Formula 1 and performance enhancement – an unknown culture

Overnight, the social media world was given an insight into the tough life of being a Formula 1 driver. Sergio Perez, McLaren’s new wonder child, tweets, “pff early morning , they just came to do Doping Test”. Fernando Alonso also tweets, “06:42h. Control antidoping.” A tough life.

It had never crossed my mind whether Formula 1 drivers were engaged in the use of performance enhancing drugs. The inherent safety requirements in Formula 1, and the party life associated with it, never really tweaked my curiosity. One would think, the drivers would simply be smart and responsible enough, to stay clear of anything that could jeopardize the safety of themselves or others on the track, and as such, the party life generally starts on Sunday afternoon after a big race, not the Friday or Saturday night beforehand. Focusing on performance, drugs and alcohol obviously having their own detrimental affects, could a Formula 1 driver gain a competitive advantage through the use of performance enhancing drugs, or other doping methods?

Throughout history, Formula 1 has had it’s fair share of controversy. Money, politics and safety are regular topics of controversy in this sport, with some drivers earning some $20million a year for the privilege of driving the fastest cars in the world, world fame, and “that party life”. But for this privilege, a driver must be at the top of his game.

The official Formula 1 website states:

“The vast loadings that Formula One cars are capable of creating, anything up to a sustained 3.5 g of cornering force, for example, means drivers have to be enormously strong to be able to last for full race distances. The extreme heat found in a Formula One cockpit, especially at the hotter rounds of the championship, also puts vast strain on the body: drivers can sweat off anything up to 3kg of their body weight during the course of a race.”

The likes of Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso to name a few, are proponents of social media, and will do nicely as an example of how much training goes in to being a Formula 1 driver. As a Mark Webber fan, I closely follow his posts, and his off season training regime. Perhaps one of the more “out there” drivers, Webber operates what is known as the “Mark Webber Challenge“, a grueling 350km event combining running, cycling, swimming, rock climbing and abseiling. Webber’s own participation in this event is truly a testament to the fitness level of a Formula 1 driver. Button and Alonso are also keen sporters, with both regularly updating the social media sphere with their training regimes, whether it’s a casual bike ride or professional shoots from their gymnasiums.

Lance Armstrong’s recent fall from grace, caused a profound ripple in all aspects of sporting. The IOC went so far as to suggest the removal of cycling from the Olympics, and perhaps every other sporting organisation around the world began cracking down and investigating the use of performance enhancing drugs and doping almost immediately after Armstrong’s admissions. As an Australian, I was disgraced by what was subsequently announced as a number of our domestic sporting teams having engaged in performance enhancement programs. It is perhaps no surprise that Formula 1 at the peak of motorsport, also came under fire.

Webber posted the most profound article in response to Armstrong’s downfall, and it was evident that Webber was unimpressed.

“I got to spend some time with Lance, did some rides with him and went to his ranch when I was in Texas after the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix.

It was such a big thing for me at the time. I jumped into Dead Man’s Hole with him and some of his mates; it’s a place he describes in the book as making him feel alive after his cancer survival.”

As perhaps one of Webber’s mentors, Armstrong had failed him once before, but the admission (and original defiance) was the nail in the coffin for Webber. Webber goes on to note that the continued defiance, cheating of the system, and the treating of all of his fans/followers as mere “idiots”, gains Armstrong zero respect, and that karma eventually has its turn.

With such a vocal article, the disappointment and disgust, at least from Webber’s point of view, is evident. He paints a picture that surely depicts himself as a clean Formula 1 driver. Webber’s own fitness and outgoing sport involvement is truly down to hard work, and it is evident from other driver’s postings on social media, that they too spend hours training every week, ensuring their bodies are up to the challenges of Formula 1.

In addition to Webber’s own grilling of Armstrong, he also commented on November 2nd 2012 in regard to Moto2′s Anthony West, a fellow Australian, who had been found to be using the stimulant Methylhexaneamine. Webber goes on to say, “I’ve always been championing the idea to do more of it (drug testing), but the FIA have never really been that strong on it. … You know, with what’s at stake, the money involved and all that type of stuff, people do things.”

The FIA medical delegate, Jean-Charles Piette, comments that “if a soccer player takes some drugs, it is a risk to his health, but not to the team or to the spectators. In a motor race, if a driver takes some drugs, the potential risks are not only to the driver, but also to his colleagues on track, to the spectators, the marshals… They have to consider people beyond themselves.” It is evident that Formula 1 would have a low tolerance of drug use, but at present, very little is done about it – instead it is perhaps part of the en-grained safety aspect of the sport, and drivers are perhaps more ethical in their training and preparation.

Kate Walker, in the same article, comments “cheating scandals in the paddock tend to be about the machine, and not the man behind the wheel.” Certainly, the 2011 and 2012 seasons proved this to be the case, the likes of Adrian Newey’s technical brilliance at Red Bull consistently coming under fire for pushing the boundaries of the FIA regulations with regards to numerous features on the RB7 and RB8, as well as teams such as Mercedes with their “double DRS” technique in the 2012 season. The focus is almost never on the driver cheating, but who has the better car, or, whose car fits within the stringent FIA regulations. Very rarely does the driver come under fire, unless an on track driving infringement occurs.

Certainly performance enhancement is an aspect of Formula 1 that is grossly overlooked. Drivers are expected to be incredibly fit and well conditioned for the sport, and it is evident that some drivers take this more seriously than others, mostly through legitimate physical and mental training and conditioning. Some drivers simply know how to drive better, also, and this may be a result of their own mental training combined with experience.

What is perhaps overlooked, is the other possible uses of drugs and doping in the sport. Fitness and raw performance is often the most notable goal, but in a sport as demanding and fast paced as Formula 1, drivers require very high levels of concentration and quick response. These are perfect areas for the use of performance enhancing drugs, to improve a drivers reaction, to make them more alert and to have somewhat of a mental advantage over other drivers. But the risks of such drug use are relatively unknown. Back to Piette’s comments:

“We have some drugs in medicine that can help you focus attention,” Piette reveals. “…Legal and illegal drugs. Some of the former are employed for rare brain disorders where you find you sleep abnormally to help make people alert. This is also used in the Army, by commandos, to stay awake for consecutive days. So that’s part of it. And these kinds of drugs are tested for.”

Safety is an aspect of Formula 1 that through the years has caused mass controversy,  notably (and, sadly, only) for the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at the Sanmarino Grand Prix in 1994. It is a sad testament to the sport that a death of a great was required to introduce radical safety reform, but the sport will be forever grateful for Senna’s safety concerns leading up to his death. Performance enhancement is just another safety concern which is yet to be addressed, and it should not again be an issue of “when someone dies” for reform to be introduced into the sport.

In a highly competitive and professional sport such as Formula 1, there is no place for performance enhancing drugs and doping, but is it only a matter of time before someone gets caught out? What is evident, the culture of drug use (if used at all) within Formula 1, is unknown, and we may never know.

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