Building the Perfect Race-Car Driver

Paul Kix
·14 min read
Photo credit: Ryan Melgar
Photo credit: Ryan Melgar

From Road & Track

There is a thrill to F1 racing, sure, but above all there is self-inflicted cruelty. The cars are so fast that some corners on grand prix tracks generate g-forces greater than a space shuttle re-entering earth’s atmosphere. To withstand them, drivers must be in a otherworldly shape. This surprises people outside F1, but fitness becomes more central to the sport with each passing year: To put up with the g’s, much less win, drivers must have the neck, shoulder, and back strength of a power lifter and the stamina of a marathon runner. Drivers’ hearts thump at 160 beats per minute on average—up to 200 when the racing is close. Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion, found the best way to decompress from an F1 race was to take up triathlons. Drivers sweat so much on race day that they lose around five pounds, 10 if it’s hot, which it often is, because the F1 series chases summer and Instagram-perfect locales.

It is no surprise, then, that the average F1 driver’s age is 26. Who but the young, the strong, the astute, can withstand all this?

The generational aberration named Lewis Hamilton can. That’s the strange thing. He’s 36 now. And in November he won the Turkish Grand Prix, claiming his seventh world championship and tying Michael Schumacher, one of his heroes and, until Hamilton, the sport’s undisputed greatest driver ever. Hamilton is fearless, brilliant, instinctive and, on that rainy race day in Istanbul, he saw angles and opportunities where other drivers only saw mist and fog. But superior depth perception doesn’t begin to capture the forces that have led to Hamilton’s decade-plus reign over F1. In an era of $500-million racing teams and pit crews with PhDs, where cars are not so much vehicles as computer-guided missiles, where advantages are measured in millimeters and thousandths of seconds, Hamilton succeeds in no small part because his training regimen is as finely tuned as his car. How did he become the fittest driver on the circuit, which might make him the fittest athlete in the world? Well, the secret to his fitness, as the best among these new, biometrically calibrated drivers, opens a window to the secret of his success.

In the Seventies the British F1 champ James Hunt got by on a lurid blend of talent, cigarettes, vodka, and sex. He also died of a heart attack at 45. Michael Schumacher set a new, and frankly militant, training standard in the Nineties, and soon the James Hunts of F1 laced up their sneakers, did their road work, and hit the gym. As the cars have grown more complex and advanced, so have the training regimens. When Hamilton broke out in F1 in 2008, he said in an interview at that time, “I was training ridiculous amounts of hours a week—which I hated.” What snapped him out of that toxic mindset and into the tapered-V champion of today was a five-foot-nothing blonde named Angela Cullen. She was, tellingly, the first person Hamilton hugged in Istanbul when he tied Schumacher’s record for world championships.

Photo credit: Steve Sanford
Photo credit: Steve Sanford

Cullen is his performance coach. It’s a vague phrase because it’s an amorphous job. She is his driver, his valet, sometimes his bodyguard, but strictly speaking his physiotherapist and trainer. She kneads out the muscle kinks and keeps Hamilton in the gym when he’s not on the track. He loves to work out now, which is mostly Cullen’s doing. Hamilton lifts weights and, to the envy of middle-aged men everywhere, poses on Instagram with his six-pack abs. Through his arms and legs Hamilton is more ripped at 36 than he was at 27. He does some form of short-burst sprinting in every workout these days, mixing it up with boxing, skiing, and jogging. He also incorporates Pilates, shaping “the muscles beneath the muscles,” as he said in one recent interview. Hamilton said this about Cullen after a 2020 race: “She has been one of the greatest things that’s happened to me in my life.” He wasn’t just talking about the physical training. To understand why, we need to understand something about Cullen—how she arrived at her worldview, and by extension, how she helped Hamilton arrive at his.

Cullen grew up in New Zealand loving field hockey and math, and graduated from university with a degree that combined those interests: Health science and physiotherapy. She wanted to travel the globe, and got as far as London, where she found a job “working near Crystal Palace, the U.K.’s hive of track and field athletes,” she said in an interview. Among others, she trained the British Olympic team’s 100- and 200-meter sprinters. “My role was like the engineer or mechanic working closely with the athlete, fine-tuning their bodies to optimize their performance in terms of speed, power, mobility, and control,” she said. “This was an amazing opportunity to learn about achieving ultimate body performance.”

She spent 2006 cycling through South America, from Colombia to the southernmost tip of the continent, in Ushuaia. “We crossed the Andes 14 times, cycling at heights of 5000 meters, traversed the Atacama desert and the salt flats of Bolivia.”

