Sports Pundit held an extended interview with CEO & Founder of Formula Medicine, Medical Doctor Riccardo Ceccarelli, to discuss the role played by gravitational forces in motorsport, revealing the stress experienced on racing drivers’ bodies when withstanding massive g-forces.
During our conversation, we talked over the accidents involving former Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean (67G) and 2021 F1 world champion Max Verstappen (51G) - escaping without major injuries from their respective, brutal crashes.
Alongside this, Dr. Matteo Bartalucci, Formula Medicine, Head of Medical Services, shared insights into vertical acceleration, elaborating on the facts that make it the most dangerous, compared to lateral and frontal acceleration, even producing sudden blackouts.
Training the Drivers’ Bodies and Minds
“Gravitational forces play an important role in sports like F1, where significant acceleration and braking forces, in every direction, continuously determine high stress on drivers’ bodies.”
“Drivers must devise effective neck training programs to give them the strength they need to withstand the massive g-forces and to keep the head straight around corners, where g-forces can be 5-6 times that of normal gravity.”
In that regard, Ceccarelli highlights the neck as the most stressed body part when we consider physical effort, pointing to upper body training (core stability training) to be just as important.
“We have very skilled trainers supervising drivers’ neck training. They use specific machines and resistance bands, attached laterally, frontally, and posteriorly to a permanent structure, such as a head harness, to train all neck muscles. The exercises can be isometric (tension applied with no movement) or dynamic.
“This closely mimics what a driver would feel when driving and allows for custom neck workouts. Resistance bands and devices such as the Iron Neck can easily travel with a driver from race to race. Another kind of exercise is neck bridging, with the driver lying face up on a physioball, creating constant tension on the neck.”
2021: A Memorable Formula One Season
2021 would go on to be one of the most dramatic, thrilling seasons seen in recent years, including a record 22 Grand Prix and a controversial end to the title contest between Red Bull’s Verstappen and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, decided on the very last lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The fierce rivalry built across the year between both drivers was once a friendly relationship, which reached an inflection point in July at the British Grand Prix in Silverstone, several months before the title decision.
On British soil, Verstappen and Hamilton went fighting wheel-to-wheel into Copse corner, resulting in a collision on the first lap of the GP, with the eventual Dutch champion flying off into the gravel, hitting the barriers at an estimated 300 km/h (186 mph), recording a peak rate of deceleration of 51G.
The driver became a passenger in the car, experiencing a colossal impact, enough to break the RB16B seat and destroy the left-hand side of the car.
To watch the video of the impact, click here.
“Despite the impressive impact, Max had numerous CT scans done during the 48hrs following the crash, and they all came all back as negative,” the doctor outlines.
Is there some training drivers can do to learn how to “relax the body” in a high-impact scenario?
“I don’t think so. When they realize they have ‘lost’ the car and the impact is inevitable, they know they must remove their hands from the steering wheel in order to reduce the risk of arms and wrists from being injured.”
“Clearly, having a strong body structure can be important in case of a car accident, even if it is not enough to protect the driver, especially in a high-impact situation.”
The biggest accident of Verstappen’s career brought out the red flags, and though visibly shaken, the driver walked away from the car by his means.
“We are pleased to confirm that Max was released from hospital at 22:00 this evening (Sunday), following a thorough medical examination, without any major injuries,” Red Bull’s statement read at the time.
But how do the body and the brain behave when such a heavy crash happens?
“The body (and its organs) and the brain, especially when a crash causes a sudden deceleration, may suffer from many different kinds of injuries.”
“Any sudden impact causes the brain, for example, to accelerate against the skull, possibly resulting in bruising, bleeding, and tearing of nerve fibers. The same happens with the organs inside the body, as the force of the crash may impact them against the bones and chest wall.”
“I have to say that thanks to FIA’s special effort to improve safety standards during racing, it is unlikely today that, even when a heavy crash happens, it results in serious injuries for the drivers!”
Since the tragic loss of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in Imola (1994), a series of safety standards have been introduced as mandatory by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), understanding safety as paramount. Among those are the HANS and the HALO cockpit protection device.
“The implementation of HANS (Head and Neck Support) was undoubtedly very important. The purpose of that device is to stop the head from whipping in a crash, preventing excessive rotational movement as a secondary protection, without otherwise restricting the neck movement. The restraint provided by the HANS device reduces neck tension by 81% and shear by 78%.”
“From a car perspective, the introduction of the HALO (2018) was important as well, as we were reminded last year in Monza when Hamilton and Verstappen had an incident.”
In September, the Italian Grand Prix saw the title contenders colliding at Turn 2 in Monza, resulting in Verstappen’s car being catapulted onto the top of the Mercedes; fortunately, both drivers walked away unharmed.
FIA president at the time, Jean Todt, posted on Twitter a photograph of the Red Bull car on top of the Mercedes, writing: “Glad the halo was there”.
G-Force: A Vector of Acceleration
Addressing former British driver Nigel Mansell Autobiography, “Staying on Track,” the 1992 F1 world champion refers to lateral g-force as “the most toxic kind of g-force.”
