Respect the driver

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It’s that time of year.

In six days, the world’s greatest drivers will again be lining up on the grid to compete in 20 Grand Prix’s to vie for the Formula 1 World Championship.

The roar of turbocharged V6s thundering across the racetrack, maneuvering around some of the toughest corners on earth — Formula 1 is one of the most exciting sports mankind has ever seen and will see for the rest of time.

Some people, however, might have an issue with me calling it a sport, and it won’t be the first time that objection was lodged. Scientist Scott Thompson wrote a column to that point on the Huffington Post. He had some fair points, even though he is a Tottenham Hotspurs supporter, specifically about the lack of an even playing field.

Fair enough, I concede some of his points have merits. But, the overall conclusion that F1 shouldn’t be considered a sport — I don’t think so.

Have you ever driven a car at fairly high speeds, say, 130 to 140 miles per hour? Have you felt the mix of adrenaline and fear? Well, for starters, an F1 driver’s career depends on being able to face that weird mix, day in and day out, while contending with 15 other drivers, and do it at 230 mph, not 130.

Drivers, you call them? I’d actually prefer to say athletes. I can’t think of too many sports that test human endurance the way F1 does. The cars are so specialized and well-engineered that while cornering, a driver experiences three to five G’s of force. For those who are not familiar with the term, G-force is the amount of pressure exerted by gravity on a body that is accelerating relative to freefall. And at three to five G’s, the human body is seriously affected.

As celebrated former F1 driver Mark Webber told the Telegraph, “When you’re experiencing G-force it can be hard to breathe normally, especially in a long, fast corner. It can make you a bit weaker because sometimes you have to hold your breath. You need to be strong to cope.”

Thus, F1 drivers have to undergo extensive cardio-vascular training to develop tolerance to these exceedingly high and dangerous G-forces, which can be fatal for many. But cardiovascular training is just one part of the overall process in becoming an F1 driver. Dietary and weight restrictions are as important as the endurance training. With regulations pertaining to the weight of the car, F1 drivers generally try to keep their weight at the optimum point which would allow for a more efficient performance on the track.

I’m even tempted to say that these athletes are the fittest on the planet.

Oh, and by the way, that figure happens on every lap. An F1 race usually has laps in the range from 44 to 78.

Another argument made by dissenters is the fact that so much depends on the car. Good point. But to really understand why this too makes it a sport, one has to look at F1 not as an individual sport, but as a team sport.

A team that wins a championship has a number of components and parts that have to work together. Take an NBA team for example, not only does the team need to have the right pieces on the court, but it also needs a competent front office that knows the needs of the team. The team also needs a strong financial backing, or revenue stream that can allow it to be competitive in the long run.

In the same way, you have to look at the F1 car as the result of an overall team effort. The engineering staff has to be on top of their game to produce a car that can compete at the highest level, and at the same time play to the driver’s strengths. The driver himself must undergo intense training to adapt to the car and vie for victory at each race.

That being said, what makes it a sport for me, much less the toughest sport in the world, is the danger associated with it.

Driving an F1 car is not like driving your average Toyota or Ford. The car is an entirely different beast, which can punish you for the slightest of mistakes. In its illustrious 67-year history, Formula 1 has seen a total of 51 deaths in qualifying, testing or actual races. Such is the brutal nature of this sport. I remember watching the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, where Jules Bianchi lost control of the car and crashed into a safety crane. Bianchi died in July 2015 because of the injuries sustained at the Grand Prix.

Probably the most famous on-track death is of Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian died at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. My mum and dad still tell me how shocked they were when the saw it happen on TV.

It is fighting that fear of death that makes me think of F1 drivers as some of the toughest and greatest athletes in the world. When Lewis Hamilton passes other drivers by spotting the narrowest of gaps, it is extremely risky, yet also inspiring. To contend with the looming spectre of death, just so that you can win. That’s the mark of nobility.
There will always be detractors saying that F1 is just an “activity” for the super-rich, and not a sport. Well, I really don’t care to be honest. For me, it is the toughest and most brutal sport in the world, and to those who don’t agree, just try going really fast and you’ll know.

Devang Prasad covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DevangPrasad.