Since the first night race in 2008, people working in Formula 1 have gotten used to sticking to the schedule by staying up until dawn and sleeping until the early afternoon in an attempt to stay on European time. With the inevitable influence of jet lag on arrival, it is never an easy thing to manage.
The reality is that while sleep is always a topic of conversation in the paddock at the Singapore GP, it makes a crucial contribution to physical and mental fitness at any given time. For F1 drivers and team members facing a calendar with more and more night races and more travel, it’s an increasingly important question.
That’s why teams are looking for ways to improve the quality of sleep for drivers and team members.
“Sleep is the foundation for everything else we try to do in terms of wellness,” says Dr. Luke Bennett , Mercedes team physician.
“You can train hard, you can train well, you can eat well, you can do all of those things right. But if you don’t sleep well, you’re not going to get the impact that you need.”
“And that goes for the team members as well as the drivers or any other athlete.”
A former trauma specialist in Australia, Bennett volunteered at grands prix in Melbourne and Korea before joining Hintsa Performance , the organization whose physiotherapists work with many drivers and teams on the grid.
Over the last decade he has played an important, if underrecognized, role in helping Mercedes achieve so much success.
“In our sport, where technology is so important, I think human performance and well-being are really valued by teams,” says Bennett. “But it’s often not made a priority.”
“The budget cap has changed that. And now there’s a real emphasis on getting the most out of human beings traveling around the planet making a team work.”
“And that has gained even more urgency with a calendar like we’re going to have next year where the number of races will increase. And the geographic complexity of the calendar makes something like sleep an absolutely key part of performance not just of the pilots, but of the whole team”.
Keeping drivers mentally fit during a grueling Grand Prix weekend is a priority for the people around them, especially their physiotherapists.
“I think most people appreciate that driving that car for up to two hours is an extraordinarily physical experience,” says Bennett.
“But over the weekend, there’s also a huge cognitive demand on a driver. That steering wheel has 20-30 buttons and menus and sub-menus, sometimes even navigating from corner to corner.”
“Drivers have to attend about seven hours of engineering meetings during a grand prix weekend, and then countless other hours of marketing and media work, plus travel.”
“You can easily understand why sleep is not only a very important part of making sure that the physical preparation is where it needs to be, it’s also about making sure that they can still hit that limit lap by lap in an afternoon. Sunday when they have spent a very, very demanding weekend up to that point”.
When it was first included on the calendar, the Singapore circuit posed some special challenges for the team doctors and physios. Over the years they have learned to keep the pilots in top condition.
“There are some unique sleep and physiological stresses to this event,” says Bennett. “Theoretically, it’s run on European time, but we have all the artificial lighting incredibly bright. We get up in the mid-afternoon and sometimes finish after sunrise. So it’s not as easy as a race on European time.”
“It’s an incredibly disturbing week for sleep. Then we have a day back and a flight to Japan, where we immediately go to a daytime schedule. It’s easily the most brutal double we see on the schedule.”
“And in previous years, I think I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s been a survival exercise for most people. Now we have maybe less than perfect ways to manage that stress at a time in the season when the goals are often decided. championships”.
“Ideally, you start with the preparation before the trip. If you look at the daily schedule, you want the pilot to change a couple of hours, and that can be done effectively in the days before the trip.”
“You have to select the flight appropriately, depending on the time of day you want to arrive and your commitments. I have heard that you can even think about which side of the plane to choose the seat, because the light enters in different ways in the different areas of the plane”.
“Then we talk about when to expose yourself to light, when to maximize light exposure, when to seek darkness or a very shaded room, when to wear sunglasses late in the day, melatonin supplementation , and then exercise and meal times. All of those variables are part of a good jet lag plan.”
At the core of all of that is getting some decent sleep when the pilot finally makes it to his hotel room.
“Sleep has probably had a popular revival in the last few years,” says Bennett. “I think there’s an appreciation that it’s not just the part of the day that gives way to all the other activities. It’s very important to solidify the rest of the important physiology that you have.”
“But it’s not just sleep. As a broad concept, I think everyone understands how important it is, although I would say that even in the last year or so the physiology of temperature around sleep is being recognized as being as important as temperature. manipulation of light and dark, which were traditionally considered the most important variables surrounding sleep.
