02 Apr How Formula E’s Points Leader Has Tackled An Off-Track Frontier
The Race – Ever wondered what Cristiano Ronaldo dreams about? No, me neither. But this rather glib opening question is one that probably brought to the forefront a new mental wellbeing boom in football around seven years ago.
That was when Ronaldo was revealed to have employed a sleep coach to add to his routine and extend his glittering career beyond his then already-legendary spell at Real Madrid.
But the roots of sleep, physical and mental recovery and managing stress in athletes stretch way further back to the 1990s, when a sports industry executive, Nick Littlehales, began working with Manchester United and effectively became the club’s sleep coach.
Then at the peak of Alex Ferguson’s powers, United led the way for other elite football clubs to follow similar paths in ensuring their playing assets had enough rest, recuperation and ability to deal with monumental physical and mental stress.
Beyond tenuous links such as present Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle once working for United, and Sam Bird being a committed fan, Formula E now has another thread to zipwire back to the sporting wellness.
Heavy travel and racing schedules, the dreaded jet lag, pressures of delivering for major manufacturers and sponsors have previously led some drivers down irregular paths of pills, potions and weird rituals.
On a flight from Punta del Este in 2018 one former Formula E driver, who I’d told about my inability to sleep on planes, furtively handed me a demonic looking yellow and blue pill. With a nod and a wink, he casually advised me to wash it down with a gin and tonic. The G&T wasn’t strong enough to defend itself, but the weird pill was left untouched, mainly due to the fact that the driver had endured a succession of torrid incidents in recent races!
Overstimulating and overthinking routines of self-care have undoubtedly had counterproductive affects for some drivers. Whether it’s the familiar distractions of excessive screen time on tablets or phones or the struggles to switch-off the post-event adrenaline pump, some drivers do struggle with sleep.
“As a driver, when you go to bed you think about your driving, you think so much about it and you don’t have the most relaxed sleep,” three-time Formula E race winner turned Venturi team principal Jerome D’Ambrosio tells The Race.
After the race the sleep was horrific, horrendous. I was exhausted and I couldn’t sleep.
“Then you take a flight home on the Monday afternoon, you’re back in the simulator, and you kind of accumulate fatigue.
“That was as a driver, now as a team principal I would say that it’s different. There are peaks.
“When the race is on, I can’t do anything about it, so it’s actually more stressful than when you’re in the car. It’s intense, and it’s adrenaline. I think this is why you hear drivers overreacting [in a race].”
D’Ambrosio’s team – which currently leads the Formula E standings – has recently embarked on a partnership with a company that will analyse and enhance the team’s performance from a wellness perspective. The Craft 1861 business, which has previously worked with IndyCar squads Carlin and Juncos, identifies a three-pronged approach – test, measure and refine.
This will include data analysis of sleep patterns and the physical and mental make-up of team members, including, of course, the drivers.
After that is analysed Craft 1861 will begin what Eric Lujan, the co-founder and chief revenue officer of the US company, tells The Race are “bespoke wellness protocols, specifically for each individual”.
“This is because we’re going to see somebody who’s in the pit crew, for example, might find that their peak stress is Saturday morning, and that may impact their digestion, and other facets,” adds Lujan.
“Maybe the jack person has issues with lower back pain for example, so we may be focusing on how we can look at physical therapy, and the right strength exercises so that we can get the right products.
“We look at the overarching gains for the organization as a whole. Obviously, we will take these and make great new innovative products and protocols.”
It sounds almost utopian and more akin to a chilled-out new age retreat than the confines of a bustling pit lane. But there is also a lot of realism involved via previous work with IndyCar teams and other athletes where results have borne fruit.
Formula E races involve weeks of direct preparation including early starts and late finishes in the dimly lit hydraulic dungeons of driver-in-the-loop simulators. Then there is the E-Prix itself: a blurring whirlwind of sessions, data analysis, media and sponsor commitments before the grid even assembles.
“It’s not just the sleep for rest at night, but what we have to do is we have to find out ways that we can hack the body’s recovery system,” says Lujan.
“And that can even be with breathing techniques and meditation that can happen in 10-20 minute blocks in between sessions, to help get back into the zone.
“So, there’s lots of strategy beyond just going and laying down in your hotel room and sleeping for eight hours, which is not always possible.”
D’Ambrosio believes that opportunities for honing human development, not just in the subjects of sleep but also in overall mental performance, can be showcased in Formula E and evidenced for society in general.
“This is where the opportunity is, not only for us as a team but to be able to bring more wellness performance for everyone,” he says.
“It’s like ABS. An automated system developed in racing, and it helps to give performance and in a more beneficial way in the grand scheme of thing to everyone, to the normal road cars [users].
“We’re going to refine processes, we’re going to work together to refine the technology, which is the recipes that Craft 1861 has, and stress tests – everything – so that ultimately, that goes back in the everyday world for everyone to use.”
Ultimately the motivation is competition. Drivers and teams know that they will defined by the points table at the end of the season.
In 2022, a season with a grid packed full of quality drivers competing in the fourth and final season of a well-sorted rules set, the margins are tiny.
“One thing that we definitely know about all professional athletes, but especially in motorsport, where the difference can be hundredths of a second, is really any marginal gain that you can get is vital,” says Lujan.
“Will this be something that other race car drivers and other teams will adopt? I think the answer is absolutely, yes.
“If somebody else is getting a performance gain on you, it’s no different than any other advancement that you would see with an EV motor or suspension or anything else.”
Drivers can often be a fickle bunch in and out of the cockpit. Yet, if something is proven to give them a contributory edge in performance they’ll embrace it wholly – even if it’s optimising their ‘zzzs’ or managing their thoughts.
And Ronaldo’s dreams? I reckon they’ll be mostly about himself, goals and himself, but not necessarily in that order.