Despite taking place at night, this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix is one of the most physically intense events on the calendar – and one of the biggest challenges is the loss of mental focus due to hydration.
When the floodlights come on in Singapore, the ambient temperature is often still around 30 degrees and at this time of year the humidity is an uncomfortable 75 percent.
Drivers’ bodies and brains are already under pressure because of the unusual night-becomes-day timetables they have to keep, but in the narrow tight cockpits, with thick fire protective clothing restricting cooling, the loss of fluid can lead to a significant reduction in the ability to concentrate during the race.
“It is probably the most demanding circuit of the year for both driver and car,” claimed Williams chief race engineer Xevi Pujolar ahead of this weekend’s race. “It's not only one of the longest races of the year, but they also have to cope with the high temperatures and humidity with the 23 corner layout offering almost no rest.”
During an average 90-minute race a driver sweats around three litres of fluid – that’s two litres per hour or around 50ml per lap or a can of fizzy drink every six and a bit laps.
In Singapore, the humidity makes things even worse on a technical course that demands high concentration.
A dehydration decrease in bodyweight of just two percent – equivalent to 1.4-litres for a 70kg driver - can significantly impair the brain performance, some claim by up to 20 percent, well before it starts to have physical effects.
The ability for a driver to make fast correct reactions to things that happen on track, known as Visuo-motor ability, is significantly reduced by a dehydrated brain while the working memory, the system that allows a driver to keep a limited amount of information active for a brief period of time, can also be impaired.
This is not only important in wheel-to-wheel racing but also on a single lap, when a driver must get his line absolutely perfect.
And that is why team nutritionists put so much focus on hydration.
When the body is in such a highly demanding situation as an F1 race, water is simply not enough and drivers use fluids filled with electrolytes and carbohydrates. An adequate blood glucose supply can reduce mental fatigue, while sodium speeds up fluid absorption.
Understanding just how much is needed is extremely difficult, however, because it is highly individualistic - a study of tennis players, for example, once showed variation in sweat rates between 0.7 litres per hour to 1.4 litres per hour in 60 percent humidity at 32-degrees.
The optimum levels depend on the sport, conditions and the athlete themselves – so top teams and drivers employ experts to go beyond the off-the-shelf solutions and develop special top-secret formulas based on highly detailed analysis of individual body performance.
Ahead of this weekend’s race, the drivers will have been preparing for hot highly humid conditions by gradually building training intensity and duration over a week or two.
Caterham’s Charles Pic explained: “We start preparing for races like Singapore in winter with hours of training, and then fine tune the physical and mental preparation in the week leading up to the race.
“I’ll arrive earlier than I would for a European race so I can start acclimatising to the heat, and my fluid intake over the week will increase each day to the point where I’ll take on up to five or six litres of liquid before the race starts.”
Pic, like all drivers, will have an assistant at the track whose job it is to make sure his weekend goes as smoothly as possible, from making sure he goes back to the hotel at a decent time to getting him the right hydration at the right points of the day.
McLaren’s fitness team even use psychological mood profiles to monitor how their drivers are feeling in the build-up to a race, showing them particular words that they have to circle and rate out of five, which indicate whether their mood status has altered.
In the same way that teams carefully measure the car’s fuel use to plug into their strategy simulations, they also monitor drivers’ weight before each track session to determine the fluid loss rate for that specific track in those conditions.
Drivers have a drinks bottle in the car, but to avoid carrying excess weight they have to limit what they put in it – meaning it can often run out if they keep pressing the ‘drink’ button on the steering wheel.
So they will deliberately over-hydrate before a race, drinking up to six litres of fluid and holding it all in ready to sweat out once their battling out on track.
And more than anywhere, Singapore is a place where this very scientific approach is a crucial part of the formula for success.