Fit for the Cockpit

To win DTM races you need not only a perfectly prepared car but also perfectly prepared drivers. We paid a visit to Paul Di Resta and his Mercedes-Benz teammates at their pre-season training camp.

Three minutes 40 seconds, and there’s just a hint of a shimmer as vibrations pass through the muscles between his shoulders and head. But it’s almost imperceptible, and his head drops no more than a few millimetres toward his therapist’s waiting hands. Paul Di Resta doesn’t need a safety net, and he ratchets up the tension in his neck another notch. His expression remains impassive – a face contorted with pain wouldn’t suit him somehow, nor would it fit in with the drill. To the naked eye, he’s lying comfortably on his back. Crucially, though, the couch reaches to the shoulders only – it’s Di Resta’s job to support the weight of his head. The first 30 seconds or so of this neck-training exercise pass relatively smoothly, even for those of us less used to physical exertion. But then the effort builds, until it becomes unpleasant. After two minutes the pain kicks in, growing increasingly intolerable with every second. A man of average fitness will last around two and a half minutes.

The 28-year-old Scot, however, is fresh from three years in Formula 1, where centrifugal forces of up to 5G – i.e., five times the Earth’s gravitational force – put the neck muscles to the sternest of tests. He’s not the type to give anything away. “I’d never say what the greatest challenges were for me in a race,” he explains. “That would be flagging a weakness to the other drivers.” This exercise provides little to encourage his rivals, that minor wobble hardly worthy of mention. And Di Resta is not interested in halfway measures, not when a target duration has been set. He passes the four-minute goal with something to spare. The Scottish driver packs another seven strength tests and an exercise ECG into the team’s morning at the sports medicine institute in Innsbruck, Austria. This performance testing is one of his first engagements since rejoining the DTM ranks. For Di Resta, renewing acquaintance with the German touring car series marks a return to the scene of his greatest success – also with Mercedes-Benz. From 2007 to the end of 2010 he notched up 21 podiums (including six victories) in 42 races, winning the drivers’ title in that final year. The Scot then moved to the Force India team in F1 where, although ultimate success was to prove elusive, he collected 121 World Championship points over three seasons.

Now, though, it’s time to prepare for the next challenge. This year, as every year, Mercedes-Benz has corralled its full squadron of DTM drivers for a pre-season training camp. Joining Di Resta in Austria for six days of fitness work are Gary Paffett, Robert Wickens, Christian Vietoris, Pascal Wehrlein, Vitaly Petrov, Daniel Juncadella and Roberto Merhi. Cars are conspicuous by their absence. The week begins with performance examinations, which Di Resta completes with the same poise and assurance as a lights-to-flag victory on the track. Indeed, he isn’t far off the maximum scores when it comes to push-ups, sit-ups and chin-ups, leaving every teammate in his wake. “He’s in great shape,” says the man at the centre of Di Resta’s fitness regime. Gerry Convy looked after his fellow Scot last year in F1, having previously worked with the likes of Pablo Montoya and David Coulthard. “A Formula 1 driver needs the stamina of a triathlete, the upper body and neck of a boxer and the catlike reactions of a fighter pilot,” says Convy. These are all attributes Di Resta has in his locker, and he’s in no mood to let them gather dust in the DTM. He trains for three hours a day – running, swimming, machines – and nowhere is he more at home than on his racing bike on 100-kilometre tours around his adopted Monaco. “If anything, I’m training even more now than when I was in F1,” he says. “It’s psychologically important never to let your standards slip,” agrees Convy.

A marathon tomorrow? Why not

Despite all that, the training camp is not about exploring physical pain thresholds. Yes, the drivers all need to be as fit as possible to withstand the enormous pressures of a DTM race. After all, they spend around an hour at a time inside the car at temperatures of up to 60°C under four layers of fireproof clothing, and lose three to four kilograms in sweat per race. A driver releases around 250 nanograms of the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline every minute of a race, says sports scientist Ingo Froböse. That’s double what he would produce at maximum attack on a bicycle ergometer. This constant hormone release drives his average heart rate in qualifying and the race to around 180 beats per minute – so a high level of endurance is essential. “If you asked me to run a marathon tomorrow, I’d like to think I could do it,” says Di Resta matter-of-factly.

So that’s the physical side of being a racing driver. But mental fitness is equally critical. The drivers have to make countless considered and instinctive decisions under the exacting conditions of a race in order to nail corner entry, braking points, etc. “A driver needs inner strength, willpower and impressive concentration,” says Toni Mathis, who has worked with Mercedes-Benz’s DTM teams for more than 20 years as a physiotherapist, nutritionist and training consultant, and put together this preparation week in his native country. To nourish these inner values, the Austrian employs techniques such as bagua. Rather than pushing your physical limits to achieve a goal (such as with push-ups), this special form of tai chi extends beyond muscle power alone. Instead, Mathis conducts the drivers in excruciatingly slow circular movements. Despite some initial snickering among his charges, Mathis knows from experience that bagua will help them improve their body control and find their inner strength.

What the drivers need is inner strength, willpower and impressive concentration.” Toni Mathis, DTM Team Training Consultant

There is also some unintentional amusement when Mathis hands the drivers a set of small balls. Drills include stepping back with one leg – on Mathis’ call – as they catch the ball, and another involves throwing two balls in the air and crossing their hands to catch them. This type of training, known as “Life Kinetik,” is already followed by professional soccer players at German club Borussia Dortmund and by skiing star Felix Neureuther. As well as the physical movements, the drills are also a workout for the brain, an exercise in overcoming coordination and visual hurdles. That makes them ideal for racing drivers, who have to look straight ahead and out of the corners of their eyes at the same time during a race. Not that there isn’t room for improvement with the ball in the air: “No way!” protests Di Resta, laughing, as he grasps at thin air, his right eye covered by a patch as part of the test. But a few days later, the Scot is completing the exercise with flying colours. Ask anyone who has worked with Di Resta and they’ll tell you he doesn’t shrink from a challenge. He’s a racing driver through and through, one with a steely will to win. You won’t find him constantly checking his weight or getting fixated on lactate stats and heart rates. But at the end of the training camp, he’s credited with an outstanding level of fitness. And there’s something even more important than that, he adds: “I know I can drive.”

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