Here we began exploring another crucial element of gravitational forces, direction.
Dr. Bartalucci explains: “To be precise, vertical acceleration is the worst because of its effect on blood circulation.
“Lateral and frontal acceleration doesn’t have this same consequence; this is why astronauts are in a lying down position during launch, rather than sitting, so the acceleration is frontal and not vertical.”
“Some tests on animals have evidenced that a 3G vertical force lasting for several seconds is enough to create microdamage in the brain from lack of circulation; this doesn’t happen with lateral g-forces during driving, even if the force can reach 4G or even 5G.”
He further walks us through what the driver experiences when subjected to challenging conditions inside the cockpit of a racing car back in Mansell’s time as in the present.
“One of the hardest corners in Formula 1 history is the final corner in Estoril, driven in full acceleration. The lateral g-forces are very high and last more than 5 seconds, but the problem is not blood perfusion. The only problem is physical.”
“A driver has to be extremely fit to resist more than 20 kg of force pushing laterally on his head. Considering there was no headrest in the car at the age of Mansell, the helmet was pushed sideways to its limits, making it hugely difficult to see the corner on the other side and so creating a dangerous situation. I presume Mansell was referring to these conditions.”
Additionally, the Emergency Medicine Specialist notes: “I can mention another episode that happened some years ago in IndyCar.
“They raced in an oval with a very fast banking parabolic corner. In this scenario, during the corner, the car was in a position similar to an airplane when turning, with the body, being subjected, to forces that were nearly vertical.”
“After a session when there were many accidents with no apparent explanation, they discovered that drivers were having sudden blackouts due to the vertical G-force. The race was suspended.”
What side effects can a driver experience in the short and long term when the brain is bounced around the skull at a high-speed crash?
“Short-term effects of a concussion may vary from very mild headache and dizziness, to temporary loss of consciousness, delayed response to questions, confusion, nausea and vomiting, and fatigue.
“Most people with concussions completely recover within a couple of weeks. A few, however, who sustained a moderate or severe brain injury, have to deal indefinitely with a host of persistent symptoms.”
“Some long-term effects may be blurred vision, difficulty concentrating, difficulty reading, feelings of being overwhelmed, memory loss, short-term memory problems, and sleep disturbances.”
On top of the exclusive insights, Dr. Bartalucci reflects on Grosjean’s vicious crash, which took place in 2020 at the Bahrain Grand Prix, a resultant peak force equivalent to 67G.
“There was certainly a combination of factors that allowed Grosjean to walk away from the car. One of these is luck. The impact was huge, and if he had lost consciousness, he would have died. There is no well-determined point at which blackout happens.”
The reports by the investigation conducted by the FIA’s Safety department concluded: “Romain Grosjean’s left foot was initially trapped as the car came to rest. The driver was able to free his foot by withdrawing it from his racing boot, leaving the boot in the entrapped position in the car, and then moved both the dislodged headrest and steering wheel to (leave) the car.”
The Frenchman not only did not blackout but was able to escape a cockpit on fire, unaided, and was out of the car after just 27 seconds, “with significant but not life-threatening injuries,” the FIA indicated.
Are hands faster than feet at reacting?
“Yes, it is true that reaction times with the hand are shorter than those with the foot.
“This is probably and simply due to a shorter nerve conduction time for the brain-hand combination than for the brain-foot combination because the neural pathway from the brain to the hand is shorter.”
Does age play a role in a drivers’ reaction time?
“I would say yes. It is true that reflexes and reaction time do slow with age. Physical changes in nerve fibers slow the speed of conduction, but this effect varies greatly from person to person.”
“Staying physically active can actually slow down these effects of aging. Anyway, it is universally accepted that reaction times slow with age at a rate of 2-6ms per decade.
“This means that the difference between two drivers on the grid, even with 20 years of difference, is not that important.”
Moving onto the book Dr. Ceccarelli wrote, about the history of his research and studies, named “Cervello Superveloce” (Superfast brain), he discloses: “I have been improving a scientific method of mental training for 30 years.
“My book covers the roots, the development, and some case stories of athletes I have worked with.”
“It is meant to be a book that can be read by everyone, not just for those who are passionate about motorsport.”
“At the end of the day, the brain is important for everyone, not just for athletes! The book is also full of anecdotes, some of them hilarious!”
Dr. Ceccarelli has been working in Formula One since 1989, devoted to the research and studies of athletes’ mental abilities, apart from their bodies.
At Formula Medicine facilities, sited in Viareggio, Italy, he founded the Mental Gym, “the first futuristic gym in the world,” as he asserts, developing a scientific method to train the brain, known as Mental Economy Training.
Ahead of the 2021 Formula One season, he took some time out to talk about safety in motorsport, focussing on the HANS device, providing an insight into his Mental Training to optimize brain performance - an interview you can read by clicking here.
Formula Medicine also comprises a traveling Task Force of around 40 specialists who take care of external activities, offering assistance on all five continents.