April 12, 2024

One of the most intensely demanding races in recent memory, last year’s Qatar Grand Prix gave some insight into the physical demands of piloting an F1 car in the toughest conditions.

But while that race at Lusail was an extreme example of the physical demands F1 drivers are subject to, it remains true that in a sport where drivers can regularly lose 2-4kg of fluid, burn through 1,500 calories and lose up to 5% body weight during races, maintaining peak physical condition becomes hugely important. And as well as strength and endurance, nutrition and hydration are key components in reaching peak performance – and staying there.

“The old saying you are what you eat is absolutely true,” says F1 trainer Mark Arnall, who over the past two decades has looked after F1 champions ranging from Mika Hakkinen to Sebastian Vettel, with the bulk of his career spent making sure Kimi Raikkonen was properly fuelled to finish every race weekend. And for Arnall, good nutrition starts with an understanding of how the driver is burning that fuel.

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“I always want to know exactly what’s going on within the driver’s body,” he says. “To begin with, that means doing a DNA test and really detailed blood, urine and stool analysis. By really looking into those tests, you get a very clear understanding of what’s going on in a driver’s body. And that gives you a solid baseline to work from. Once you have that, if there is an imbalance of any kind, you’re always thinking, ‘Okay, what can I correct with real food?’”

He adds: “The body is generally much better at digesting and absorbing real food than anything man-made. So that’s the first correction, making sure everything’s balanced with real food. Then you can start to be more specific. Creating tailor-made supplements and so on, bespoke solutions that work with that driver’s body.’

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 30: Esteban Ocon of France and Alpine F1, Jack Doohan of Australia and

Nutrition and hydration are key for an F1 driver to reach their peak performance and maintain their physical condition

And in terms of real food, the guiding principle for drivers is as straightforward as it sounds – keep it simple.

“As a driver, you want complex carbohydrates, which release energy slowly and keep you sustained during a race, as well as high quality protein, which might be chicken or fish,” Mark explains. “You want healthy fats. You want to make it as nutrient-dense and as easily digestible as possible. As a trainer, you look at every component of the driver’s diet and you tune it to their particular needs.”

Across a race weekend, that means keeping things simple, and with Arnall’s longest serving client, Kimi Raikkonen, that meant a clean and straightforward menu that remained the same throughout the weekend.

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“Breakfast was normally a combination of oats, chia seeds, MCTs [Medium-Chain Triglycerides] with oat milk, then you could add in berries and nuts, sometimes Greek yoghurt and occasionally a scoop of protein powder if needed,” he says.

“Lunch would be similarly simple. Grilled salmon, broccoli, carrots, quinoa or rice. And on the side, sliced avocados. You’re kind of ticking every box with that. You can manage flavours within that regime, so that it’s not relentlessly boring, but what you don’t want is anything too extreme, because the last thing you need when you drive in the car is any kind of indigestion or heartburn, as it becomes very uncomfortable.”

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JULY 01: Nyck de Vries of Scuderia AlphaTauri and The Netherlands and Yuki

How much an F1 driver weighs can impact on performance, so they follow strict diets to get the most out of their bodies and their machines

That simplicity, of course, comes in different forms depending on the driver’s preferences. Lewis Hamilton, for instance, famously switched to a plant-based diet in 2017 and said last year that for him the change has been positive.

“My taste buds learned about things that I never thought I would eat and that I now love: falafel, avocado, beetroot, fresh and dried fruit,” he said. “I’ve also noticed a marked improvement in my fitness level since I switched, which is motivating. When I switched to a plant-based diet, those highs and lows decreased significantly. I’ve also noticed positive effects on my sleep and on my health in general. The benefits keep coming, and I’ve honestly never felt better.”

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Sticking with a rigorous diet isn’t easy, however, as Carlos Sainz explained back in 2022.

“My diet usually consists of trying to get 130g of protein each day. That is about double, in grammes, my weight. If I weigh 70kgs, I look to double that in grammes, so 130 or 140. If I accomplish that, I know I’m not going to be hungry. My body isn’t going to crave carbohydrates and fats as much as it does normally, and I crave a lot of carbs and a lot of fats! Protein is a key factor in my diet.”

It’s a similar story for world champion Max Verstappen, who told GQ last year: “I love my food, and I like a drink here and there too, where possible. I’m one of the heavier drivers, so I can’t eat what other drivers do. If I really want to, I can easily gain 10 kilos.”

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 08: Race winner Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing

F1 drivers can regularly lose 2-4kg of fluid during a race, so taking on enough liquid is vital

But while drivers might find the regime tough, Arnall says their natural competitiveness means that in the vast majority of cases they embrace what is essentially a performance advantage.

“They understand that it will help to improve their racing,” he says. “Certainly with Kimi, he was like, ‘Give me what’s good for me, I’m not fussed about the taste, so long as it’s doing me good, then I’m happy.’ Some drivers might take more convincing, but I think when you’re looking for that last little bit of performance, you want to do everything right.”

While Arnall says that ‘real food’ is the central pillar of good driver nutrition, supplements also form a key component of diet, especially in the aftermath of a race, when a driver’s reserves of energy might be low.

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“After every driving session, whether it be Friday, qualifying or the race, there was one post-race formula I gave to Kimi that had all of the stuff he needed to help the recovery process. So within 30 minutes of the race finishing he’d have that in a bottle to guarantee that we put into the body what was needed from a rehydration and repair point of view.”

The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, hydration. While many drivers forego the use of the in-car drinks bottle at many races – with both McLaren’s Lando Norris and Williams’ Logan Sargeant saying they regularly spurn the bottle while driving – taking on enough liquid is a concern, especially at hot and humid events such as Miami, Hungary, Singapore and Qatar.

Sainz Estrella feature 4.png

Carlos Sainz has said previously that he has a great relationship with food despite the weight-related targets in Formula 1

“It’s something we work on massively in terms of just making sure the driver is fully hydrated for the race,” says Arnall. “Obviously when you’re sweating, you’re losing salts and you need to replace those, you need to replace those electrolytes. However, it’s a fine line. If you put too many salts into the body, the response can be water retention. This would be a problem as the driver weight could actually increase over the weekend.

“On a Sunday, you want to make sure that the body is fully hydrated for the race and if the driver then really needs to use the bottle in the car then it’s there, even if it is the temperature of tea after five or six laps!

“There are other things you can do to mitigate heat as well,” he adds. “With Kimi, we worked with a company based in Switzerland that created a cooling product. It was a liquid and I used to soak Kimi’s undershirts in it before sessions. It lasted pretty much 40 to 45 minutes in terms of cooling and after that it wore off. But if I could prevent dehydration kicking in for as long as possible at the start of the race, and if he could retain fluid longer than anyone else, I could potentially create an advantage for him.

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“So, on Sundays, he’d wear one on the way to the grid, then get out and go for a comfort break and then I’d have another shirt ready for him for the national anthem. If you look back over any old footage of the national anthems, even in the hottest places, all the other drivers have cooling vests on or overalls tied around their waists, but Kimi’s overalls are zipped right the way up, because he was bloody freezing!”

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 08: Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and Haas F1, Max Verstappen of

Arnall admits that his tactic to keen Raikkonen (R) cool before races often left the Iceman “bloody freezing”

Cold comfort for the Iceman, but the moral of the story is clear: fuelling a driver’s body correctly results in better performance.

“Driver nutrition is based on what you need to fuel the body with in order to compete,” Arnall concludes. “Part of that is fuelling for the race, part of it is how you help the body repair and recover from racing, and on top of that, you have the supplementation side and the hydration side. Put them all together and you should be in good shape to go racing.”


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