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Friday, March 19, 2004
Drivers trained for humid race

By Dan Knutson
Special to ESPN.com

SEPANG, Malaysia -- It's not the heat, as they say, it's the humidity. The thick, steamy, energy-sapping humidity envelopes you the moment you step out of air-conditioned coolness here in Malaysia.

Welcome to the Malaysian Grand Prix, whose logo is "The World's Hottest Race." That should read the hottest F1 race, because no doubt some of the mid-summer NASCAR races can top this. And the upcoming Grand Prix of Bahrain is definitely going to be hotter than this, but it will be a dry desert heat.

At Malaysia's Sepang circuit during the first day of practice on Friday, the thermometer was already reading in the 90-degree range by 10 a.m. and it was heading for the 100-degree mark. The humidity was oppressive, almost syrupy.

For the drivers, of course, it's a real torture test. Wrapped in thick driver suits, long underwear, gloves, fireproof hoods and full-faced helmets, it's stifling even before they climb into a cockpit where temperatures can top 130 degrees.

With the exception of Rubens Barrichello, who had to go back to Europe to test, all the F1 drivers stayed out between the races in Australia and Malaysia so that they could train in the heat and humidity.

"Malaysia is a very tough race on a physical level, with the drivers facing incredible heat and humidity that can cause them to lose up to four liters (a gallon) of fluid," said Mark Arnall, the personal trainer and therapist for McLaren Mercedes driver Kimi Raikkonen. "The drivers are working in a cockpit environment where dehydration will impact performance and concentration levels.

"The more prepared the driver is, the better equipped his body will be at coping with these stresses, and consequently the drivers stay out in the region to train in a similar environment. It takes the body around 10 days to get used to heat with the majority of adaptation occurring within the first three to four days"

Raikkonen and teammate David Coulthard went to Thailand to work out in the heat. Maybe it paid off for Raikkonen, who ran the fastest lap in Friday's afternoon practice session.

" Obviously from a team point of view, in terms of packaging, they are not so keen to have it in there but I have requested it will be in for this weekend. "
 David Coulthard on the use of in-car water bottles

"We are looking to get the body used to taking in a greater amount of fluids to replace what is lost through sweating," Arnall explained of the Thailand adventure. "We pay particular attention to the fluid levels and which types of fluids we use. For example, drinking just water in this type of environment can actually dehydrate you further.

"Our aim over the period of time leading up to the race is to try to get the body used to taking in more fluids, while during the race weekend itself we just try to ensure that we re-hydrate the drivers after free practice, qualifying and the race as effectively as possible."

All F1 drivers are really fit, so that is not the issue. You no longer see situations like in 1981 and 1982 when Nelson Piquet twice collapsed on the podium after a Grand Prix. Michael Schumacher -- who never seems to sweat -- raised the whole fitness regime bar for F1 drivers to a whole new level.

Mark Webber is perhaps the fittest F1 driver today, and he and Jaguar teammate Christian Klien went to the Malaysian island of Langkawi to prepare for the race. Workouts included jogging and lifting weights while wearing their driver suits and helmets. Former F1 driver Eddie Irvine used to do push-ups in the sauna before the Malaysian Grand Prix.

Renault drivers Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli went to the Maldives islands, located in the Indian Ocean near India, before this year's race.

"We relaxed a little bit," Alonso said, "and we did a lot of preparation for this race. The temperature there was quite similar to here, so we brought the two trainers with us and we worked very hard. We did different things: snorkelling, beach volley, the kind of things that you can't do in Europe at the moment and it was quite fun."

The Renault drivers also played soccer and tennis. Their physical trainers proved to be the better tennis players.

"The physios won," Alonso said. "We are very disappointing. In doubles it's Jarno and me against them, and we lost every day."

Once in the car, the drivers say the heat is not too bad as long as they are moving and there is some airflow through the cockpit. If things go wrong, however, then they start to suffer. Last year the scoop that directs air into Ralf Schumacher's helmet got ripped off.

"The temperature in the helmet was stiflingly hot, making it hard to drive," the Williams BMW driver recalled.

As for this year's race, he is not too concerned.

"I think that besides losing fluid it is not a big problem," he said. "It really depends on how hard it is to drive. When I won here two years ago it was a nice easy Sunday afternoon drive but last year it was more difficult. It depends whether the car is easy or difficult to drive."

Last year, Ralf's teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, got a bit parched because the onboard drinks bottle in his Williams stopped working.

Iron man Coulthard didn't even bother taking a drink during the last couple of races in Malaysia.

"I haven't had (a drink bottle in the car) over the last several years because of not having run it in other races," he said, "and the one time I did run it here it was a relatively straightforward race and I never used it until the in-lap.

"Obviously from a team point of view, in terms of packaging, they are not so keen to have it in there but I have requested it will be in for this weekend."

If it rains on race day as predicted, it will be cooler and less physically demanding for the drivers. Still, it will be thirsty work out there. It's Malaysia. What else would you expect?

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.