As we approach the biggest motorsport race in Australia with one week to go (well Bathurst of course). I thought I'd shed some light on the physical requirements of drivers in the modern game and how Physiotherapy optimises their performance. As a Physiotherapist, I've consulted Athletes of many different sports; whether for injury prevention or injury management. The aim is always to ensure the Athlete can perform at their best as soon as possible after pain or injury or to ideally first prevent injury occurrence.
Motorsport however is like no other sport, closest I think possibly to cycling. For starters the drivers are in a seated position. The trunk and hips are fixed and the arms and legs move with varying amounts of force and a mixture of open and closed chain movement patterns. Effective trunk and pelvic stability is crucial to create a stable base to move on. This stable base is fixed to the seat with a harness but the G forces under braking and through corners still require central muscular control to maintain a stable position and keep control of the car. These G forces measured at equal to 15-20kg of force on the head and neck, and arguably up to 30kg of force on the back/trunk with cornering and braking. Cornering and braking requires a higher level of trunk stability control. Drivers get much of their 'feel' for the car movement through their hips and back. As the car moves around the driver get's feedback via the forces felt through their hips. Precision driving results from accurate car feel and control to ensure the fastest racing line is maintained.
I was lucky enough to do some hot laps as a passenger on board with Andre Heimgartner (Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport- V8 Supercars Driver) in Townsville a few months ago. I've had a bit to do with motorsport now and have been in a few cars (as a passenger, mostly Porsches) But what struck me most about the supercars was the sideways forces. They surprisingly rode the bumps of the street circuit fairly smoothly. Don't get me wrong, the experience of being in a supercar only for a few laps is unbelievable. It's still quite violent! Bracing yourself for the deceleration is hard and holding even your head still with the forces on your neck and weight of the helmet really tests you. Admittedly I didn't have a Hans device which helps support the head somewhat but I felt like I needed to use my hands to hold my head back into the seat. And it's hot, really hot. Andre kept looking over and giving me the thumbs up to make sure I wasn't about to pass out on him or more likely vomit in his car. And this is all after 2 laps. And yet Andre is such a fit athlete and calm driver he's casually grabbing the sequential gears and turning the wheel with one hand like he's cruising the countryside in Holden Statesman. I'm sure passenger laps feel like a walk in the park compared to the gruelling circuit at Bathurst for 25 odd laps straight.
So that brings me to discuss the specific conditions the drivers will likely physically encounter next weekend. Bathurst is the greatest endurance challenge of the season. The 1000km race is 161 laps and extends around 6 hours. Each car has a main driver and a co driver. The co drivers complete a minimum 54 laps. The Main driver can complete a maximum therefore of 107 laps total. In one stint therefore a driver may do one stint of around an hour or 25 laps as an example. A number of driver changes therefore occur as do pit stops to re-fuel and change tyres.
Significant repeated arm and leg force is required to handle the car. Heavy braking requires drivers to apply 80-100kg of force through the brake pedal which may occur 4 times per lap. Over 25 lap stint drivers would heavy brake over 100 times with the right leg. The action of the left leg on the clutch is also highly repetitive and carries a moderate amount of force. In addition to strength force for heavy braking, precise hip knee and ankle stability control is required to gently apply the right amount of force to the throttle or brake pedals at the right time. Holding the throttle (accelerator pedal) steady while being subjected to bumps and vibration requires an added element of hip, knee and ankle stability control through the right leg. The gear shifter also carries a moderate amount of force on the left arm either pushing or pulling for down or upward gear changes and combined with the 15-20 kg of force on the wheel with steering requires optimum endurance control at the shoulder girdle.
Cabin temperatures can reach over 50 degrees Celsius and reported body temperature of drivers can reach 39 deg Celsius, this is mostly due to the heat of the engine and brakes. It does vary a bit I'm told due to the outside temperature but not that much. It's more about the engine temperature. Drivers wear a protective suit which is fire retardant. This of course impacts on the body's ability to evaporatively cool itself. In built cool suits which pump water under the drivers race suit and air towards the helmet help. But these systems are not that reliable and can backfire when the dry ice freezes. The result is hot water being pumped in instead. So it is not uncommon for drivers to shut the cool suit system off and race without it. I once had a driver describe racing like 'going to the gym in your ski gear but the gym is inside a sauna'.
In terms of musculoskeletal pain and injury I've found drivers commonly suffer from neck and back pain, headaches and hip pain. These symptoms are often exacerbated with longer races where endurance brings fatigue. Ergonomics plays a huge part too. Just like in standard road cars and at the desks we all work at! (more on that in a later post). Years of go kart racing often since 8 years old has taken it's toll on many drivers spines. All of our back's are different and everyone needs a different approach and drivers are no different. It is essential the correct diagnosis is made and then a plan put in place to resolve the symptoms.
I work with drivers to first resolve symptoms with manual Physiotherapy treatment which usually involves joint mobilisation/manipulation, soft tissue release/massage, stretching, acupuncture and taping. Adding a rehabilitation plan which involves exercises as an adjunct to the athletes fitness program is essential. We want to change their body's habits to improve postural stability, mobility and reverse the reason's they are getting pain, numbness or pins and needles in the car or after racing. Of course neck and back strength and stability is the most important but also shoulder girdle control and good hip control.
Many athletes have fantastic fitness professionals/ sports scientists who look after their fitness, hydration and nutrition. I like to make sure I communicate regularly with the other members of the health and fitness team so we can help ensure our goals and plans for the Athlete are in sync.
Motorsport requires the highest levels of skill, concentration and physical fitness. Increases in body temperature have been shown to affect concentration. Having a high level of physical fitness and mental ability to cope with heat stress will help combat this. It's no surprise too that pain or musculoskeletal dysfunction can also cause a lapse in concentration and impact performance. A driver's physical optimisation in terms of being free from pain and injury is therefore paramount.
So as the Physiotherapist I'm trying to minimise a drivers musculoskeletal aches and pains and make sure they feel good the whole time they are in the car. No one wants to see injury decide a game or the race. The driver's ability and the performance of the team should decide the race.
I'm looking forward to some really exciting racing at Bathurst - Sunday 9th October.
You can follow my journey on instagram: @highline_active and at:
facebook.com/highlineactive as the Physiotherapist supporting Andre Heimgartner. Check out www.supercars.com for all the details and tune into the coverage on Channel 10 and a dedicated channel on Fox Sports 506 to see what all the fuss (and excitement is all about). V8 supercars is the third most watched sport in Australia (behind AFL and only narrowly to NRL), so get in on the action.
An just in case you were wondering, you don't need to be an Athlete to get the benefits of a Physiotherapy consultation from me. Check out www.highlineactive.com.au currently consulting in Camberwell, Toorak and Malvern (VIC). Get in touch and see how I can help you too: email@example.com