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Fit as an F1 driver

Nico Rosberg turns around with a grin during a slight uphill section, shouting "Hey, what's the pulse?"

To which his personal coach Daniel Schloesser responds "104."

It's training unplugged on the bike, as the Mercedes team Formula One driver Rosberg just listens to his own body (and the trainer) without wearing a pulse watch or other monitoring equipment.

"Some two to two-and-half hours" is the bike training routine, Rosberg explains as the route leads away from the Barcelona race track where the teams were testing until Friday for the F1 season.

Rosberg also needs no GPS, he knows the route. From the previous day, from the previous year.

Rosberg, who normally trains in his residence of Monaco, is not the only F1 driver who enjoys cycling as part of the fitness routine.

The 2009 world champion Jenson Button of McLaren is a dedicated triathlete who has already qualified for the world championships over the half-ironman distance. Former two-time champ Fernando Alonso also excels on two wheels, totalling some 9 000-12 000 kilometres per year.

Rosberg, who can not run a lot owing to knee problems, manages around 5 000km on the bike which is just one part of his all-around fitness regime.

Schloesser, who spends some 200 days per year with Rosberg, says that "you can't train specifically for your sport as a Formula One driver" but adds that this actually allows the drivers more diverse training.

"How is pulse now?" Rosberg asks 20 minutes into the session. "107" is the answer from the ironman competitor Schloesser, and Rosberg knows that his own pulse rate is likely just below that mark.

Formula One drivers face the dilemma that they have to keep very fit but at the same time can't be musclemen as every kilogramme counts in a sport where 642kg is the low limit for a car plus its driver.

Three-times reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel is another example. The 25-year-old German Red Bull driver still looks like a bright high-school graduate rather than someone who can control the immense centrifugal forces of a 750-horsepower F1 car and keeps cool in the most extreme situations in the sport.

That's exactly what it is all about - having the physical power to make the right decisions in borderline situations.

"The demand on F1 drivers has risen constantly since the 1990s," says doctor Johannes Peil, head of a sports clinic in Bad Nauheim, Germany. "Basic things like power, coordination, speed, endurance and reaction time are trained in a way that was not imaginable in the past."

A split second can decide on success or defeat, or more.

Rosberg's new teammate Lewis Hamilton recently crashed into a tyre wall, aiming straight at the obstacle rather than sideways because that would have caused more damage to the car.

A solid preparation is needed to be ready for these moments, and the drivers are all engaged in their own fitness regime long before the start of a season.

Planning training during the 19 or 20-race season is more difficult, and there are also sponsor events, travel and other obligations for the drivers.

Rosberg normally trains for three days, with the biggest intensity reserved for the last day, and then has a one-day break. He readily admits that he sometimes wants too much, "because I enjoy it and because I want to be a good cyclist."

Crazy or not, the training helps in extreme conditions.

"It is hell," Rosberg says on the way back to the Barcelona circuit, talking about the Malaysian Grand Prix held in sweltering heat and humidity.

"You could put your bike into a sauna and then pedal for 20 minutes," he suggests.

The idea alone is enough to break a sweat, and Rosberg says he knows of nothing that compares with the conditions at that race set again for March 24 in Sepang.

The Malaysian Grand Prix comes a week after the season-opener in Australia, and all the travelling also takes its toll, even though the drivers are not crammed into economy but enjoy the spacier first or business class, or private jets.

Still, the lower pressure in the cabin at an altitude of 10 000m, the dry air and less oxygen are far from ideal for a sportsperson.

"The flights are a big problem. The immune system is challenged, the whole system affected. Anyone who trains too much afterwards falls ill. It is not easy to make the right decision and skip training despite feeling bad about it," Schloesser says.

The long-haul flights also bring the drivers to different time zones throughout the season: Australia, Malaysia, Bahrain, then Europe, a stint to Canada, back to Europe, then Asia, the United States and Brazil.

All these factors make it hard to maintain the physical fitness level, which makes Schloesser keep a close eye on Rosberg - and at his pulse watch.

By Jens Marx, DPA

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