Why a good night's sleep is not just a Singapore GP issue
As Formula 1 returns to Singapore this week, the focus for everyone working in the sport will be on sleep, and how to get enough.
Since the first night race back in 2008, F1 folk have grown used to adjusting to the schedule by staying up until dawn and sleeping until the early afternoon in an attempt to stay on European time. Against the backdrop of the inevitable jet lag on arrival, it's never an easy thing to manage.
The reality is that while good sleep becomes a topic of paddock conversation around the Singapore GP, it makes a crucial contribution to mental and physical fitness at any time. For F1 drivers and team members facing a hectic calendar with more night events and more travel, it's becoming an increasingly important issue.
That's why teams are now looking at ways of improving the quality of sleep of drivers and crew members.
"Sleep is the foundation of everything else that we try to do in terms of well-being," says Mercedes team physician Dr Luke Bennett.
"You can train hard, you can train well, you can eat right, you can do all of those things properly. But if you're not sleeping well, then you're not going to get the impact that you need.
"And that goes as much for the race team members as it does for the drivers or any other athlete."
Formerly a trauma specialist in Australia, Bennett volunteered at grands prix in Melbourne and Korea before joining Hintsa Performance, the organisation whose physios work with many drivers and teams across at the grid.
Over the past decade, he's played an important, if largely unheralded role in helping Mercedes to achieve so much success.
Mechanics in the garage with George Russell, Mercedes W13
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
"In our sport, where the technology is such a focus, I think human performance and well-being is genuinely valued by the teams," says Bennett. "But it can often slip as a priority.
"The budget cap has changed that. And there's a real emphasis now on extracting the maximum from the human beings who travel the planet, operating this race team.
"And that's gained even further urgency with a calendar like the one that we're going to have next year, where the number of races is increasing. And the geographical complexity of the calendar makes something like sleep just an absolutely key part of the performance of not just the drivers, but the whole race team."
Keeping drivers mentally fit over a gruelling grand prix weekend is a top priority for the people around them, notably their physios.
"I think most people appreciate that driving that car for up to two hours is an extraordinarily physical experience," says Bennett.
"But across the race weekend, there's also a huge cognitive demand for a driver. That steering wheel has 20 to 30 buttons and menus and sub-menus, which they're navigating sometimes even from corner to corner.
"The drivers sit through something like seven hours of engineering meetings across a race weekend, and then other countless hours of marketing and media duties, as well as the travel.
"You can quickly understand why sleep is not just a very important part of making sure that their physical preparation is consolidated. But it's also about making sure that they can still hit that apex millimetre to millimetre lap after lap on a Sunday afternoon when they've been through an extraordinarily demanding weekend even up to that point."
When it first arrived on the schedule Singapore presented some special challenges for team doctors and physios. Over the years they have learned how to keep the drivers in tip-top condition.
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF90, and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W10, lead the field away at the start
Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images
"There's some very unique sleep and physiological stresses about that event," says Bennett. "It's notionally conducted on European time, but we have all of this incredibly bright artificial lighting. We have mid-afternoon wake-ups, we have a couple of finishes after sunrise. So it's not as simple as staying on European time.
"It's an incredibly disruptive week for sleep. We then have a one-day turnaround and a flight to Japan, where we go immediately onto a day schedule. It's easily the most brutal back-to-back that we see on the calendar.
"And in previous years I guess it's fair to say it's been a survival exercise for most people. We now have ways to not necessarily optimise but to manage this stress at a time of the season where championships are often being decided.
"It starts ideally with preparation before travel. Looking at the daily schedule, you want the driver to maybe shift a couple of hours, and they can do that effectively in the few days before they travel.
"You want to select the flight appropriately, depending on what time of day they want to arrive and what their commitments will be. I've heard it said that you can drill down to selecting which side of the aircraft you sit on, in terms of light exposure through different parts of the aircraft.
"We'll then be talking about precisely when to be exposed to light, when to maximise light exposure, when to seek darkness or a heavily shaded room, when to wear sunglasses in the later part of the day, Melatonin supplements, and then timing of exercise and meals. All those variables go into the mix of a really good jet lag plan."
At the heart of it all is getting some decent sleep when the driver finally gets back to his hotel room.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
"Sleep has probably had a popular renaissance over the last few years," says Bennett. "I think there's an appreciation that it's not just the part of your day that gives way to all other activities. It's so important for consolidating all of the other important physiology that you have.