“The physiology of how temperature affects depth of sleep, sleep phases, healthy REM and deep sleep phases, and how it affects performance, both physical and mental, the next day. It’s all very related to temperature, and I think it’s a very exciting field.
This year Mercedes has taken an interesting step in exploring the topic by teaming up with Eight Sleep, a company whose products focus on how temperature influences sleep, and how it can be used to improve it.
The Eight Sleep ‘pod’ (or capsule) comes in two forms, as a full mattress or as a mattress cover that can also be transported. It works in conjunction with a bedside box and a phone app.
“It’s essentially a layer of sensors, a mattress cover that can be installed on any mattress,” says Eight Sleep co-founder Matteo Franceschetti .
“It does a few different things. First of all, it’s like sleeping on a stethoscope. There are embedded sensors that you can’t feel that are capable of tracking everything related to heart rate, breathing, and quality of sleep.”
“And we’re getting to medical-grade accuracy in some of these dimensions, which means that bed is comparable to a medical-grade device.”
“But the key difference between us and a wearable is that the wearable tracks data and reports back to you. But it doesn’t do much more than that. In our case, we use data to adjust temperature and monitor your body temperature.”
That’s the key to how the Eight Sleep capsule improves sleep, as Franceschetti points out: “The bottom line is that each side of the bed can be a different temperature, and the temperature will change throughout the night to optimize your recovery.”
“We have not reinvented the wheel, as there is already a lot of medical evidence that night temperature can improve sleep performance and body temperature changes. When you hear that you have to sleep at 20 degrees Celsius all night, it is a mistake”.
“The reason is that 20 degrees could work for one hour out of eight hours. But for the other seven hours, a different temperature is needed. And that’s what our device does.”
Franceschetti emphasizes that the idea is to promote what the company calls sleep fitness (the physical state of sleep) .
“Everything started at the beginning from a certain vision that we had internally,” he says. “Most of the time, when you think of bedding companies, you think of convenience and comfort. Our approach has always been different, because I was an athlete.”
“And I’ve always thought of sleep not only as relaxation, but also as recovery. And that’s how we came up with this concept of sleep fitness, which means you have to work, you have to put in the effort and put in hours of sleep, like you do in the gym. But then you wake up totally refreshed, energized and healthier.”
What are the tangible benefits of better sleep for an athlete like a race car driver, or even anyone else?
“There are some that are more obvious,” says Franceschetti. “Like reaction time, mental clarity, cognitive performance and focus, which is pretty obvious.”
“But there are also effects, I would say second order, that affect one’s own health. For example, lower heart rate and higher HRV (heart rate variability), which is another indicator of physical stress and recovery, and better overall health. With more energy, you’ll likely eat better and avoid junk food, you’ll probably be in a better mood.”
“At the end of the day, health is based on three pillars: one is sleep, one is nutrition, and one is fitness. But sleep is really the fundamental part, because if you sleep two hours a night for five nights in a row, you I assure you that you will eat shit and you will not be able to train”.
“Other second-order effects are injuries. If you recover properly and sleep well, you will avoid injuries, which for athletes is a key factor.”
Mercedes drivers and key team members have been using Eight Sleep products at home this season, providing useful benefits before and after race trips.
The next step is to have the portable version of the mattress cover transported and installed in the hotel rooms at each event, to ensure that those benefits fully carry over to the grand prix weekends.
“We are talking to one of the drivers to see if we can have the capsule installed in his hotel for all the remaining races of the season,” says Franceschetti. “It’s clear that some dates will be very easy, and you won’t have to do anything to get them. Others may be more difficult.”
“But the idea is, over time, as the relationship between Eight Sleep and Mercedes develops, to see how we can expand the program and make sure the drivers and all the engineers have it at every race of the year.
In a sport where every profit, no matter how small, counts, Mercedes may have found a useful extra advantage over its rivals.
“When we say we can improve your sleep quality by 30%, imagine if I told you I can improve your strength by 30%,” says Franceschetti. “If you’re using the same framework for energy, clarity, reaction time… then everything being 30% better is a big deal.”
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