Formula 1 drivers and the teams that support them travel around the world during the nine-month season, and as it now shifts from the last race in Italy to Asia, with the Singapore Grand Prix this weekend and the Japanese race the week after, jet lag becomes an issue for teams based in Europe.
For regular travelers jet lag causes drowsiness, disorientation and agitation, which all affect performance. For Formula 1 drivers and their teams, the high level at which they operate magnifies the impact.
“There’s a clear correlation between jet lag and then having poor performance,” said Faith Fisher-Atack, the physio for Haas. “If you equate that to what [they] have to do on the car, there’s a clear consequence.”
There are 22 Grands Prix from March to November, often involving long trips. Next year the calendar will expand to include China; another race in the United States, in Las Vegas; and Qatar, meaning more long trips. Although Formula 1 teams will occasionally charter a plane for shorter flights between European races, the long trips are done on commercial airlines.
“It’s something you just learn to deal with,” Daniel Ricciardo, the McLaren driver, told GQ this year. “We can prepare a little bit, so before a certain time zone, we might try to adapt a few nights before getting onto that time zone, but sometimes you just kind of have to suck it up and push through it. Everyone thinks like you get used to it, you’ve been doing it for so long, but sometimes it’s luck, sometimes I will sleep awesomely and sometimes not.”
Rupert Manwaring, the physio for Carlos Sainz of Ferrari, said that there’s no firm rule for shifting to a new time zone.
“The simple rule is for every hour difference you need a day to adapt,” Manwaring said. “If it is a nine-hour time difference we’ll try and arrive that number of days in advance, but that can be a challenge over the course of a season, as being at home is important outside of races. We are dealing with humans, not robots.”
That will include easing toward the new time zone before traveling — such as putting clocks onto the destination time in advance. Sleeping on planes is also essential during long flights.
“The jet lag symptoms last between three to five days, but in terms of negative performance effects it can be between seven and nine days, and we may not realize it,” Manwaring said.
Caffeine is also important, but it needs careful management.
“You take it little and often, rather than in big chunks,” he said. “We’d not use it immediately after waking, and not beyond 1 p.m., because caffeine has quite a long half-life and can stay in the body for up to 10 hours, so you have to be careful about the night ahead.”
Jon Malvern, the physio for Lando Norris of McLaren, said light exposure, or avoidance of it, was “another massive factor in helping you shift your body clock,” because it is effectively “telling your brain and the hormones it releases that it is ‘awake time.’”
Moderate to intense exercise shortly after waking up, or a light session before bed, can also assist the body’s adaptation.
“Carlos loves playing golf, so it’s a great thing to send him off to do — natural light and not too extensive, so we can fit in training around that,” Manwaring said. “It’s a good healthy hobby for shifting time zones.”
The next two races will be particularly taxing. Singapore is a night race, starting at 8 p.m., so teams will have an approximate ‘awake’ schedule of 1 p.m. to 6 a.m. That schedule means evading pitfalls such as morning housekeeping at hotels and morning light, while trying to block the body’s natural desire to sleep in the early hours once it’s dark.
Then it’s off to the next race in Japan, which begins at 2 p.m. They are the first two of six events that include the United States, Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, interspersed by trips home to Europe.
“They’ll have to be quite resilient,” Fisher-Atack said of the teams. “There’s no period of time to adjust.”
Experts said they believed traveling east was a greater challenge than west.
“You’re shortening the day, so you’re having to advance your body clock,” Malvern said. “West, you’re elongating days — and it’s also slightly easier to entertain yourself staying up late.” That is particularly useful in a sport such as Formula 1, where personnel travel in groups, meaning socializing is a jet lag tactic.
“For me the simplest — and not always the most practical — is going out as early as you can, not just for time, but the climate,” Nicholas Latifi, who drives for Williams, said about traveling to a race. “I always find it more difficult going east and much easier west; west you just get up early, but east you can’t sleep in the night and want to go to bed in the middle of the day.”
There is also the impact of so much flying.
“Travel fatigue is a relatively new phenomenon that we see day to day, but it’s not backed by research yet,” Fisher-Atack said. “That’s the accumulation of lots of travel: That you may not be suffering from jet lag, but the actual physical activity of traveling will increase the level of fatigue.”
Indeed, teams will spend about 10 full days, or 240 hours, in planes annually, crisscrossing multiple time zones.
“It’s part of competing in a worldwide sport,” Malvern said. “It’s the same for everyone, so it’s part of the commitment to being competitive. It is an opportunity to have an advantage — if you sleep well you’ll do better.”