Italian Doctor Riccardo Ceccarelli offers an insight into the challenges presented by COVID-19 to the medical task force he leads in the F1 paddock. He also talks on his mental and physical training programs for drivers, plus a personal anecdote on Ayrton Senna.
Formula One celebrated the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone last weekend, the British circuit that served as host to the World Drivers Championship first official Grand Prix in 1950.
Since then, Formula One has evolved in a range of areas, from sports technical and commercial aspects to the cutting-edge technological advances.
Over the years, cars, rules, regulations, safety altogether has made of Formula One the pinnacle of motorsport racing.
The early decades of the sport were brutal in terms of safety; the risk of dying in a racing weekend was exponential.
Since those early days, the scenario has dramatically changed; safety standards were developed, established, and introduced as mandatory.
The modern era of the sport sees constant progress as the FIA, Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, works and understands safety as the number one priority.
Today more than ever, safety and health are issues always on the table.
Sports Pundit spoke to Medical Doctor Riccardo Ceccarelli, CEO & Founder of Formula Medicine.
The Sports Medicine Centre specializes in the care of the physical and mental preparation of professional athletes, Formula One drivers in particular.
SP: How many doctors from Formula Medicine work in a racing weekend since the 2020 FIA Formula One World Championship resumed early in July?
RC: “Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Formula Medicine provided medical service to eight teams in Formula 1, plus the Pirelli Group, DHL, F1 personnel, and Sky television, sending at least three doctors at each race on the Formula One Calendar.
Dr. Ceccarelli further explains that with the new regulations established by F1 and FIA to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission, Formula Medicine now provides each team with a doctor.
“That is why Formula Medicine had to create a real medical task force sending to each race ten professionals plus a physiotherapist entirely dedicated to the Alpha Tauri crew.
“Our professionals arrive early during the week starting on Monday or Tuesday before the race weekend to assist all the team crew, drivers included, if necessary.”
The medical task force is among the last ones to say farewell to a Grand Prix weekend, finishing their work late on Sunday evening.
FROM THE START TO PRESENT DAY
In the late 80s, Ceccarelli was a graduate student in sports medicine, working as the athletic trainer to the Leyton House F1 team, to which Mauricio Gugelmin and Ivan Capelli were the official drivers.
Since then, over three decades have gone by in which the Italian has never stopped looking after the health and well being of the Formula One paddock.
SP: Formula Medicine celebrated the impressive milestone of the 500th Grand Prix last year. What has been the most challenging moment for your medical staff in Formula One throughout the years?
RC: “Yes, it was an impressive track record for Formula Medicine. Seeing as the F1 recently celebrated its 1000th race, we could say that Formula Medicine represents half of the F1 history!
“There have been many challenging moments during these 30 years of experience,” the Italian doctor asserts.
“From a medical point of view, we had to face several difficult situations, from heart attack to pulmonary embolism, and appendicitis! From a logistic point of view, the start of the current season has been one of the most difficult for sure.
“We received the confirmation of our presence (in Austria) from F1 and FIA, only three days before the beginning of the season. We had to find ten professionals with the right credentials in just three days.”
SP: How the working dynamics within the Formula One paddock changed due to COVID-19?
RC: “The strict restrictions put in place to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission clearly affected the dynamics of our medical group. Each doctor must stay within their team bubble and avoid contact with all external people.
“Every time the doctor assesses a patient, he must wear all the appropriate PPE (masks, goggles, gown, gloves). In the case of suspect symptoms, he has to follow a pathway to make sure the patient is immediately isolated from the others.
“Every suspect case will be swabbed inside an area by the appointed supplier and managed by the local health authorities according to local guidelines.
Speculations on the efficacy of the protocols put in place arose, when Racing Points Sergio Perez tested positive for COVID-19, ahead of the British Grand Prix.
Asked whether the protocols have changed in any way, Dr. Ceccarelli elaborated, “No, protocols did not change after Perez was confirmed positive.
He was immediately isolated from others, and all his close contacts, identified by the local authorities, were tested (negative) and isolated as well, as expected. That is the standard procedure in case of a confirmed positive patient within the paddock.
“Thanks to the bubble, sub-bubbles system, the rest of the team kept working as usual, with all the personnel tested every four days.”
THE PORTUGAL GRAND PRIX - THE EXCEPTION TO THE RULE
As it currently states, the 2020 revised calendar features 13 races, with Formula One aiming for a 15-18 Grand Prix season by the end of the year.
