Is motor racing really a sport? I mean, anybody can sit in a car for two hours and drive fast, right? After all, the machine is pretty much doing all the work. The hardest part of the job is probably securing the driving licence in the first place.
Professional racers hear this kind of thing all the time. So for the sceptics and naysayers out there, how about embarking on a couple of hot laps around a racetrack to find out what it's really all about? You won't need to go that fast; 180-200kph should do the trick. Very quickly, you start feeling pain in the back and the neck, your legs become heavy, and working the pedals stretches tendons in your feet. As for the upper body, your arms need to cope with high G-forces through cornering, while the adrenalin and fear get your heart pumping. This is how you'd feel when driving fast, without wanting to crash, in a racing car that you'll never be able to afford. And these were only two medium-speed laps, without anyone else out on track.
How do you train? Easy: sports, sports, and more sports
Professional drivers are top-level athletes who know their body and spend several hours a day preparing it for the grind and effort it will go through during a race. "Formula E (FE) is not that different from the other single-seater categories," Renault e.dams driver Sébastien Buemi explains. The Swiss ace, who is currently leading this year's championship after three events (out of 11), can already boast wide experience in racing.
Buemi spent three years in Formula One at Toro Rosso (2009-11), won the 2014 World Endurance Drivers' Championship with Toyota, and finished runner-up in the inaugural Formula E campaign last year with Renault e.dams. "My coach and I plan my physical training over the entire season," he adds. "There is plenty of fundamental work, which features a lot of running, cycling, and swimming. The goal there is improve stamina.
"In order to build explosive power, I favour sports like football and tennis while also working out at the gym. At any rate, it is recommended to do plenty of sports. First, to avoid getting bored, but also to make sure you get used to dealing with unexpected situations. It's very useful in Formula E where you race on street circuits and very close to walls. By diversifying your training, you can adapt to these events where anything can be thrown at you."
As another motorsport jack-of-all-trades, Stéphane Sarrazin faces the same situation. Among his various commitments, the Frenchman competes in FE with Venturi. "Fundamental training is essential," Sarrazin says. "If you know your body will hold on under duress, that's one less factor you need to worry about. Personally, I very often go for a run, but I am also a big cycling buff. I'm lucky to live in the south of France where I can take my bike out to ride in the sun and on hilly roads." And if you needed any further evidence that Sarrazin's training is serious stuff, you should know that he has already entered several high-level long-distance cycling events.
Making sure you don't lose too much weight
With all this training, weight problems are not really an issue among professional drivers. It's extremely unlikely you'll see them head for Merano in Italy looking to shed a few pounds in weight-loss programmes like some football players do in the winter...
"I know my body very well," Buemi continues. "Before stepping on the scale, I can tell how much I weigh within 300g. With my helmet and racing suit on, I weigh 72kg. In the paddock, it ranges from 62-63kg for the lightest guys up to 80kg for the heaviest ones. Now, to be honest, the lighter you are the better."
What's more, drivers must always anticipate how much weight they will lose during a race. "Even if Formula E events are quite short – only one hour – you still drop between 1.5 and 2 kilos. You really have to take this into account, especially considering that there is a minimum weight for the car/driver to be met at the end of the ePrix.
"Since we're always trying to have the lightest car possible, you really need to be careful to stay within the regulations." This is why drivers go for electrolyte drinks for instance, as these take more time to be drained out of the body and ensure optimum perspiration control.
Staying focussed amid bruises and muscle soreness
FE meetings take place over a single day in city-centres and comprise two practice sessions (45 minutes then 30), one qualifying session, and an hour-long race. Compared to other motorsport events, the format is pretty short. And, with top speeds in the region of only 225kph, the G-forces absorbed by the driver, mostly through the neck, are less important. "Formula E is perhaps less intense than other faster categories held on permanent tracks," Buemi admits. "However, the cars have no power steering and are quite heavy, plus you are racing on street circuits with a lot of tight corners. This all makes it very taxing on the arms and upper body. Same for the legs, actually, with a brake pedal that is quite hard to press. You also take a fair amount of hits due to the bumps and holes in the track layouts, and your elbows are aching after repeatedly banging inside a small cockpit. All in all, you're usually pretty sore the day after the race."
In order to stay sharp, the FE championship leader recommends having a quiet week ahead of the race. "We often travel to the other side of the world, so it's better to take it easy and make sure you are fully focussed by the time you line up on the grid. To that end, you give priority to physical recovery and pay close attention to what you eat."
In a sport where quick reactions are crucial, vision naturally plays a major part. But don't worry if you did not have perfect scores in eye tests – you can still compete while wearing contact lenses.
"In the World Endurance Championship, especially at the Le Mans 24 Hours, I am used to racing in broad daylight, at night time, with the rising or setting sun in the eyes, so it provides good training to prepare for the ever-changing conditions you encounter in Formula E's urban environments.
"It's very difficult to work on improving your reaction time, no matter how hard you train. However, making sure you have the best equipment is one way to stay on top of your game. It might sound silly but a dirty visor can result in a loss of a few tenths. So instead of spending hours to try developing reflexes, you'd rather focus on this kind of detail. Reaction time is usually something innate, plus it tends to deteriorate as you grow older."
Nailing the car swap
Electric racing logically means no refuelling. However, batteries cannot yet last for the whole duration of the hour-long contest, which forces drivers to swap cars at the midway point.
"In order to nail this crucial phase, we rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse it again," Buemi says. "Everybody in the team knows what they have to do. It's an integral part of the race, but it doesn't pose a problem. I know exactly where I am supposed to stop, how I need to clamber out and how I must fire up the second car. It's quite fascinating for the fans to see, but from a driver's standpoint everything flows pretty naturally."
Well, that's not entirely accurate for the Swiss racer. "I am a bit superstitious in that I always exit the car on the left hand side. But sometimes in Formula E, you simply don't have the choice due to the way the temporary stands are set up."
Last time out in Uruguay, Buemi had to enter his car from the right-hand side – but that didn't stop him from winning the Punta del Este ePrix. He'll hope to repeat the trick when the championship reconvenes in Argentina next month and take another step towards securing this season's title.