Physical challenge of Malaysia takes its toll on drivers

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Lewis Hamilton’s victory at yesterday’s Malaysian Grand Prix might have appeared to be a formality, but it was in fact one of the toughest physical challenges of the British driver’s career. Indeed, all of drivers that raced at Sepang yesterday will have been through a strict preparation regime in the build-up to deal with the extreme ambient temperature and humidity.

In Malaysia, there are two types of weather: extreme heat and thunderstorms. Qualifying was a case of the latter as rain showers made conditions incredibly tricky, but the downpours stayed at bay for the race on Sunday. As a result, it was important for drivers to take on fluids and adhere to a preparation programme that would have been tailored individually.

More than ever, this year’s race was a challenge because of the new regulations. Although the weight limit has been increased, the majority of this excess has been taken up by the new engines. Indeed, many of the drivers were worrying about their own weight as a result. There were even stories of teams rejecting Nico Hulkenberg for a drive because he was a portly 74kg, whilst Mark Webber – another heavier driver – was pleased to be getting out of the sport so he could stop “living off of rabbit food” as he put it. In a feature on the BBC’s F1 coverage in the UK, Webber was found to have gone up from having 4% body fat to 5%. LMP1’s not that laissez-faire about weight…

Quite a worrying story began to circulate on Saturday after former F1 driver Martin Brundle reported that a current driver had passed out at a media event earlier in the week due to severe dehydration, which is oddly part of the routine in Malaysia. Just as racehorse jockeys deliberately become dehydrated to be as light as possible, some of the drivers were using a similar tactic. It’s quite a brutal and worrying programme to have on a race weekend.

After the race in the cool-down room, race winner Lewis Hamilton quickly grabbed the bottles of water on offer and drank away. His overalls were totally drenched in sweat following 56 hot laps in the Mercedes, whilst Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg also looked exhausted.

The proof of the physical brutality of the Malaysian Grand Prix was put into a figure by backmarker Max Chilton. The British driver finished for the 21st race in succession (he has never retired from a grand prix), albeit as the last car on track, but he tweeted after the race that he had lost 3kg in fluids because of the hot conditions.

Given that he usually weighs in at 65kg, this equates to almost 5% lost across the course of the race.

In the pursuit of performance, the drivers are putting themselves through some quite brutal preparation routines. Although Malaysia is something of a special case, it does get you thinking about the extreme steps that are taken in this sport.

To quote Ernest Hemingway: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering, all the others being games.”

Anyone that says Formula 1 drivers are not athletes are much mistaken.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.