Olympian Alonso ready to do battle

Ferrari declared that Fernando Alonso had returned from the winter break fit as an Olympian. And they were not referring to the archers.

Fernando Alonso of Ferrari
Suhas Bhat

By Suhas Bhat

The enthusiastic public relations wing announced on their website in February: "Fernando has maximised the time available and tackled the task with great dedication, performing a focused physical preparation worthy of the best Olympic athlete by alternating between gym sessions, running and biking." 

It's definitely a bombastic statement to make but what is certain is that Formula One drivers need to take great care over their physical and mental physique.

So you want to be an F1 driver

Here are just some of the concerns that last season's Drivers' Championship runner-up might have had to consider with regards to his fitness.

- The popular adage is worth mentioning - a driver loses upto 3kg through sweat during a race and he would have needed to carry out aerobic activity lasting 90 minutes or more as a car riding at 300mph can generate a great deal of heat.

Moreover, without the physical exercise, his heart will not remain under control as adrenaline courses through the body during a high-speed race, just like it would in a rollercoaster ride.

A 3.5g force also pummels his body from all sides so his muscles need to be toned and ready for such pressure. 

A driver can also find his neck constantly strained as the rapid jerks and stresses can pose quite a danger to this vulnerable area. Specific exercises with elastic bands that stretch the neck to near-breaking point are therefore common.

Lewis Hamilton may choose to hire a personal designer but the helmets of F1 drivers aren't just for decorative purposes. They weigh 6kg (because they need to protect your head) and this further increases the stress on the neck.

The steering wheel that the driver operates isn't similar to the one in a normal car as it readily swings to and fro at insane speeds during a race. If a driver is to have any hope of maintaining control and not crashing into a colleague, strong wrists and shoulders are mandatory.

Speaking of muscles, sturdy legs are also important as the quicker the throttle or the brakes are applied, the swifter the car can accelerate or decelerate.

Just like marathon runners, drivers also need to store large amounts of energy. 'Carbo-loading' in the form of pasta-binging as well as other high-protein foods is common.

And as any worldclass athlete would approach a sprint, long jump, discus throw by visualising their moves in advance, the likes of Alonso need to know every single corner and length of a straight in order to know exactly when to make the right moves.

During a race, the driver would also need to demonstrate amazing computational skills in order to determine tyre wear, the relative position of his rivals, timing of overtaking maneouvres and the exact millisecond at which DRS can be activated.

Finally, F1 drivers average 65 kg and are 5ft 8in as they cannot grow too large for their cockpits, especially in the case of a crash where they would have less than three seconds in which to make their exit from a burning wreckage. Maintaining sensory control is also a difficult matter as the body naturally goes into shock. Meditation and breathing techniques are an essential component of race preparation.

A whole host of other factors are also taken into consideration (maintaining perfect eyesight, wearing aerodynamically-designed attire etc). 

However, if he has prepared for all of this and more, will an 'Olympian' Alonso be ready to do battle and finally win a world title with Ferrari? 

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Felipe Massa announced that the new challenger was much better than the previous one and they will hope that it remains as reliable as the F2012 while also giving them the pace they need to keep up with the Red Bull and McLaren machines. 

Alonso showed last year as well that his driving skills are as good as anyone else's (or even better) and he can secure regular finishes and be thereabouts in the title fight. 

However, it is of the utmost importance that the F138 produce the goods in qualifying sessions and the data from pre-season appears to indicate that it's still a cut below the main contenders. 

Nevertheless, the fact that the new car is an improvement should lift the spirits of everyone at the Maranello base and they do have world class engineers who can make the updates necessary to make it a serious contender. 

Alonso sounds upbeat. The usually reticient Spaniard announced that the car might have enough to secure him a podium position in the upcoming Australian Grand Prix. 

"Last year we were 1.6 seconds behind the best and finished fourth [he actually finished fifth]," Alonso told the Gazzetta dello Sport.

"This year we should be on the podium. There is no reason to believe that this will not happen in the first race."

The makings of a champion

Alonso won the championship in 2005 and 2006 but has missed out on the title by one, four and three points in 2007, 2010 and 2012. 

While Kimi Raikkonen was remarkably lucky to see the stars align to win the season in the final race in 2007 and Sebastian Vettel had arguably the better car in 2010, last year felt like a real kick in the gut for the former Renault driver.

He impressed in rainy Sepang, fought back from 11th to win in Valencia, nearly lost his head in Belgium and gave his absolute best to win his third championship. He was in command of the lead until October 14 and, at one point of time, had opened up a 40-point gap over his nearest challenger. 

Many commented that he had not lost out to the better driver either as Vettel's five race wins came after qualifying in the front row. The German, talented a driver as he may be, did not have to sweat it out for his points like Alonso did. The Ferrari man also saw the likes of Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean crash into him and stunt his title bid. 

Few doubt that Alonso is championship material and it remains a matter of when, instead of how, he wins a title with Ferrari. 

It's a marathon, not a sprint in F1

In a world that highlights the necessity for speed and power, it is important to remember that the championship is long - 19 races long, in fact. More than anything, mental stamina can be considered as integral to a championship bid.

And while it’s hard to really gauge whether Alonso has the physical abilities to compare favourably to an Olympian, his steely resolve and focus is not dissimilar to that displayed by the athletes in London last year. 

As evident last year, Alonso epitomises endurance, self-belief and a never-say-die attitude. 

Perhaps, a new car, a new season, a new fitness regime and even new (better) luck might just be what he needs to succeed for the first time in seven years. You can only miss out on the title by single-figure margins so many times. 

And more than anyone else, this particular Olympian knows only too well that there are no medals for second place in F1.

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