Jet lag can cause drowsiness, disorientation and restlessness in any traveler. For Formula 1 drivers and the teams that support them as they travel the world for nine months of the year, the high level at which they operate amplifies the impact. That’s especially true at the moment for European sports teams, who have just shifted their focus to races in Asia, and so may have a lot of jet lag to deal with.
“There’s a clear correlation between jet lag and then poor performance,” says Faith Fisher-Atack, who is the physio for Haas, the US Formula 1 team. “If you equate that to what [they] have to do on the car, there is a clear consequence.
We can prepare a bit, so before a certain time zone we can try to adapt a few nights before entering that time zone, but sometimes you just have to suck and get through
There are already 22 Grands Prix a year, between March and November, often involving long journeys. This season’s races are spread across 10 time zones on four continents and require pilots and their teams to spend 240 hours on planes.
Next year the schedule will expand to include China; another race in the United States, in Las Vegas; and Qatar, which means longer trips. Although Formula 1 teams occasionally charter aircraft for shorter flights between European races, longer journeys are made on commercial airlines.
“It’s something you learn to deal with,” McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo told GQ this year. “We can prepare a bit, so before a certain time zone, we might try to adapt for a few nights before entering that time zone, but sometimes you just have to suck it and go through it. Everyone thinks you’re getting used to it, you’ve been doing it for so long, but sometimes it’s luck, sometimes I’ll sleep wonderfully and sometimes not.
Rupert Manwaring, Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz’s physio, says there is no firm rule for moving to a new time zone. “The simple rule is that for every time difference, you need a day to adjust,” says Manwaring. “If there is a nine hour time difference we will try to arrive that number of days in advance, but that can be a challenge over the course of a season as being home is important outside of the races. We are dealing with humans, not robots.
This will include easing into the new time zone before traveling – such as setting clocks ahead of destination time. Sleeping on airplanes is also essential on long flights. “The symptoms of jet lag last between three and five days, but in terms of negative effects on performance, they can last between seven and nine days, and we may not realize it,” says Manwaring.
Caffeine needs careful management. “We wouldn’t use it immediately after waking up, and not after 1 p.m., because it can stay in the body for up to 10 a.m., so you have to be careful in the coming night”
Caffeine is also important, but it requires careful management. “You take it little and often rather than in big chunks,” he says. “We wouldn’t use it immediately after waking up, and not after 1 p.m., because caffeine has quite a long half-life and can stay in the body for up to 10 a.m., so you have to be careful with the night to come.”
Jon Malvern, McLaren’s Lando Norris physio, says exposure to light, or avoidance of it, is “another important factor in helping you change your body clock” because it “effectively tells your brain and hormones it releases that it’s ‘wake-up time’.
Moderate to intense exercise soon after waking up, or a light workout before bed, can also help the body adapt. “Carlos loves to play golf, so it’s a good thing to send him out to play – natural light and not too wide a spread, so we can adapt to training around that,” Manwaring says. “It’s a good healthy pastime for changing time zones.”
The teams are in the middle of a particularly trying fortnight. Last weekend’s Grand Prix in Singapore was a night race, starting at 8pm, so teams had an approximate ‘wake-up’ schedule of 1pm to 6am. This meant avoiding pitfalls such as morning housekeeping in hotels and morning light, while trying to block the body’s natural desire to sleep early in the morning once it got dark.
I always find it harder going east and much easier going west; in the west you get up early, but in the east you can’t sleep at night and want to go to bed in the middle of the day
This weekend’s race is in Japan, starting at 2 p.m. These are the first two of six events that include the United States, Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, interspersed with trips to Europe. “They’ll have to be pretty resilient,” Fisher-Atack says of the teams. “There is no time period to adapt.”
Experts say they believe traveling east was a bigger challenge than traveling west. “You’re shortening the day, so you have to advance your body clock,” Malvern says. “West, you make the days longer – and it’s also a little easier to entertain yourself by staying up late.” This is particularly useful in a sport like Formula 1, where staff travel in groups, which means socializing is a jet lag tactic.
“For me, the easiest – and not always the most practical – thing is to get out as early as possible, not just for the weather, but for the climate,” Nicholas Latifi, who drives for Williams, says of a trip to a race. “I always find it harder going east and much easier going west; in the west you get up early, but in the east you can’t sleep at night and want to go to bed in the middle of the day.
There is also the impact of so many thefts. “Travel fatigue is a relatively new phenomenon that we see day to day, but it’s not yet supported by research,” says Fisher-Atack. “It’s the accumulation of many trips: you may not suffer from jet lag, but the actual physical activity of the trip will increase the level of fatigue.”
Indeed, the teams will spend approximately 10 full days, or 240 hours, in planes per year, crisscrossing several time zones. “It’s part of competing in a global sport,” Malvern says. “It’s the same for everyone, so it’s part of the commitment to be competitive. It’s an opportunity to have an edge – if you sleep well, you’ll do better. — This article originally appeared in the New York Times