Until his mid-teens Fernando Alonso was, to use his own words, "a bit chubby". "I was a typically well-fed Spanish child," he happily admits. Not any more.
Now Alonso, who turns 30 next week with two world championships and 27 race victories to his name, has the body/fat ratio of an Olympic runner, which is not altogether surprising as for an hour and a half tomorrow afternoon, when he pilots his Ferrari around the questioning curves of the Nürburgring, his heart will be racing at 170 beats per minute. That is the same as a marathon runner on completion of those 26 and a bit miles. For the Formula One driver, though, it is a marathon delivered at a sprint and it makes them athletes on a fitness par with any in the business.
"It is something that can't be seen from the outside," says Alonso. "It's difficult for people to understand how hard it is to complete 68 laps in Monaco, or to drive in Malaysia and Singapore with the heat and that terrible humidity.
"A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take some people round the circuit in a Formula One three-seater. I did three laps slowly, without taking any risks and nowhere near the limit of what the car could do. By the third lap, they were complaining of the neck pain because they couldn't take the inertia and forces that affect the car. So you can imagine how strong you have to be to be able to withstand more than 70 laps in an actual race, when you are driving flat out and then some."
The pressure on a driver's neck – they have to withstand forces of up to 5G during a race – is extreme and much of their gym work is aimed specifically at strengthening those muscles. When the G-forces are added to the helmet, drivers have 24kg to bear. But the importance of fitness extends below the neck too. They need to have a body/fat ratio of 7 per cent, the same level as a top-class athlete. The Mike Hawthorn-inspired image of the flamboyant, devil-may-care racing driver may still ring true as the champagne corks pop on the podium, but over the last two decades the approach to driver fitness has become ever more professional. It began with Michael Schumacher and has now become routine for all two dozen drivers on the Formula One circuit.
Jenson Button has become an adept triathlete, Mark Webber organises – and competes in – a five-day "adventure race" in Tasmania, while Sauber's drivers, Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez, spent the pre-season in a snowbound fitness camp in the mountains surrounding the Walensee lake in Switzerland, cross-country skiing and mountaineering. During the season, Sauber encourage their drivers to play badminton. Alonso's pre-season preparations tend to be more straightforward than those of the Swiss team.
"During the winter, the training is more physical – I spend time in the gym to build muscle and get to a good base level of fitness," he says. "The gym training sessions are long and very boring: you have to have a lot of willpower to make yourself do them. Then, during the season, our physical preparation is mainly games: football, tennis, cycling. It is less intense, not as hard, and a lot more enjoyable."
Cycling is something of an obsession with Alonso. He has flirted with the idea of setting up his own professional team, with his friend and compatriot Alberto Contador as the star name. In the past he has trained with another Spaniard, the 2008 Tour de France winner, Carlos Sastre. "I love cycling," says Alonso. "I am really passionate about it, so training with the professionals is a real gift. I really enjoy it, of course I find it hard on the hills, but they help me along if I am struggling. The most boring thing by a mile is the gym. I much prefer open-air sports."
Since 2001, when he made his Formula One debut in the Australian Grand Prix, Alonso has worked under the guidance of two physiotherapists, Fabricio Borra and Edoardo Bendinelli, who oversee his training and physical preparation during the close season and in the build-up to the races. They also supervise – or at least attempt to – his diet. "They help me during a grand prix, from Thursday to Sunday," says Alonso. "Then when I leave the circuit until I return after a few days, I am free. They have tried sometimes to tell me what I should eat between one race and the next, but I don't really take any notice! When they are not controlling my diet, I eat meat, which I much prefer to fish."
The reason for Borra and Bendinelli trying to steer their charge towards fish is that drivers have to guard their racing weight carefully. But the basic pre-grand prix diet in Formula One differs little to that of many sports, with the emphasis on carbo-loading. "On the day of the race at about 10.30am we have pasta," says Alonso, "which is quite hard because at that time in the morning you don't really feel like a plate of pasta."
Of equal importance ahead of a race, particularly at the hotter circuits, is fluid intake. Squeezed into their cockpits, swaddled and sweating in their overalls, helmet fixed tightly in place for 90 minutes, drivers are at high risk of dehydration. "There are some [grands prix] where you end up exhausted, tired because of the heat and humidity," says Alonso. "That is normally what affects us the most. So in grands prix such as those in Malaysia, Singapore, Bahrain we get very dehydrated. It's not muscular tiredness but rather more generalised – you feel low.
"We carry a little less than a litre of water in the car. Sometimes it works, other times not. In a grand prix where it has been very hot and then you have to be on the podium so quickly after the finish that they do not give you time to do anything, there are times when the anthems can seem very long. All you really want to do is catch your breath."
The British Grand Prix at Silverstone two weeks ago, the ninth of the campaign, brought Alonso, and Ferrari, a belated first victory of the season. He set the early pace in practice yesterday – at a venue where he won last year – suggesting the possibility of a Ferrari resurgence over the remaining 10 races, and also backing up Alonso's assertion that his strengths lie with a combination of his mental approach and competitive spirit.
"The physical aspect is important at the start of the season," he says. "But by the time all the drivers get to about the eighth or ninth race, we are physically much stronger and we don't have so many problems. From then on it is mental strength that is more important.
"I know I will never stop trying. I hate losing. That is why I never give up. If I finish a race and I am 100 points behind the championship leader, it doesn't matter because in the next race I will try to win again.
"Everything I have done up to now has been more than worth it – all the sacrifices I have had to make since I was a child. Every drop of sweat along the way has been worth it to get to Formula One, to win."
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