Photo credit: Ryan Melgar
Photo credit: Ryan Melgar

It was humbling but clarifying. She got a sense of her life’s purpose there. She wanted to train so much more than an athlete’s body, because she had to rely on so much more than her own to survive South America. When she left the continent, she went in search of this broader mandate: training the whole self. In 2014, in the French Alps, she learned about the practice of Finnish doctor Aki Hintsa, who had worked with Ethiopian long-distance runners and who believed “performance is a by-product of well-being.” Dr. Hintsa’s holistic approach goes beyond monitoring an athlete’s training, extending to diet and sleep patterns and, above all, posing some of life’s hardest questions: “Do you know who you are? Do you know what you want? Are you in control of your life?” The philosophy appealed to Cullen as much as it did to the world-class athletes Hintsa trained.

Hintsa himself had found F1 drivers to be “the most fascinating laboratory” for his philosophy, and by 2016 Cullen was working directly with Lewis Hamilton, then a three-time F1 champion who’d moved from McLaren to Mercedes.

The two clicked immediately. Hamilton was as restless as she was, curious about life outside the cloistered contours of an F1 track. He became a public figure, as legendary in his jet-setting milieu as James Hunt had been for his drinking and shagging. But Hamilton maintained a disciplined professionalism. He was obsessed with improving on track. Cullen funneled Hamilton’s wandering interests into performance, turning an already fit professional athlete into a world-class, world-dominating one.

How Hamilton Works Out

Hamilton spends at least six hours a day doing cardio. To keep himself focused, he varies the routine and includes mountain biking, hiking, skiing, and time in the gym. A two-hour race means a lot of time at a heart rate of 180 bpm or more. Windsprints are a part of every workout. F1 rules require the driver and seat to weigh at least 176 pounds. The lighter the driver, the better. As Lewis told Men’s Health, “More muscle means more kilos. It’s also disadvantageous to put too much muscle on your shoulders and arms, because you need to have a low center of gravity in the car.” As he gets older, Hamilton focuses on suppleness: “These days I do lots of Pilates, focusing on the core—the muscles beneath the muscles.”

-Mike Guy

Hitting the gym wouldn’t get them there. She talked with him about nutrition. Soon, Hamilton considered a vegan diet. “Your gut is your second brain,” he told the British newspaper The Independent in 2017. “We’re taught to drink milk and eat meat for protein and I started looking into other areas of research around this.” He saw numerous benefits and, with Cullen’s help—with Cullen even planning his meals—he went vegan. “That’s a free advantage I’m going to take. If no one else wants it, well, that’s their loss.”

And it was. He won the world championship in 2017 and again in 2018. Along the way he and Cullen got matching tattoos, a single word just above their wrists: “Loyalty.” She understood that his veganism was a chance to address animal cruelty and climate change, part of the broader worldview that never made its way onto the track but influenced Hamilton all the same. “I want my life to mean something,” Hamilton wrote on Instagram. “Being part of the issue is not meaningful. Being part of the solution is….”

Photo credit: Steve Sanford
Photo credit: Steve Sanford

A Racing Driver's Menu

Hamilton credits a carefully planned vegan diet for the consistency of his performance. Here’s what he eats every day.


A. Oatmeal—Packed with carbs and sprinkled with nuts, berries, and fruit, this is an F1 paddock staple.
B. Avocados on toast—For a boost in healthy fats, this fashionable dish is often eaten with eggs for extra protein.
C. Beans on toast—A most British dish, this plain fare is loaded with fiber.
D. Pancakes—A stack at breakfast is a go-to treat for down time in summer and winter.


E. Plant-based burger—Hamilton is part-owner of Neat Burger, a vegan chain based in London. He also once had fresh vegan burgers flown every day from Hong Kong while he was in Japan for the Grand Prix.
F. Quinoa power bowl—The supergrain supplemented with mushrooms and spinach.


G. Pizza—Vegan pizza is Lewis’s go-to cheat day treat.
H. Couscous and vegetables—Whole grains, steamed or slow-cooked vegetables, and raw salads.
I. Pasta—Unafraid of carbs, Hamilton uses pasta as the basis for multiple dishes, from orzo to ravioli.

Race Day:

According to Alex Wanee of PitFit Training, the ideal racer’s meal should be eaten 90 to120 minutes before the race. It should consist of 80 to 100g of carbohydrates, from rice or pasta, with a small amount of proteins and greens. Non-vegans should eat no more than a palm-sized serving of lean meat, and fat content should be nearly zero, which means no fatty sauces. Depending on heat at the track, a driver should also drink up to 24 ounces of water.

-Brendan McAleer

The change in diet gave Hamilton a high but consistent level of energy throughout the day and more focus on race days. Well-being really did equal superior performance. Hamilton cut hiphop tracks with Drake and opened a plant-based burger joint in London. The McLaren team had once tried to keep Hamilton focused on the next race, and Hamilton had bristled. Cullen saw that his artistry in the F1 world was based on his joie de vivre outside it.

