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Getting the edge

25 marzo 2021

Kevin M. Buckley

The FIA World Endurance Championship starts this weekend, but Ferrari’s drivers have been preparing for months. This is where their own season started…

Endurance racing is different. Whereas a Formula 1 race can never last more than two hours, the shortest event on this year’s World Endurance Championship calendar is six hours. Other races are eight, and there is of course the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, the highpoint of the season. If a Formula 1 Grand Prix is a frantic sprint, this is instead motorsport’s equivalent of the Iron Man challenge.

A different type of driving calls for a different type of training. Which is why six official Ferrari Competizioni GT piloti took part in last December’s week-long training camp near Rome, Italy. It put them through a gruelling daily programme of specialised training sessions designed to check the physical – and mental – condition of the drivers after the winter off-season (which is never really a break from training) and prepare them for the year ahead.

‘We’d have breakfast all together around eight o’clock, then there’d be a training session in the morning and another in the afternoon,’ recounts Nicklas Nielsen, FIA Endurance Trophy World Champion. ‘It was tough. You went to bed tired every evening.’

The physical side of the retreat included training on rowing machines, weights sessions in the gym, and cycling together out on the track. Yet the mental side of things was equally important. Seminars on diet, on relaxation techniques, on sleep, and exercises for improving concentration, all formed a part of the intensive training programme.

Even seemingly trivial elements were covered, with the 2019 world champion free diver Alessia Zecchini talking to the drivers about breathing techniques and control. In the past, boxers have held seminars with the drivers to improve reflexes, while neurologists have visited to improve sleep patterns – essential for confronting jet lag in the peripatetic world of international GT racing.

It's had a long-lasting impact on Nielsen, the up-and-coming Danish driver now incorporating yoga breathing exercises into his own pre-race routine. ‘I found it really helped me, it calms you and helps concentration,’ he explains.

The retreat was organised by Med-Ex, the long-time exclusive Medical Partner of Ferrari. After following its F1 stable for many years, some seven years ago Med-Ex also began working closely with the Ferrari GT division, both drivers and staff. ‘We feel honoured to collaborate with Ferrari. It’s all about getting the athletes into the best possible condition, physically and mentally, to maximise their performance,’ says Dr Fred Fernando, co-founder of Med-Ex along with Dr Alessandro Biffi.

There’s another, even more important aspect to the training camp though. Antonello Coletta, head of Attività Sportive GT at Ferrari, emphasises that the main aim of the retreat was to improve team spirit: ‘It’s to weld together the group. Teamwork aspects are prioritised over individualism.’ To that end, there are sessions in paddle tennis to push the piloti out of their comfort zones, while spending time together cycling helps them to build relationships – all-important when you have a co-driver.

It’s a mantra echoed by Davide Rigon, champion GT racer. And he should know. The 34-year old racer’s 15-year career has included winning five GT championships in various categories and he also numbers amongst the current Formula 1 simulator drivers at Maranello. ‘It’s great to relax all together at these get-togethers. Moments when we are not even thinking about the car. Getting to know each other, our different personalities,’ he says.

‘It’s important that when you share a car with a teammate, you must have trust between each other. Knowing someone well, how they are under stress, is really important in helping how you work together under pressure in a race.’

That might even mean Rigon letting his teammates in on a few of his secrets. ‘Me, around a month before a big 24-hour race, I start taking daily supplements of mirtillo – blueberries,’ he reveals. ‘To improve my night vision.’

Nothing is left to chance. Anything to get that edge.