In late 2009, when Heikki Kovalainen left McLaren for a plucky start-up team, many regarded it as a risky move. Happily for the 30-year-old Finn, three years on, he’s still helping establish Caterham (formally known as Lotus) as a recognisable force – and he’s not taking the challenge lightly…
How physically demanding is it to be an F1 driver?
All the drivers can be considered athletes nowadays. Each one of us has a team of trainers and strict exercise regimes that are especially tailored to us. The sport is more demanding on the fitness side than it’s ever been.
Could you not afford to miss a week’s training, then?
I never miss a week’s training, so I wouldn’t know. That said, we don’t train overly hard because exhaustion would catch up eventually; we just have to find a balance. Obviously in the winter we have an off-season, when we push ourselves that little bit more for a couple of months.
So where do you train over the winter break?
I like to ski, so I train back at home in Finland, and it’s also a good place to do cross-country running. I’ll often run for two or three hours at a low intensity because the frosty air takes too much out of you if you go flat-out.
What’s the most extreme approach you’ve taken with training?
I ran the New York Marathon in 2007, but it wasn’t a very sensible idea. I’d only trained for six weeks and ended up over-stressing my body. It took me a year to fully recover from that. You need every part of your body to be strong – even something as small as a wrist can make the difference.
Is there one exercise you do to improve your wrist strength?
Two, actually. One involves throwing 5kg discs in the air and catching them. The other is to perform eight chin-ups and then hang from the bar with my arms straight and feet not touching the ground for as long as I can. If you last more than five minutes, that’s good.
How do you prepare for the heat of an F1 car?
You have three layers of overalls and a serious engine in the car itself… My solution is to spend a lot of time in the sauna after hitting the gym.
You wear a customised Angry Birds helmet. Do you ever use video games or simulators to practice?
I sometimes drive an F1 simulator. It can be good for familiarising myself with the layout of a track, but I don’t focus on lap times or speed. Most racing teams use them for performance reasons. That’s not real driving, so I hate the simulators a little bit, actually.
Do any other drivers train similarly to you?
I know Lewis [Hamilton] does. We both focus on the whole body. But there are people like Jenson [Button] who are doing triathlons for training, and so 95 per cent of his work is endurance. In my opinion that is totally wrong, but he enjoys doing that, so why not?
How do you prepare for the G-force on your neck in a race?
Any weight machine that forces your neck muscles to tighten will prepare it for being under severe pressure. But I also work heavily on strengthening my upper body. If something hits me I need to have a body strong enough to lessen the chance of breaking bones.
Heikki’s killer tip
If you want to achieve fast reaction times, you don’t need a high-tech computer program – you need to play racquet sports. Badminton and squash are both good for rapid movement.
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