Sports Personality of the Year: how much ‘sports’ is in F1?

On Sunday night, the UK was treated to a new Sports Personality of the Year. Look, I’m just going to put a big fat disclaimer here: I didn’t watch much of the awards, and don’t know too much about sports outside my narrow sphere of interest. Which, in case you were wondering, includes running, pole, anything Aussie is in at an international level (I’m such a fairweather fan). And AFL.


Anyway. Sunday was the night when the UK’s top athletes get the chance to be in the spotlight when they dressed in all their finery: when they aren’t all tuckered out from finishing their particular event. Lewis Hamilton, F1 driver,was crowned Sportsperson of the Year, with Rory McIlroy, golfing youngster, coming second, and Jo Pavey: AWESOME runner, placing third.


Lewis Hamilton with his Sports Personality of the Year trophy. He looks thrilled.

Now, don’t be too surprised, but I was all for Jo winning. This year she achieved gold at the European Championships in the 10,000m. Not only that but she did it 10 months after giving birth. Not only that, but she is also the oldest female in Europe to do so. I mean…. what can you say to that?


Ladies and gentlemen: Jo Pavey.

Twitter erupted when Hamilton won, and in the spirit of the moment I might have retweeted something less than encouraging like ‘Driving is not a sport’. Not very sporting of me I know. And then I realised that I actually know nothing  about Formula 1, so perhaps my judgement is a little misplaced. I’ve seen ‘Senna’ , but that’s about it.


Wikipedia (the God of all unanswered questions) says that ‘sport’ is ~” usually competitive physical activity which, through casual or organised participation, aim to use, maintain or improve physical ability and skills while providing entertainment to participants, and in some cases, spectators.” So I decided to look into it: just how sporty does an F1 driver need to be??


In short, the answer is very. Although they are driving a car, there is a lot of physical exertion involved. According to The Telegraph, drivers “manoeuvre 691kg cars at top speeds of 300kph, endure forces of 5g, burn 1,400 calories and lose up to 3kg of body weight in sweat during a race. What’s more, they do it 19 times over an eight month period.” (source).


3kg of sweat?! What the heck? Basically these guys need to be both as strong as possible and as light as possible at the same time. Drivers work towards maintaining 10% body fat, and 8% is considered good. After qualifying, they can afford to put on a little weight to account for what they will lose during the race to ensure they don’t get disqualified.


Let’s talk strength. These guys have to handle some severe G-Force, and be strong enough to hold against it. Their helmet means their head weighs close to 8kg, and their necks need to be strong enough to stop their 8kg heads from flying around when driving. Going around corners will put an additional 25kg/4 stone on their necks, and they often experience a longitudinal G-Force of up to 5g when braking. That’s the equivalent of having someone who weighs 38kg/6st trying to rip your head from your shoulders.


Finnish driver Heikki Kovalainen stands at 1.70m (Lewis Hamilton is 1.75m), but has a neck of 16.5 inches. To prepare for specific routes, Kovalainen will sit in his helmet and his trainer will push his head in the same sequence of the track. They do this for 90 minutes at a time. In addition to the neck, the drivers must have exceptionally strong shoulders and core to withstand the pressure.

Kovalainen. Pencil neck he ain't.

Kovalainen. Pencil neck he ain’t.


Next, let’s talk cardio. Cardio is what helps these guys maintain their slight frames, but it also helps with their stamina. During the race itself, a driver’s heart rate is 170 bpm on average. Kovalainen says that before the race, his heart rate might reach 185-90 thanks to the adrenaline. To train for an event where his heart rate will be close to 80% of its maximum, he does both running and cycling, either maintaining a specific bpm for 90 mins, or doing intervals. Apparently Jensen Button favours cycling, where as Lewis Hamilton enjoys squash, water ski-ing and running. To handle all this, drivers tend to train twice a day. Lewis Hamilton reckons he trains four hours a day during the season to maintain his fitness, but more during the off-season.


Jensen Button: cyclist as well as F1 driver.

Jensen Button: cyclist as well as F1 driver.

Let’s put this in terms that I recognise: running. All this would be the equivalent of going on a tempo run for 90 minutes  on an extremely fast fairground Waltzer with a 38kg/6st human on your neck. I don’t recommend trying it out.


And if that wasn’t enough, they have to be mentally strong.  My three hour runs would sometimes pass in the blink of an eye as I let my mind wander, but when you’re driving at speeds of 350km, you can’t afford to relax even for a second! These drivers need to talk to their teams, and be aware of how the car is performing as well as what’s happening on the track. Kovalainen trains his mind by using a batak reaction board: hitting as many lights as possible in 60 seconds. Getting 60 at your first attempt is ok – Kovalainen himself can get 121.


So, the challenges of Formula 1 definitely meet Wikipedia’s criteria, and the drivers have to be pretty bloody fit to survive them. My re-tweet may have been ill-deserved, seated as I was on my sofa in my pyjamas eating chocolate. While I think it’s an achievement to drive from Birmingham to Durham in three hours (believe me, if you’ve seen the roadworks on the M1, you’ll think it an achievement too), I’m kidding myself if I think it’s anything like what Lewis Hamilton goes through when he gets behind the wheel at an event. They may be driving cars, but they are definitely participating in a sport.

Although I don't drive F1, there was a time about 9 years ago where I liked wearing helmets and chunky belts.

Although I don’t drive F1, there was a time about 9 years ago where I liked wearing helmets and chunky belts.


Ellie B





  1. Anon. Driver Fitness [WWW]. Available from: (Accessed 18th December 2014)
  2. Anon. Fit to Win – staying in shape for Formula 1 success [WWW]. Available from: (Accessed 18th December 2014)
  3. Bailey, M. F1 Fitness: how to get in shape like Jensen Button [WWW]. Available from: (Accessed 18th December 2014)
  4. Fox, G. Heart Rate 101 [WWW]. Available from: (Accessed 18th December 2014)
  5. Hamilton, L. Lewis Hamilton column: Training, his pet dog & car upgrades [WWW]. Available from: (Accessed 18th December 2014)
  6. Holt, S. F1 Drivers are Athletes too [WWW]. Available from: (Accessed 18th December 2014)