Oliver Webb push up ()Oliver Webb push up () © Copyright

Are you fit enough for endurance racing?

Our man Matt Lizzimore meets World Endurance Championship driver Oliver Webb to find out how ridiculously fit you must be for elite-level endurance racing

“Simon and Pierre couldn’t make it to the podium last year. They went straight to hospital on a drip.” Oliver Webb is telling me about the demands of the World Endurance Championship with a story from last year’s race in Texas. “It’s 52ºC in the car, and we have no vents or air con.

“At the end of your stint, it feels like being really, really drunk. You get out of the car and you’re disoriented and dizzy. It’s really tough.”

We’re at the Porsche Human Performance Lab at Silverstone, and we’re about to do a motorsport fitness assessment, which is a bit like an MOT for race drivers. Webb drives a Le Mans Prototype 1 car for ByKolles Racing, which moves pretty close to F1 speeds.

By comparing Webb, who is only 25, to an average schmuck like me we’re aiming to find out just how fit you need to be to race LMP1 cars.

Oli Webb ByKolles Racing WEC ()

 

Made of the right stuff

First up, you stand bare foot on a device that looks like a set of scales, and pick up the two handles. The machine runs a current through your body and then tells you what’s inside.

One of the most important – and humiliating – metrics is body fat percentage. Teams spend millions making these cars super light, so you can’t turn up on race day with a big belly full of pie. It also helps with heat management. The cockpit can be above 50ºC during a race, and an extra layer of fat won’t help. 

Porsche sports scientists Eliot Challifour and Jack Wilson were on hand to explain what was going on. “The normal range for body fat percentage for your average male is 10-20%,” says Wilson. “We set our standards at 8-12% – right on the border of being under.”

Webb comes in at 8.7%. Perfect. Me? 32.6%. Good grief. Webb also has more lean muscle, despite weighing nearly 18kg less.  

Oliver Webb Batak Test ()

 

Quick to react

The view from the driver’s seat of Webb’s car is like looking through a letterbox, with the added complication that you’re moving at 200mph. The conditions can make it even worse, too. “Night is OK,” he says, “and I actually enjoy driving in the rain, but put both together and it becomes very difficult.”

This is where peripheral vision and good reactions are needed to stay out of trouble. Enter the BATAK test: a wall of lights that come on in a random sequence, and you have to react as quickly as possible to hit them.

It’s difficult to see the lights, particularly the ones in the far corners, but this one goes a bit better. I get a decent score of 83, then Webb steps up and knocks out a 113.

We also play on a Saccadic Fixator, which is about the size of a dartboard, and covered in little red lights that come on in a random order. You have to touch the lights with your finger, and it speeds up each time you hit a light until you can no longer keep up.

This measures and improves rapid eye-hand coordination, spatial integration, and reaction times. Webb explains why this is so important to his craft. “There are no lights on in the car and there are around 160 different settings that we have to remember. And we have to be able to change them without looking, while being fatigued and maybe trying to overtake someone.”

I scored 3024 with my left hand and 3510 with my right. Oli managed 3978 on his left and 4644 on his right. 

Matt Lizzimore testing neck strength ()

 

Strong like a bull

“You want the drivers to be very lean and lightweight,” Wilson explains as we set up more tests, “but they also need to be strong to cope with G-force and for injury prevention.

“The stronger you are, the better you’re able to cope in a crash, the easier you are to treat, and the quicker you are able to recover.

“Your legs and neck are the only parts that are free in the car, so they take the brunt of the forces and need to be strong,” adds Webb.

Webb proceeds to muller me in every conceivable test. The countermovement jump measures explosive power in your legs. I stand on a mat and jump as high as possible (18.7), while Webb goes to 22.5.

He kills me on the pull-up and press-up tests, then we go head-to-head at planking.

Oli Webb and Matt Lizzimore planking ()

 

“Postural integrity is very important,” Challifour explains. “Drivers, particularly endurance ones, are forced into a position in which their posture is majorly compromised for extended periods. This can lead to posture issues that limit performance.”

We get into position. And after numerous criticisms, we get our form perfect. Go time. I manage 1:12 before collapsing in a heap. Webb does three minutes, which is the maximum they recommend, and doesn't look remotely fazed.

Though all the cars have some degree of power steering, the drivers like to keep it as low as possible for as long as possible to maintain maximum feedback from the car.

To measure grip strength, we clench onto something that looks like a dog leash. I get 36.0 with my left and 40.3 with my right. Oli does a 46.4 with his left and a 45.7 with his right. Even his grip is better than mine! 

Oliver Webb grip test ()

 

Turn up the heat

“In a hot race, you feel like you’re putting the same forces into everything but you’re not,” Webb explains when we ask about training for the high temperatures. “Your peripheral vision will start to go and will get a bit blurry, and your reactions will be slower.

“You sweat more and lose water, you get dizzy, you lose concentration and you can’t hold the wheel as tight. Adrenaline keeps you going. That’s why you see so many drivers get out of the car and just collapse.”

Oliver Webb push up ()

 

The team has a number of methods to get drivers used to performing in the heat, one of which involves running or cycling for hours in a special room that reaches temperatures above 40ºC. Sadly (thankfully), we’re out of time…! 

Photos: MUTV. Look out for MUTV’s Sporting Reds Documentary on Oli in early 2017

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