"But it's not just sleep. As a broad concept, I think everybody understands how important that is. But I would say even over the last year the physiology of temperature around sleep is really becoming recognised as probably as important as things like light and dark manipulation, which were traditionally considered to be the most important variables around sleep.
"The physiology about how temperature affects the depth of your sleep, phases of your sleep, the healthy phases of REM and deep sleep, and then how that affects your performance, both physically and mentally the following day. It's all logged pretty closely to temperature, and I think it's a pretty exciting field."
This year Mercedes has taken an interesting step in exploring the subject further by partnering with Eight Sleep, a company whose products focus on how temperature impacts sleep, and how it can be used to improve it.
The Eight Sleep "pod" comes in two forms, either as a complete mattress or as a mattress cover that can also potentially be transported. It works in conjunction with box that sits next to the bed, and a phone app.
"It's essentially a sensor layer, a mattress pad that you can install onto any mattress," says Eight Sleep co-founder Matteo Franceschetti.
"It will do a couple of different things. First of all, it's like sleeping on a stethoscope. There are sensors embedded that you don't feel that are able to track everything about your heart rate, your respiration and your sleep quality.
"And we are reaching medical grade accuracy in a couple of these dimensions, meaning that your bed is comparable to a medical grade device.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
"But the key difference between us and a wearable is that the wearable tracks the data and reports the data to you. But it doesn't do much more than that. In our case, we use the data to then adjust the temperature and control your body temperature."
That's the key to how the Eight Sleep pod improves your sleep, as Franceschetti notes: "The bottom line is each side of the bed can have a different temperature, and the temperature will change during the night to optimise your recovery.
"We didn't reinvent the wheel, meaning that there is already plenty of medical evidence that temperature at night can improve your sleep performance and your body temperature changes. When you hear people saying, 'You should sleep at 68degF (20degC) the whole night,' that is wrong.
"And the reason is 68degF could work for one hour out of the eight hours. But for the other seven hours, you need a different temperature. And that is what our device does."
Franceschetti stresses that the idea is to promote what the company calls sleep fitness.
"Everything started at first from a certain vision that we had internally," he says. "Most of the time when you think of bedding companies you think about comfort and cosiness. Our approach has always been different, because I used to be an athlete.
"And I always thought of sleep not just as relaxation, but also recovery. And that is how we came up with this concept of sleep fitness, which means you need to put the work in, you need to put the effort and the hours in when you go to bed, as you will do in the gym. But then you wake up fully refreshed, energised and healthier."
So what are the tangible benefits of better sleep for an athlete like a racing driver, or indeed for anybody else?
"There are some ways that are more obvious," says Franceschetti. "Like reaction time, mental clarity, cognitive performance and focus, which are pretty obvious.
"But then there are also I would say almost second order effects that are effects on your own health. So lower heart rate and higher HRV [heart rate variability], which is another proxy for physical stress and recovery, overall better health. By being more energised, you will likely eat better and avoid junk food, probably you will be in a better mood.
"At the end of the day health is based on three pillars, one is sleep, one is nutrition, and one is fitness. But sleep is really the foundational part because if you sleep two hours per night for five nights in a row, I can tell you, you will eat very shitty food, and you will not be able to train!
Photo by: Lionel Ng / Motorsport Images
"Other second-order effects are injuries. By recovering properly and sleeping properly, you will avoid injuries, which for athletes is a major factor."
The Mercedes drivers and key team members have been using Eight Sleep products in their homes this season, providing useful benefits before and after travel to races.
The next step is to have the portable mattress cover version transported around and installed in hotel rooms at each event, to ensure that those benefits fully carry over to race weekends.
"We are talking to one of the drivers to see if we can have the pod installed in his hotel in all the remaining races of the season," says Franceschetti. "For sure, some races will be really easy, and a no-brainer to make it happen. Some others may be harder.
"But the idea is over time as the relationship between Eight Sleep and Mercedes develops is how can we expand this programme and make sure that the drivers and all the engineers have it in every single race of the year?"
In a sport where marginal gains count, Mercedes may have found a useful extra edge over rivals.
"When we say we can improve your sleep quality by 30%, imagine if I could tell you I can improve your strength by 30%," says Franceschetti. "If you use the same framework for energy, clarity, reaction time, then everything being improved by 30% is a big deal."
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