We sit in on Williams rookie Lance Stroll’s rigorous training programme
and, indeed, there are few more dispiriting sounds than the whine of treadmill rollers set to the rhythmic backbeat of feet clonk-clonking on the rolling road to nowhere. And yet Lance Stroll is grinning impishly as he warms up on one of these machines in the state-of-theart Williams tness centre, taking in the vista of bucolic Oxfordshire countryside framed by the room’s wide double-glazed windows. We’ll soon see whether he manages to keep smiling… F1 Racing has dropped by to see how Williams have been preparing their new charge, the 2016 Formula 3 European champion, for the rigours of competition in Formula 1. Faced with a panoply of unknowns, the allnew, wide-tyred, high-downforce formula is expected, at the time of writing, to slash lap times by more than four seconds, so Williams have left nothing to chance. While F1 fans have been counting down the days to lights-out on the Melbourne startline, Lance has spent the winter rehearsing the minutiae of a grand prix weekend and toughening up his body for the pummelling it’s going to get in the cockpit.
In short, they’ve made him sweat, both mentally and physically. But while there’s hard work involved, his coaching team seem affable enough – although clearly cut from ‘drop-and-give-me-20’ cloth. And it’s all underpinned by science.
“The two disciplines are very different – the physical training and the mental training – but if you drew a Venn diagram of how they interact, there would be a small subset,” says Rob Smedley, Williams’ head of performance engineering. “What we put in place with Lance was a programme that addressed both. The easiest part for him was to work on his physical tness, and we’ve worked very closely with his personal training crew to ensure that he’s doing all of the right things.”
That’s involved bringing in the F1-experienced Hintsa Performance coach Ville Vihola, formerly Lewis Hamilton’s personal trainer, to work with Stroll family tness guru David Whiteman, who has been helping Lance since the beginning of his karting days. Watching Vihola and Whiteman work together to put Lance through his paces, it’s clear – at the risk of adding complication to the aforementioned Venn diagram – that their methodologies intersect substantially.
We’re a long way from the era of Stirling Moss, who once told this author: “I never did any keep-t. I didn’t have to. I was driving a car all the time.”
“Just getting in the car and driving it is absolutely the best thing that you can do,” agrees Smedley. “Lance has had a programme in the 2014 car that’s helped with that. What we have to take into account is that the loads are going to be much higher this season.
“There are bigger tyres, more aerodynamic downforce by quite a big percentage, and the cars are going to be more physical to drive. To be absolutely clear about where that physicality comes in, it’s going to be in the high-speed corners. They’ll be even faster, to the extent where some of them will pretty much become straights because the driver will be taking them at-out. In the not-too-distant future, even somewhere like Turn 9 at Barcelona, for instance, will be at-out if we continue to develop the cars at the current rate.
“Pinpointing where the loads are going to be so he can work on that has been one side of it. The other side is the mental approach, which is often overlooked – the driver needs to operate with a clear head, without a lot of baggage. What we’ve been trying to do with Lance is to make all the routine stuff that a driver has to do during a grand prix weekend – from when he gets in the car on Friday morning to when the chequered ag falls on Sunday afternoon – so routine that he doesn’t have to think about it. He then has more mental capacity to apply to the process of making the car go quickly.”
What strikes you about Lance when you speak to him is that, like McLaren protégé Stoffel Vandoorne, he wears his self-condence lightly. Those who have worked with him in his F3 campaign, in which he surged ahead of highly rated rivals including McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winner George Russell (now signed to the Mercedes’ driver development programme), speak of a quiet but steely resolve behind the cheeky smile.
Fresh from his warm-up, Lance has a patina of sweat on his brow, but this is merely the start of a workout that’s designed to build up his strength and endurance – particularly around his neck, which will be the rst receiver for all those additional G-forces. It’s when the body is working at full capacity – muscles straining, heart beating close to maximum – that the brain starts to lose focus on what’s happening outside as it diverts resources to keeping the human machine running.
“We do a lot of cardiovascular work,” says Whiteman, who, like Lance, hails from Montréal. “The aim is to bring his heart rate up to a point where he’s still able to achieve maximum concentration when it’s in that working range. Depending on the time of year, we do different types of cardiovascular training. Sometimes we’re doing very intensive intervals, other times we’re doing moderate, steady-state work, the kind of effort level you’d see driving the car. We do a bit of everything.
“We just use the treadmill for a warm-up before we start his weight training, which is what we’re moving to right now. Usually, we’ll run outside in the summer and do a lot of biking. For a few hours of moderate steadystate work we’d rather get on a bike and go outdoors, because it’s low-impact and more interesting. For the short, intense stuff we use indoor bikes that measure power output, so we can see how hard he’s working.
“That gives us an objective measure to see if he’s improving. At various times throughout the season we’ll put him through a threshold test, and then use the numbers from that to set his workouts. We want the threshold to increase during the season.”
Among the denitions of the word ‘threshold’ in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is “the beginning of a state or action”. In physical training it generally pertains to the point at which the unfortunate subject of the test has to reach for a bucket.
