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F1: Mechanical Issues…? Injuries in Formula Racing

Sport is back! I hope this makes people just as happy as it makes me. Being a big fan of all sport (particularly the mighty Chels!) it’s great that amongst these extremely testing times we are being able to find a way to return. We have the first 8 races confirmed, with some more to follow shortly. Of course, I know there will be some detractors to sport returning but I can assure you we are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

It won’t be perfect, and there will be cases but we hope against the backdrop of mental, physical, emotional and economic strain we can provide people with some hope and joy.

The return of sport in other areas such as the Budesliga has however produced larger numbers of time loss injuries than we have seen before, 12 on the first weekend with 62% of these being muscular. Something we predicted (here), but given the limited preparation time and use of facilities, still did not get right. 

F1 has an advantage here as we were not having a break in the season, and could continue to build on our pre-season. However, the good conditioning from 6 days of testing in the car in Barcelona will have been lost. This is important for the body and particularly the drivers neck to get used to the amount of G-force it needs to tolerate, as this is something you just cannot replicate outside of an F1 car. Every driver will tell you that if the neck goes, that’s the race done, and we discuss that in depth here. However, what other injuries might an F1 driver pick up? As with a lot of motorsport, this is an under-researched and not fully understood area with changing race conditions and 

Mansfield and Marshall (2001) have probably done the most relevant research in the area utilising a self-administered questionnaire approach and finding that out of 13 professional and 105 amateur stage rally competitors, 91% experienced discomfort in at least one body part for more than 10 days. So racing cars can cause some considerable discomfort. As with most sports however, many participants have a degree of discomfort all the time. As with most pain however, it is important we difference between the expected and unexpected and how we perceive the threat of this pain matters; most know their body is under high strain in a poor position for a long period of time and even with some self reported “severe pain” following races their continues to be joy exhibited after a good race…and they continue to race. Similar to how I know I am going to feel after a game of football on a Saturday!

The key then becomes how we can ensure the body is as strong and as robust as it can be to tolerate the demands of the sport. To do this we can break it down into areas. Mansfield and Marshall (2001) found that the most common area of pain and injury was the low back with 70% indicating that they experience low back pain. Second was the cervical spine (neck; 54%), then the shoulders (47%) the thoracic spine (36%) and hands and wrists (32%). This knowledge helps to structure strength and conditioning programmes to target these areas. 

It is unsurprising low back pain is the most prevalent. Burton in 1983 reported similar findings with 88% of drivers experiencing low back symptoms, that combined with those experiencing neck symptoms as well means no driver was without spinal symptoms. These drivers sit in poor positions for long periods of time whilst undergoing a great deal of physical and cognitive stress, both of which we know are risk factors for low back pain (O’Sullivan, 2016). Therefore the inclusion of spinal musculature training to improve the robustness and capacity of the low back to withstand the position and forces is an important part of a drivers training programme. 

There were also some interesting findings between drivers and co-drivers, in that 62% of the co-drivers indicated that they experienced neck pain whereas only 46% of drivers did, which highlights the importance of the bracing structures like the muscles of the neck to activate when the driver sees a turn coming up, with the co-drivers not able to anticipate this.

There were natural differences in wrist and hand symptoms between drivers (32%) and co-drivers (9%) and high numbers of wrist and hand pain is seen in F1 as well, with Masmejean et al (1999) finding that 14 of 22 F1 drivers at the 1998 French Grand Prix reported upper extremity disorders; 63% which is huge when you compare that the the rest of the sporting population at 25%. Interestingly Minoyama and Tsuchida (2004) also found two incidences where separate drivers were unable to raise there arms post race and concluded that it was likely due to exhaustion / fatigue of the deltoid muscles. This was further supported by Ebben and Suchomel (2012) who surveyed stock car drivers whereby all 27 drivers described one of the top five most common physical demands involved upper body strength, making it important to consider the driver position and where the load is to help them become strong and robust to withstand the forces. 

Many drivers report a loss of flexibility as well. This is a topic which often hinges on sematics of how we define flexibility, for the purpose of this article we won’t dive into that, but it makes a lot of sense given they are in the seated position for a long period of time in an often dehydrated state (discussed here). Maybe a few of us can relate to that when we are sat at a desk or on the sofa for too long! With this in mind, the key areas where drivers are most likely to feel a loss of flexibility will be in the hamstring muscles and low back. 

The last key point to touch on is that of concussions, which can be caused by a direct impact like hitting the head on something in the cockpit, or from a high velocity movement / deceleration potentially causing a traumatic force on the brain. Minoyama and Tsuchida (2004) found a rate of 1 concussion per 1000 drivers in a single seat car which is a rate of around 2.6% per race. The interesting comparison was with that of Soccer and American Football which has a rate of 0.15-0.34 per 1000 athletes, or 1-2% per season, demonstrating a high incidence of concussion in motor racing compared with other high risk sports. This is a big time loss injury topic for another time, but should it occur it could have potential lasting impacts on Championship points for teams, therefore it is vital structured neck training is a key part of a drivers programme. 

Now none of these injuries we want to see in two weeks time…racing here we come! 

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