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The Driver Neck

“The high gravitational loads placed on the body to run the fast line can strain your neck, if your neck fatigues you will not be able to run the fast line” Mark Webber (cited from Ferguson, 2019).

When Mark Webber expanded on this he discussed how during one race he noticed Jensen Button was using his thumb to hold his head….once Webber saw this he knew that Button would not be a threat to him during the race (cited from Ferguson, 2019). It was a neck injury which also prevented Michael Schumacher’s return to the sport. 

Formula One drivers, or any motorsport athletes, do not want to be in this position. Many F1 drivers will comment that if you have a problem with your neck then you’re going to struggle. Which leads us to place a big emphasis on neck training; “for every one pound increase in neck strength, odd of concussion decreased by 5%” (Collins et al, 2014). We also know that strength training reduces the risk of injury from various papers across sports with the most cited one being Lauersen et al (2014) who found that strength training reduced sports injuries to less than a third and overuse injuries by 50%.

The neck of a driver in a Formula One car needs be able to withstand extreme forces which are equal to 3-5 times the force of gravity (bodyweight). Given the head weighs approximately 5kg, a helmet 2kg, the application of 5Gs of force would equate to 35kg of weight through the neck. Some serious force which can fatigue the muscles of the neck. The muscles of the neck maintain head and neck position and when subjected to high loads they respond to counteract these loads and restore position. The larger the load the more muscle fibres that need to be recruited and more fatigue will inset. If those loads impair muscle performance then there will be a reduction in spatial positioning, active motion of the neck, reduction in hand-eye coordination, potentially pain and discomfort and ultimately reduced performance in the car.

F1 cars and new equipment like the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device have come a long way to helping drivers withstand the extreme forces of a crash. Drivers are strapped to the safety cell of the car using a harness which allows the drivers body to follow the same motion of the car should they experience a bad crash. The HANS device sits anchored below the shoulder straps of the safety harness and attaches to the drivers helmet via a high tensile straps and prevents excessive movement during a crash, but does not offer any support for the head and neck whilst driving, leaving the support structure of the neck as the drivers ligaments, tendons and muscles. 

Photo credit, Dan Istitene / Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

The muscles in the neck can be separated into two regions, anterior – the front portion and posterior – the back portion. The posterior portion needing to be the strongest, with key muscles to consider being the sternocleidomastoid, trapezius, scalenes, longus capitis and longus coli. It is of course important to know the muscular structures, where they attach etc, however this blog isn’t meant to be an anatomy lesson (look out for an upcoming presentation) and the big take away point when it comes to training is to focus on training movements. With the anatomy it is also important to consider the complex ligamentous structure which allows the cervical spine to act as a single unit providing strength and stability; and the neural system which provide innervation and proprioception.

The number crunching and testing of current F1 drivers gives us some normative values for isometric and dynamic weighted movement for flexion, extension and side flexion which are invaluable in the testing, tracking and planning of physical preparation for an F1 driver. However the stronger they can be the less likely they will experience an impact on performance. There isn’t a gluttony of systems for testing neck strength (another blog maybe), there are some cool systems like the Gatherer systems but also month on month something as simple as using a crane scale attached to a head harness can be effective (and cheaper!). If you follow me on instagram you will have seen me use the crane scale for a number of different musculoskeletal strength tests!

In the car the key forces are acceleration, whereby a driver will feel as though the head is being pushed backward. In the case the head rest will provide some support and the neck flexors don not have to take the full force, however they still have to be able to produce an isometric strength far greater than you or I. 

When the driver applies the brakes and decelerates the drivers head will try to decelerate with the car at the same rate as the drivers body. There is no support from the car in this direction therefore the posterior portion of the neck musculature (extensors) needs to kick in and apply a force equal to that of the G-force produced. If not the drivers head will be pushed forward and down, compromising their ability to see forwards meaning they can’t focus on important cues such as braking points, turning references and other drivers. Ferguson (2019) discusses how this force reaches its peak within 0.25-20.4 secs and tails off quickly as the driver approaches a corner. This depends on a number of things like the type of car, track, corner, change in speed but gives us an insight into timing and speed of contraction needed. 

This leads us nicely into cornering. As a car rounds a corner the drivers will feel like they are being pushed away from the corner; a centrifugal force. During this force, the safety harness will keep the body moving in the same direction as the car but the neck and head must support itself. This achieved through recruitment of the neck side flexor muscles on the same side as the corner, and once again they must contract and equal the force of the G-Force produced, if they are unable to do this their head will be forced in the opposite direction to the corner leading to a negative impact on vision and ultimately driving performance. Cornering forces can last for a longer duration depending on the track, up to 10 seconds for some (Ferguson, 2019). 

Finally, some other forces to consider are oscillations and compressions. Oscillations will be present from high speed air tuber lance passing through the cockpit (which is also rather enjoyed by drivers to cool them down) and then when going over curbs or bumpy sections of a track. Compression will occur when the elevation changes such as the hotly anticipated banked corner at Zandvoort or Eau Rouge at Spa. This forces tend to be dissipated by the deeper muscles of the neck (as well as the structural components) which need good endurance to keep working throughout the race. 

Thinking about training programmes for these scenarios, acceleration and deceleration presents more short sharp forces with higher forces (in declaration) but for shorter times, whereas cornering has a longer duration of applied force. This is evident in a track like Suzuka which is very technical and where drivers have to withstand 3Gs of lateral force for approximately 32 minutes during the race (Keedle, 2019). 

There are many ways you can train the neck muscles with no right or wrong answers. Research tells us greater neck strength and cervical muscle activation can reduce the magnitude of the heads kinematic response, so anyway to the goal will do! A blog by Carl Valle summed it up nicely “neck-strengthening exercises, even crude ones, can make a difference in the incidence and severity of concussions”. When training we often use a harness for comfort and ease of connecting and it also has a cool pulley system to work into rotation, but as you can see from the below use of bands, gym balls and anything else to rest the head on can work. As with other forms of training areas of the body we will work lower load, longer duration endurance work, high load work and filter in perturbations and direction changes. Heres some links and vids of some of the ways below that we get some work in. 

We often leave neck training until the end of a session, so the athlete is already fatigued. You will never be able to mimic the forces from an F1 car but by fatiguing the athlete you can increase the difficulty of the work and effort they will need, getting them used to getting uncomfortable! 

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