The Formula One Heineken Portuguese Grand Prix - set to take place on October 23-25, marks the comeback of Portugal to the Formula One calendar.
The Grand Prix will be the first of the season scheduled as an open doors event.
SP: In which main aspects the protocols already in place will have to adapt to face this new element compared to the currents Grand Prix held behind closed doors?
RC: “We believe the protocols put in place for the closed-door events can work well even in an open doors event. The concept of keeping the team personnel inside safe bubbles will be the most relevant point to maintain.
“We believe teams will have designated hotels (closed to the general public), and corridors to enter the circuit to avoid unnecessary contacts with the public. The paddock will always be closed to the general public, so the main point would be to avoid contacts when outside of it.”
THE MENTAL GYM
Mental and physical training is fundamental to a driver behind the wheel of the fastest cars in Formula One history.
SP: In that regard, has the attention on the human side (mental training) increased, if so, could you elaborate on that aspect?
RC: “Every driver has their physical trainer and is used to intense training sessions over the year.
They are all well prepared physically, but we believe what makes the big difference is the mental approach.
Dr. Ceccarelli reveals that through the research Formula Medicine has been doing, using an MRI scan, the company discovered a singularity of an elite drivers brain, the neural efficiency.
“It is the ability to obtain high brain performance consuming only the necessary body energy,” he explains.
“Formula medicine developed over the years the Mental Economy Training - using patented software and algorithms, which aims to increase brain performance, reducing unnecessary body expenditure.”
All of this work has been done at the Mental Gym, “the first futuristic gym in the world entirely dedicated to training the brain,” the doctor asserts.
To develop research studies, new technological tools, and training methods tailored made to his area of expertise - motorsport, has become the doctor’s trademark.
“Each driver is continuously monitored using portable EEG machines, heart rate, and respiratory rate recorder. Thanks to our method, we can easily quantify and evaluate many different mental skills and tailor mental training according to the individuals needs.
Dr. Ceccarelli remarks Formula medicine uses the mental gym to optimize all the brain skills, training the drivers brain as the physio train their body.
“How we communicate the mental training we provide is very important to make sure the conformity is high; we train the physiological part of the brain as well.”
SP: How technological evolution contributes to the work done with drivers at the Formula Medicine center?
RC: “Technological evolution contributed a lot to change the way we train our drivers. We partnered with a US Harvard based neuroscience company, which provides us with a professional portable EEG machine.”
According to Dr. Ceccarelli, his company uses the portable EEG machine to monitor the drivers while doing exercise inside the mental gym.
“These portable machines allow us to monitor the brain strain of our athletes while performing mental tasks or while driving on the simulator.”
“Using the combination of these signals with others coming from different parts of the body (heart rate, RR variability, respiratory rate), we are able to understand many things after only one training session.
“We discovered that the main characteristic of a top driver is the capacity to drive to the limit without wasting any unnecessary drops of brain energy.
“We did an in-depth analysis of their brain functionality, and this allowed us to develop highly specific software, hardware, and methodology, to measure this quality, and also to improve it.”
AYRTON SENNA: A GENTLEMAN WITHOUT A HELMET
Heading to the final chapter of the interview, Sports Pundit asked Dr. Ceccarelli, what is his most vivid recollection of Ayrton Senna?
He kindly shared this personal anecdote of the three-time world champion.
“I had the opportunity to know him during 1989, my first season in F1, through the Brazilian driver I was assisting, Mauricio Gugelmin.
“At that time, I was thinking that Formula 1 champions were always acting as superstars, but soon I could understand they are just simple, nice people.
“Ayrton was like this, a calm and humble gentleman,” he says.
“Back then, I was a player and coach of the drivers football team, which was playing a match for charity. Once we were playing in Pescara (Italy) and Ayrton, who had friends there, joined us for the first time,” he recalls.
“Usually, every driver wanted to play forward to score goals, and obviously, the top celebrity had the priority to choose the position.
I said, Ayrton, will you play forward?
“No, I am not good enough. Keep me on the defense that is easier,” he replied.
“I was surprised, I was playing back because no one wanted to play as a humble defender, and Ayrton did it. During the match, I was shouting at my players where to go and what to do. He was the one putting the maximum commitment, respecting my indications, running with the enthusiasm of a kid.
“That was Ayrton, a gentleman without a helmet, and a fierce warrior in the car.”