Holding his breath for more

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SUNDAY AGE NEWSPAPER

He finished 2016 as, to many informed observers, the best driver in Formula One. No, Daniel Ricciardo didn’t win last year’s world championship – the continued technical dominance of Mercedes since F1 entered the V6 turbo hybrid era three years ago put paid to that – but considering what he was driving and whom he was racing, Ricciardo’s 2016 was a year from the top shelf. But that wasn’t enough for the 27-year-old West Australian, and when an opportunity to do something about it came up, he steeled himself for the biggest challenge of his career.

More durable, fatter and faster rear tyres, extra downforce that has redefined the physics of some of Formula One’s fastest turns, lap times that slash five seconds off their equivalents 12 months ago – F1 has become more extreme this season than last, where drivers frequently bemoaned having to drive below their physical and mental limits as they attempted to balance flighty cars featuring excess torque with fragile Pirelli rubber that had to be babied to last more than a few laps on the limit. With that in mind, Ricciardo knew he needed more. And as a result, there’s more of him than ever.

By F1 standards, Ricciardo has a relatively ‘normal’ physique – he’s not the beanpole that is French youngster Esteban Ocon, nor is he diminutive like Williams veteran Felipe Massa. With every excess kilogram critical in an F1 car, Ricciardo has often looked a shadow of his former, younger self in recent years, meal sizes down, time spent cycling at home in Monaco up, his admitted sweet tooth left unsated. But with the extra strength required to drive this year’s cars, Ricciardo cut his off-season short to embark on a brutal fitness program that saw him return to Melbourne this year noticeably fitter, thicker in the neck, his core in career-best shape.

All that extra training doesn’t mean he can overindulge – a packet of Australian chocolate biscuits sits temptingly but unopened in his drivers’ room at the back of the Red Bull garages at Albert Park – but does mean that he’s in a better place than ever to launch his world championship quest this weekend. After a brief trip home to Perth in the off-season, Ricciardo quietly jetted across to California to become the first F1 driver to participate in the Red Bull High Performance Program. Run by American-based Australian human performance expert Andy Walshe, the program lasts a month, testing its participants physically and mentally like never before. It was completely voluntary, and for Ricciardo, now three kilos heavier than last year, completely worthwhile.

“I feel powerful,” he says, simply.

“The emphasis was much more on the strength side of things, working on the core, the neck, that sort of thing. We looked back at last year’s program and didn’t just try to go as hard or a little bit better, we went a lot harder to prepare for what we thought these cars would be like,” he adds, referencing the work he does away from the track with English team-assigned personal trainer Sam Village.

“Preparing for these cars has been a lot of fun, because it meant I could really get after the physical training side in the off-season rather than just top up and keep things at a certain level.

“We went more for strength stuff in the gym – I figured the cardio side will come when we get more laps in the car and get used to that.

“It’s hard to make big gains in strength when the season starts, because it’s so hard to get a block of training in because we’re busy and always on the move somewhere. (The program) was pretty gruelling physically, but so much more fun to train more for a purpose rather than just ticking things over. Because it’s difficult physically, mentally it sharpens you up.”

Physically, Ricciardo is now armed with more knowledge about his body than he thought possible, and has more ways to train for the specific requirements demanded by his profession. F1 drivers are strapped into their 350km/h missiles in a seating position that resembles someone sitting slightly upright in a bathtub, and Ricciardo spent much of the month in the program strengthening his glutes and calves to assist with braking, putting in the kilometres on an ultra G treadmill to refine his running technique and take some of the load off his pelvis, and working his arms to combat the extra cornering speeds achieved by this year’s machines. Early indications suggest it was time well spent.

Albert Park’s one high-speed cornering sequence of note, the left-right flick at the Turn 11-12 chicane, is around 30km/h faster this year and now features an upshift from sixth to seventh gear in the middle of the corner, a seismic shift that has caused the trackside barriers to be repositioned and strengthened from 12 months ago. It said much for Ricciardo’s improved condition that he completed Friday’s practice sessions – close to 50 laps in all – with enough energy to spare that he would have easily jogged back to his city hotel, were it not for an engineering debrief and promotional appearances required of the sole Australian at his home Grand Prix after his day at ‘work’ was done.

The benefits of Ricciardo’s hardcore training regimen have been found mentally too, which has come in handy this week as the Red Bull racer has kept up an event schedule that isn’t exactly the ideal preparation for the first round of a world championship campaign. From his arrival in Sydney on the Monday prior to the race until the Monday evening after it, every minute of Ricciardo’s day has been accounted for, from fan engagements to sponsor commitments to the media deluge that comes with being the local hopeful. Fourteen-hour days before any downtime were common. Other than becoming “pretty obsessed” with his hydration in California, Ricciardo also dabbled in breath-holding techniques typically utilised by deep-sea divers or big-wave surfers. Learning how to hold your breath for over four minutes isn’t entirely applicable to driving an F1 car, but it’s certainly helpful in managing stressful situations.

“From a mental capacity and dealing with what happens inside those four-and-a-half minutes, you can learn a lot about yourself and how to bring yourself back to a calm place,” he explains.

“I’ve only just touched the surface, so I’d now like to do the more intense stuff. For now, the best thing I can use it for is the chaos of the weekend and all the noise and distractions. You don’t get much time to yourself. So when I do get five minutes alone and if I go through some of these breathing techniques, it’ll be a massive readjustment for me. I’ll get a lot more out of a short rest.”

There’ll be precious little chance to rest on Sunday over 58 laps of the unforgiving Albert Park circuit, where concrete walls lurk at every turn, and where first-corner incident has become a staple of the first race of the season. Ricciardo’s fourth place in Melbourne a year ago equalled the best result by an Australian at their home Grand Prix, and while a podium finish to better that is an acknowledged focus for this weekend, he’s in for the long haul. As Ricciardo sees it, an off-season of extreme work can only help in his quest for a legitimate end-of-season title tilt. Physically, he’s never been more ready.

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