“They’re intensive, yeah,” laughs Whiteman. “But Lance is competitive. He’s not afraid to push himself. A bucket nearby is a good thing to have, though…”
The arrival of another Williams staffer in the gym provides some context as he somewhat ostentatiously huffs and puffs and grunts through a series of benchpresses and squats. By contrast, barely a whimper passes Lance’s gritted teeth as he progresses from planks to battling ropes to performing sit-ups while catching and returning a medicine ball thrown at him by Vihola. The sweat, however, tells its own story.
Social media has been alive with photos of other drivers outdoing one another in the gym in preparation for the new season, one in particular showing Max Verstappen supporting most of his body weight with just his head and neck. Lance’s coaches are cautious about doing too much weight training, though, since Lance is at the upper end of the height spectrum – at 180cm he’s by no means a beanpole, but is tall enough for additional muscle bulk to register undesirably on the scales. When F1 Racing raises the subject of the current trend towards carb-dodging fad diets endorsed by Instagram micro-celebrities, Whiteman chuckles and shakes his head. It’s fair to conclude that we will not see Lance industriously ‘spiralising’ courgettes.
A sure sign of Lance’s tness level is the speed at which he’s ready to sit down for a chat after a vigorous cardio session that’s left him red-faced and breathing heavily, if not quite bleeding from the eyes.
“I’m happy to work hard and push myself,” he says, dabbing his face with a towel. “When I started karting in Europe it was so tough. I was 12, 13 years old and up against kids who’d been competing pretty intensively for six years already, so I had a lot of catching up to do. Those were tough days. I had some good results but also some horrible results.
“I love what I do, you know? And it’s important to enjoy every step of the journey, and not only work for the glory moments, because they go by too quickly. That’s the big lesson I took from last season in Formula 3. I stressed for it for two years – not in a negative way, but I was working hard towards it – and then when I won the championship, a couple of days later I was back in the gym. So, yes, you’ve got to enjoy every part of it.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff in the simulator as well as all the tests, and really, right now, I just want to get out there and race. I can’t wait for the season to start.”
It was Benjamin Franklin who allegedly said, “If you fail to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Lance Stroll is probably the best-prepared rookie to enter F1 since Lewis Hamilton stormed onto the grand prix scene after hundreds of hours on the simulator in 2007. Lewis is a lofty target to emulate, but, 10 years on, why not?
“I LOVE WHAT I DO, YOU KNOW? AND IT’S IMPORTANT TO ENJOY EVERY STEP OF THE JOURNEY, AND NOT ONLY WORK FOR THE GLORY MOMENTS, BECAUSE THEY GO BY TOO QUICKLY” LANCE STROLL
TRAINING LANCE’S BRAIN
“Mind management,” to quote no less an eminence than Sir Jackie Stewart, remains a prime virtue of the best F1 drivers – now arguably more than ever, given the intricate complications of operating a modern hybrid powertrain. Even the very best fall short on occasion; think of Lewis Hamilton’s engine-setting woes in Baku last year, or the switch change that Nico Rosberg blamed for the two Mercedes taking each other out of the race in Barcelona.
For that reason, over the winter Lance Stroll has been testing a 2014 Williams F1 car at various locations around the world, not so much to find speed or learn the circuits, but to drain the mental swamp. It was often said of Takuma Sato, for instance, that he could be quick in an F1 car, but it required 100 per cent of his facilities to get there, whereas the likes of Fernando Alonso have enough spare mental bandwidth to formulate and interrogate race strategy as they dance on the edge of their car’s limits.
“You’ve cited one driver there, of those I’ve worked with, and the other one was Michael Schumacher, who could drive flat-out or at a tenth below the limit for the whole race,” says Rob Smedley. “And that tenth allowed him 30 per cent more mental capacity to read the race and understand situations as they unfolded. The most talented guys can do that – part of it can be taught, which we’re doing with Lance, but you can’t teach people to be quick.
“To be fast in an F3 or GP2 car and to be fast in an F1 car requires more or less the same skill set, there’s just more of everything in F1. The leap you have to take is the engineering skill set – you have to be able to change electronic settings quickly and without thinking about it. Because if you have to divert mental capacity towards things like that, you can’t focus on other important decisions in a timely way. Those can be the trigger points for three or four bad laps before a driver gets back on track.
“Managing the tyres is the holy grail, as it were. It’s much more achievable now, given the data and experience we have, so you notice the difference between drivers in the outer extremities – in the wet, for instance. ‘Wet’ is one word for thousands of different permutations that are changing constantly, from the depth of water on the track to the air temperature, which affects the convected cooling that you get. It’s like an ongoing experiment with too many variables and not enough repeatability, and the driver has to be part of the learning process. He can help identify the effect of changes, and one of the best I’ve worked with for that is Felipe [Massa], who’s very good at picking out the ‘noise’ in an experiment.”
Stroll warms up on the treadmill (far right) before moving onto weights (right) that will condition his body without adding too much extra weight
Resistance training (left) is essential, especially for the neck, which will bear the brunt of the increased G-forces
Stroll has spent the winter testing a 2014 Williams, helping him get to grips with the complexity of F1 machinery