Hamilton in turn relied on Cullen more. She became his de facto therapist, escorting him to the paddock, from qualifying to the interview room, grabbing a headset in the garage on Sunday and, alongside the Mercedes team, jawing in his ear in the middle of the race. And he kept winning, with two more world championships in 2019 and 2020.

In August, at the 2020 Spanish Grand Prix, where he was one of the oldest drivers in the field but also the most jacked, Hamilton ran a race so smooth he called it perfect. “Today I felt like I was in the most—it was a clear zone, the clarity I had today,” he told the waiting press after his time atop the podium. It wasn’t a fugue state, “not an out-of-body experience,” but instead something made possible when his racing became his training became his nutrition became the books he read and the ventures he launched. It was Lewis Hamilton, harmonized. “I was just in my highest form,” he said.

Weeks later, after he’d won the race in Istanbul and his seventh world championship, Hamilton appeared via satellite on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The host asked how Hamilton had celebrated.

He hadn’t. Not really.

The rainy and challenging conditions of the track, the tears of joy that followed the checkered flag—“I’ve slept most of today just trying to recover,” he said.

There is next year to consider, after all. And 36-year-old Hamilton knows how important sleep is to The Harmonized Man.

It’s obscene, the advancements in engineering in F1 racing. The crudest gauge is the longest: Compare Alfa Romeo’s F1 car of the Fifties to its counterpart today. In the early days, cars made 350 hp; today, they make 1000-plus, from an engine with just 100 cc more displacement.

Photo credit: Brown Bird Design
Photo credit: Brown Bird Design

The Evolution of the Species

Over time, simple physics forced the physical transformation of race-car drivers.

A. Tazio Nuvolari—Standing just 5'2" on the podium at the 1935 German Grand Prix, Nuvolari was dwarfed by a wreath intended for the Nazi-backed drivers of the Mercedes Silver Arrow team. It wasn’t size or strength that made Nuvolari great—it was bravery and his ability to soak up inhuman abuse. He once raced in a full body cast the day after being thrown from his Alfa Romeo at 125 mph.

B. Juan Manuel Fangio—Nicknamed both El Maestro (the master) and El Chueco (bandy-legs), the five-time F1 champion is not often thought of as a prime physical specimen. However, he was actually a thoughtful athlete, sleeping a minimum of twelve hours a night and eating small, healthy meals of fresh fruit and vegetables. He also frequently played soccer and largely abstained from alcohol.

C. James Hunt—Born into relative privilege, Hunt was a boisterous bon vivant who defined F1’s wildest era and was eventually consumed by his vices. He was initially physically fit from tennis and skiing, but alcohol and cigarettes caught up with him, and he died of a heart attack in 1993, aged just 45.

D. Michèle Mouton—Like her Audi Sport teammate Walter Röhrl, Mouton was an accomplished downhill skier. She was also a skilled dancer from an early age. Quick reflexes and finesse proved more important than raw muscularity as she shattered the record at the 1985 Pikes Peak hillclimb at the wheel of her 500-hp Quattro S1.

E. Michael Schumacher—Ruthlessly effective on the track, the seven-time F1 champ figured out that physical fitness equals speed. His fastest laps were often at the end of the race, as other drivers felt their endurance fading. Schumacher trained for a minimum of six hours a day and, during testing, would have blood samples taken at pit stops.

F. Sébastien Loeb—The most successful World Rally Championship driver, Loeb was first a French national champion gymnast. Rather than training at the gym, he relies on adventure sports to stay fit: skiing, mountain biking, and climbing.

G. Lewis Hamilton—As he ages, F1’s reigning champion has made strategic training a focus: Cardio, sprinting, and core strength. Compact, lean, but not over-muscled, Hamilton engineers his body with the same razor precision he uses for car setup.

-Brendan McAleer

The whole game is about efficiency. Sure, the car Michael Andretti drove in the Eighties had 1500 hp, but it was as loud as it was wasteful. Today’s engines—excuse me, “power units”—are hybrid, gas and electric, and around 50 percent more efficient than they were just seven years ago. “Compared to 2014, the power unit is 109 horsepower greater using the same amount of fuel,” Lewis’s Mercedes team said in a proud statement of their own engineering feats last year.

Everything is high tech. Drivers’ gloves have biometric sensors. The steering wheel looks like NASA’s launch control, the driver overseeing fuel flow and battery storage and finessing the deployment of all that energy. It’s no wonder that the greatest driver in the sport has gone beyond memorizing racetracks and adjusting his vehicle, tuning his own body for ultimate performance at the pinnacle of motorsports.

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