Health & Grooming

Fit for the fast lane

A new state-of-the-art facility at Silverstone is designed to ensure that amateur and professional racing drivers – and other athletic types – reach peak physical condition. Simon de Burton braves a battery of tests.

August 01 2009
Simon de Burton

Flaccid hot dogs and the acrid smell of fried onions sum up the type of food most people expect to find when they visit a British race circuit, so it was with some surprise that the last time I was at Silverstone I was presented with a crayfish cocktail starter followed by honey and thyme roasted Gressingham duck, then ginger and brandy poached pears for pudding.

Admittedly, we’re not talking about some drop-side burger van sitting in three inches of mud here; this is the health-conscious RS (from Rennsport – German for motor racing) restaurant at the Porsche Driving Experience Centre, a state-of-the-art facility opened at the end of last year that looks as though it might have become detached from a space station to land, conveniently, beside Silverstone’s famed Hangar Straight.

Porsche is coy about what it all cost, but there is speculation that considerably more than £10m was lavished on the glass-and-steel building, which is dominated by a rotunda with a rooftop platform that offers the best possible views of the entire Grand Prix circuit and the centre’s own private test track. The glass-walled RS restaurant sits below, with a display area on the ground floor housing a changing line-up of Porsche cars from past and present.

Also down there is the part of the building that I had been invited along to see. Some might refer to it as the torture chamber, but its real name is the Porsche Human Performance Centre, and it is home to £200,000-worth of Technogym equipment designed to ensure that the world’s top professional racers are as finely tuned as the cars they drive. Back in the good old days when motorsport was about gentleman drivers having a bit of fun, and the most prominent badge on James Hunt’s overalls declared “Sex – breakfast of champions”, being at one’s physical peak merely meant restricting your alcohol intake to one bottle of claret rather than two the night before a race.

In 1982, however, three-times Formula One world champion Nelson Piquet put driver fitness under the spotlight after winning the Grand Prix in his native Brazil when he stepped up to the podium to receive the laurels and collapsed from dehydration, ignominiously falling into the arms of Bernie Ecclestone. Since then, any ambitious driver has spent as much time in the gym as on the practice track, usually developing a bull-like neck and a grip worthy of James Bond’s nemesis Jaws in the process.

Having recently spent a day at the Circuit du Var in the South of France discovering what it is like to pilot a contemporary Formula One car, I can report that a modern-day F1 driver needs to be not just fit, but super-fit. After a mere 10 laps in moderate heat, I stepped from the cockpit with legs like jelly, fingers that were almost too weak to remove a glove and perspiration dripping from every pore.

And nowadays it is not just pro racers who seek to get themselves in tip-top condition, because amateur motorsport is thriving like never before. There are more than 300 track day events each year in the UK alone, plus numerous organised race series for everything from vintage motors to contemporary touring cars and historic Formula One machines – all of which make notable physical demands on the driver.

It is partly at these people that the Porsche Human Performance Centre is aimed, offering a range of driver-orientated fitness programmes from a basic assessment that costs £349 to a £3,995, 12-month, Pro-Am training package that comprises a motorsport-specific health regime and ongoing laboratory checks to ensure a driver is maximising their physical potential.

The facility even includes a “heat acclimation chamber” that simulates competing in the gruelling temperatures that competitors encounter in events, such as last April’s Sepang Grand Prix where the thermometer hit 33ºC, or the equally roasting Marathon des Sables, a six-day endurance run across the Sahara. Remarkably, five one- to two-hour sessions in the acclimation chamber during a five-day period can make an athlete 75 per cent more capable of dealing with the real thing.

“Acclimation” was not, fortunately, part of the programme during my visit to the Human Performance Centre where I underwent a comprehensive assessment of my physical ability to take part without flaking out behind the wheel.

Unlike James Hunt, my breakfast that day was not to be sex – in fact, I was sternly instructed not to have any breakfast at all. “You’ll need to be in here at 9am sharp having fasted for 12 hours before,” ordered the centre’s co-director Andy Blow over the telephone the previous evening. “As soon as you arrive we’ll do your blood tests, and then we’ll take you over to the restaurant for a healthy breakfast before getting down to business,” said Blow, a highly experienced sports scientist who has spent his entire career in motor­sport, training drivers for the Benetton and Renault Formula One teams, including Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Mark Webber.

I dutifully did as I was told and arrived on the dot for blood tests that determined everything from glucose levels to the amount of cholesterol blocking up my arteries. The former was normal, but the latter put the kybosh on starting any more days with a Ten Deadly Sins fry-up at Simpson’s in the Strand. Already feeling like a failure, I was then marched upstairs and given a “Porsche power breakfast” of porridge oats and berries soaked in apple juice, accompanied by fresh fruit and a nutritious smoothie, all of which furthered my glutinous guilt.

Back in the fitness centre, sports scientist Pippa Alford sat me down in front of the eyesight wave-scan machine that uses a laser beam to measure long- and short-sightedness. The process is 25 times more accurate than a conventional eye test, and can even detect higher-order aberrations of the eye that do not normally show up. The upshot was that my natural vision was up to scratch for racing – for the time being at least.

Next, I was hooked up to a machine called the InBody 720 that uses 1,000 different electronic pulsations, called high-frequency analysis, to assess one’s physical make-up, measuring everything from weight to percentages of fat, protein, minerals and muscle. Thankfully, everything proved to be within normal tolerances, although the results showed that, were I to get serious about competitive driving, I should lose a kilo in weight and gain 0.2 kilos in muscle.

A session on the Saccadic Fixator followed, a device that measures the spatial integration and eye-to-hand co-ordination that are so vital to a racing driver. The Fixator comprises a wall-mounted panel containing 33 LED lights arranged in three concentric circles, with the aim of the game being to extinguish the lights with a fingertip as soon as they illuminate. My assessment showed above average reaction speeds and good co-ordination, although I’m a long way from giving Jenson Button anything to worry about.

The Batak Accumulator, meanwhile, consists of a large, wall-mounted frame equipped with red lights that have to be touched as soon as they flash up at random within the field of peripheral vision during one test lasting 60 seconds and another lasting a full, and mentally draining, five minutes. I felt pleased with myself to have achieved 73 hits on the first test and 364 in the second, considerably more than a one-per-second average, only for my bubble to be instantly burst on learning that the record is held by F1 star Heikki Kovalainen who consistently achieves not one but two hits per second in the 60-seconds test.

Grip test next – somewhat above average as a result of too much wood chopping in the wilds of Dartmoor. Then, to round the morning off, I learned that the lungs are functioning properly with a shattering 20-minute cycling test, during which blood samples were taken to determine endurance capabilities, lactate threshold, maximum capability and recovery time.

By the end of it all I was more than convinced that I had earned my Gressingham duck, but Blow was quick to explain that the three-hour session was merely the groundwork needed to develop a suitable training programme for me: “The aim of the centre is to work with people on a long-term basis using evidence-based results.

“The first step is to make people aware of the areas in which they need to make improvements and build on those findings. Men are often unwilling to find out how healthy – or unhealthy – they really are, but our association with Porsche and motor racing makes the idea of doing so more appealing.

“We’re also finding that a number of clients are being booked in by their partners for a session to drive a car at the facility’s private test circuit, only to discover afterwards that they have also been enrolled for a Human Performance assessment – it’s often the only way to make them face up to the fact that they are not in the peak of physical condition after all.”

See also

Exercise