LONDON (Reuters) - Compared to an Olympic athlete, the Formula One driver of old would not stand a chance in fitness terms.
The late champion James Hunt, whose vices were well documented, had a penchant for partying. He also liked to wear a patch on his overalls proclaiming ‘Sex, the breakfast of champions’.
At Silverstone in 1985, Finland’s 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg stubbed out a cigarette before stepping into his Williams to become the first driver to average more than 160 mph (258 kph) in a qualifying lap.
The modern breed is somewhat different. So much so that Aki Hintsa, McLaren’s ‘head of human performance’, reckons that Lewis Hamilton or Kimi Raikkonen could easily stand comparison with some of the performers in Beijing.
Hintsa was previously the chief medical officer of the Finnish Olympic team, attending two winter and one summer Games, and has also worked with greats such as Ethiopia’s double Olympic 10,000 meters champion Haile Gebrselassie.
“During my career I have operated and treated more than 100 medalists from Olympic and world championships over 15 years. l have some experience of top sports,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“In 1998 when I started to work with Mika Hakkinen, I didn’t regard Formula One as a sport that much.
“But when I came into it, I realized that it is extremely challenging and demanding because of huge pressure from the public and press, you have to take care of your team sponsors and give them time, you have to travel all the time and cross time zones with jet lag.
“And you have to train very much to be fit, you have to be mentally fresh all the time. And you have to have time to recover,” he added.
“I realized that this is one of the most challenging sports that I have been involved in and those guys that are driving that car...(rate) very highly in terms of real top athletes.
“The training methods and science has improved the level of performance,” said Hintsa. “Today McLaren drivers are training twice as much as they did 10 years ago. They are fitter now. You have to be.”
Hamilton and Finnish team mate Heikki Kovalainen have worked out in Finland at the Kuortane Sports Institute, accredited by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), whose trainers include Finland’s javelin world champion and leading Olympic hope Tero Pitkamaki.
Their programme has included throwing javelins, kayaking and endurance sports. Gymnastics is particularly good for coordination and three-dimensional awareness.
“We started with Lewis when he was in Formula Three, he came for the first time to Finland,” said Hintsa.
“I really believe that it is extremely good to change experiences, to take our pilots to work and train with Olympic athletes and world champions, gold medalists. They are like a benchmark.”
So how would the likes of title contender Hamilton, Kovalainen or Ferrari’s Raikkonen fare in an Olympic environment?
To measure Jamaica’s 100 metres world record holder Usain Bolt against them would be akin to comparing oranges and apples.
Bolt has a clear focus, one big event to concentrate on with an explosive burst of energy. His race is run in under 10 seconds.
Hamilton has to perform every other week, from March to November, in a sport where spatial awareness and coordination count as much as upper body strength and where races can last up to two hours while the driver is subjected to massive g-forces.
“To keep your performance at the top level, as it should be in the Olympic Games, is not possible,” said Hintsa of his Formula One regime. “Absolutely impossible. So we are talking about optimizing performance, not maximizing.
“If I compared Lewis to long-distance runners, it would be like comparing day and night. Formula One drivers are much behind,” he added.
“Endurance-wise, F1 pilots could be compared for example to hockey players. They could be in different team sports, the endurance capacity of such athletes is very much like Formula One if you just measure V02max.”
That measurement is the maximum amount of oxygen in milliliters an athlete can use in a minute per kilo of body weight. The fitter the person, the higher the reading.
Triple Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart almost qualified to shoot at the 1960 Rome Olympics before turning his hand to the wheel, while some top skiers have entered motorsport, but there is little chance of any real crossover.
“Those drivers who are here are the best of the best,” said Hintsa. “Those who are competing at the Olympics are the best of the best and these worlds are so specialized that it is just a dream to be that kind of athlete who can be good in everything.
“You have to start to build your career from a child.
“Would Lewis or Heikki be good in some other sports? If they had started at the age of seven or eight, then I would say yes, they could be in the Olympics,” he added.
“If Kimi had played ice hockey from a child, then I would think that he could have played at the very highest level. He’s very good at that.”
Editing by Clare Fallon