driver for the Tyrrell team has insisted that Cornetet follow him everywhere for the four years he has been in Formula One. Cornetet also has worked with Philippe Alliot, in Formula One and at Le Mans.

Cornetet, 42, explains that Katayama's suffering, as with all drivers, comes from three main sources: muscular, cardiovascular, and mental.

''Since the entire body of the driver is strapped, clamped into the car,'' he said, ''the only part of the body that has movement, is the upper part. The neck muscles fight against the centrifugal forces during cornering, and the arms with the steering wheel.

The second response is the cardiovascular one, because of this physical effort of the muscles. And then finally there's the emotional stress that will also create a cardiovascular response.''

The basic physical training is therefore aimed at caring for the heartbeat.

Another important aspect of the trainer's job is guiding the driver's diet. ''The diet allows an amelioration of the physical condition, and reduces the negative effects of the physical effort,'' Cornetet said. ''Pasta is called for because the glucides are the base element of the muscular effort, and the cerebral one. Glucose is the fuel of the brain."

Cornetet's natural approach shows in his care of the psychological makeup of a driver.

''To go as fast as these guys go, they have to be motivated,'' he said. ''They don't drive the way you go off to buy a loaf of bread."

''The key is to try to help him improve the general quality of his daily life. A driver who eats correctly, does a sufficient amount of sport, and who knows how to organize his life around his passion so that it's not a source of anxiety, but rather a source of joy, will have all he needs.''

Success itself is dangerous, according to Cornetet:

''I've noticed that for many drivers, the higher they move up the hierarchy the more anxious they become, the more stressed out and nervous. This then becomes a major obstacle to continued success.''

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