Friday, 27 April 2012

GRAND PRIX DRIVER FITNESS: FROM NUVOLARI AND CHIRON TO SCHUMACHER AND VETTEL


Vettel

Today’s 300-kilometre Formula One races are over within one-and-a-half to two hours. Television shows the drivers postrace, drenched in sweat, some looking tired, others like Schumacher and Hamilton, as if they could do the race again. We read of their hours of supervised, personal-trainer routines in gyms, supplemented by jogging and cycling. The pre-race treatment by physios and masseurs. Dominating all are the specialised neck exercises to withstand the exceptional g-forces attained on corners. Such is this strain that even super-fit Michael Schumacher had to abort his 2009 comeback for Ferrari, due to a neck injury from several months earlier.

Consequently many of today’s fans denigrate the fitness of drivers from earlier times. Their cars with hard, narrow tyres could hardly pull the skin off a rice-pudding in terms of cornering g-forces. The drivers did not even need to be strapped into the cars. What about the ‘non-sixpack’ midriffs of champions Fangio and Ascari and of more corpulent winners Gonzalez and Campari ? Proof surely that these turkeys would not be fit enough to compete with today’s slim, trim and superfit stars?

The Fifties
Gonzalez
And yet, how could Fangio in his forties and Ascari in his late-thirties, have competed and won regularly? Especially against drivers ten years and more younger, some as gym-fit as Stirling Moss? Races then were 500-kilometre, 3-hour affairs. The cars were fairly big, heavy, wire-spoked wheel, front-engined machines. How was 44 year old Fangio able to drive through the heatwave of the 1955 Argentinian GP without relief to win, while other much younger drivers, including Moss, Hawthorn, Gonzalez and Musso, shared their cars with two and more drivers, as they wilted in the heat? This in the days of front-engined cars. As Moss stated, the change to rear-engines in the late fifties made driving so much more comfortable and less exhausting. Cockpit heat and oil fumes from the front-mounted engine, gearbox and radiator were no more.

What of earlier years?
Nuvolari
Take the 1931 season: the French, Italian and Belgian Grands Prix were each of 10 hours duration! Despite two-drivers-per-car, each man covered 600 to 800 kilometres in a race which started at eight in the morning and finished at six that evening! The season’s other events featured the usual one-driver-per-car. Longest was the Targa Florio, won by Nuvolari/ Monza Alfa Romeo in 9 hours and 27 seconds! The shorter races, such as the German GP at the 22 kilometre Nurburgring and the Czech/Masaryk GP at the 29- kilometre lap Masarykring, each lasted four to four-and-a-half hours. More than twice as long as today’s F1 events. The winners of these epic contests were Nuvolari/Alfa Romeo Monza, Chiron and Varzi/Bugatti T51, Caracciola/Mercedes-Benz SSKL and the Maseratis of Fagioli and Ernesto Maserati, who predated Brabham’s owner-winner feat by over 30 years. 

Old cars
Chiron
In the seventies Stirling Moss test drove a 1973 Tyrrell-Cosworth and a Bugatti T51 at Donington Park. He thoroughly enjoyed the Tyrrell for its lack of vices, particularly for the way it held the driver in place, allowing him to do his job so much more efficiently than the cars of his day. After just three laps in the Bugatti he pulled into the pits, exhausted from just from holding himself in the seat! And this on a smooth, tarmac surface. How did Chiron and Varzi manage over four hours racing in the blue cars? And how about Caracciola with the huge, 1200 kilogram, cart-sprung, supercharged, 7 litre SSKL? As well as winning the German GP, Rudi had managed a phenomenal ‘first non-Italian driver-and-car’ Mille Miglia win in 1931. This preceeded Moss’ feat by a quarter of a century. In addition Rudi drove the car from Stuttgart to Brescia and back again after the 1000km race! What of Nuvolari’s 9 hours over Sicily’s unmade roads? Anyone who has driven a pre-WW2 racing car knows how uncomfortable they are; bouncing and lurching along on their stiff leaf springs, solid axles and hard, narrow tyres. The shapeless and upright seats, dust and oil fumes pouring in from the engine, gearbox and open floor. Throw in the rough, unsurfaced roads of Sicily and such feats beggar belief.

Stamina of the early drivers
There is no question then, that the levels of stamina, mental and physical fitness required in earlier years must have been exceptional. The physical wear-and-tear was far severer than it is today. As historic racer Irvine Laidlaw said in 2009 of his Monza Alfa Romeo: “I did not enjoy it, the suspension was so hard, it was so uncomfortable and exhausting to drive. I spent more time two inches above the seat than on it!” Modern-day drivers are ergonomically-seated, well-strapped in and the loads and road shocks are spread through a far greater area of a driver’s body surface than they were on the short, non-supportive, small, upright seats of yore. Add the poor quality roads, far longer race distances and duration, heat from front-mounted radiators and engines, and there is no doubt about the stamina required.

However, I do not subscribe to the clichéd opinion of some of the older generation, who claim that “men-were-men in our day, unlike today’s cosseted stars”. I reckon that had Prost, Schumacher, Alonso or Vettel raced pre-War, they’d have done whatever it took to win then. Just as Nuvolari, Chiron or Caracciola would have been at the front had they been racing today. All had the sheer desire, will and talent to win; their bodies and minds would have coped.


© Patrick O’Brien. Nothing from this page can be used without the permission of Patrick E. O’Brien.

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