When Lewis Hamilton won the 2014 BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in Glasgow, beating bookies favourite and World Champion golfer Rory McIlroy, many were confused and upset. Fans and Sports stars alike took to Social Media sites to express their disapproval at the outcome.
Unquestionably, all of the nominees in Glasgow have to be admired for not only their sporting prowess, but also for the sacrifices that they have made in order to get where they are today. 3rd placed athlete Jo Pavey for example accomplished an incredible feet after taking bronze at the 5000 metres at the Commonwealth Games and, days later, the gold medal in the 10,000 metres at the European Championship, all whilst recovering from having given birth just 10 months beforehand; never mind the fact that she became the oldest female European champion in history at the age of 40 years and 325 days. I shall not be delving into the murky waters of whether Hamilton, McIlroy or any of the other nominations for the award deserved to win the award however, purely because of the fact that the award is nothing more than a popularity contest – which Hamilton won by 209,920 votes, 86,175 votes more than 2nd placed McIlroy – rather than a vote for the most talented. Instead, I will instead be concentrating on a particular criticism that has come up in reaction to Hamilton’s win:
Can F1 be considered a sport?
The lead criticism of the outcome of the Sports Personality of the Year vote seems to be that many consider Formula One not to be a sport, as you can see in these 6 examples of thousands and thousands of tweets regarding the event. Of course this is not the first time that this issue has been bought up. Many people make the mistake of associating Motorsport with the everyday act of driving on the road. To be honest, that is fair enough, as on the outside you may not see why Formula One, or indeed any other category of racing, should be called a sport. When you take a look at what processes go on during the act of driving a Formula One car however, you will see why it really does take an athlete in order to not just compete, but simply just to get to the end of the race in one piece.
The key way to define an activity as a sport is to take a look at the definition of sport itself. The Oxford Dictionary defines sport as: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” There is absolutely no questioning the fact that Motorsport sees individuals and teams competing against each other for entertainment, which leaves it down to whether Motorsport requires physical exertion.
2009 Formula One world champion Jenson Button once said, “To understand the intensity of driving an F1 car, you have to be in it. When you’re driving a 750hp machine at 200mph, the noise and the vibrations are incredible. The G-force when you take big corners is like someone trying to rip your head off. You hit the brakes, and it feels as if the skin is being pulled off your body.”
One point that Jenson makes highlights what is possibly the most difficult aspect of driving a Formula One car: the G-Forces. The intense development of aerodynamics has meant that now drivers are taking corners at insane speeds. The G-Forces involved when accelerating, braking and turning at such high speeds puts a massive strain on your neck muscles. This means that drivers have to put massive emphasis on training their neck muscles to be able to last 2 hours of constant forces. You can see in the picture above that in training, drivers simulate these forces by pulling heavy weights attached to their helmets.
The sheer speed of Formula One cars these days also mean that drivers have to be able to make split second decisions. You may think this means that they have far better reaction times, but that is incorrect. Human beings have pretty similar reaction times, but what differentiates Racing drivers is that they have a greater sense of anticipation. MIchael Schumacher once commented that if you are reacting to an event that has already happened it is too late, so you need to be able to pre-empt what is going to happen.
These previous two points are expertly demonstrated by Richard Hammond of Top Gear. You may recall that Hammond was quoted as saying that it couldn’t be that hard to drive a Formula One car. So to challenge this, the Renault Formula One team set him the task of driving the 2005 car that took Fernando Alonso to the first of his two world championships. For those of you who haven’t seen this, or those of you who just want to see it again:
Video courtesy of BBC Top Gear on YouTube.
Formula One drivers also have to cope with the conditions in which they need to drive. The constant G-Forces make driving the car difficult enough in standard weather conditions, but add to that the extreme heat of the Bahrain desert or the sodden wet conditions of the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix and driving becomes even more of a superhuman effort. In the hotter races, drivers can lose up to 3kg of body weight through sweat, which is a lot considering that drivers such as Felipe Massa only weigh 59kg. Premiership footballers are thought to lose about 1kg in a 90 minute game. Yes that does seem to suggest that footballers are fitter and can cope better, but they do not face the sheer intensity of different conditions and forces that a racing driver does.
All of these factors combined mean that F1 drivers need extreme cardiovascular fitness in order to be able to remain at their peak level of performance on every lap of a 2 hour race. Their levels of fitness are so good that it is not surprising that drivers such as Button take part in Triathlons during the Formula One off-season for ‘fun’. You can take a look at an example of an F1 driver’s levels of fitness in this YouTube video courtesy of GSK human performance lab where Jenson Button takes on London 2012 Olympic medallists Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee:
This level of fitness that Formula One drivers possess, as you can see, isn’t just impressive, it is comparable to Olympic athletes. So why is it that the Olympics is considered the pinnacle of sports and yet Formula One is called into question? Yes, Formula One does involve having a good car in order to win. Take the Mercedes WO5 that won Lewis Hamilton the drivers’ championship and Mercedes AMG Petronas the Constructors’ trophy; the car was unquestionably the best on the track. However, to quote a somewhat cliché phrase sports, it isn’t about winning it’s about taking part. This can be made to fit this topic. Yes Hamilton may have had the advantage of being in the best car, but it still takes a supreme level of fitness in order to be able to take the car to victory.
Yes, I am a Motorsport fan. I very much prefer Formula One as opposed to Football or Golf, but from a completely unbiased view you have to say that Formula One, and motor racing as a whole, deserves it’s title as a sport. The sheer level of fitness and physical aptitude required to be able to race a Formula One car must mean that those who take part in it are athletes considering that some other sports require much less. Hopefully I have proved that Formula One is almost certainly not just motor racing, but motor SPORT.