Why Wehrlein cannot rush his come’back’ trail

Full article published on Crash.net

F1 loves a conspiracy theory.

Whether it is rogue engineers tinkering with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes (ridiculous) or Renault fixing races with on cue crashes (correct), reading between the lines is something of a favourite past-time for many a fan and journalist in this sport.

So it is perhaps no surprise that the mystery (or not) of Pascal Wehrlein’s absence has raised so many eyebrows.

First, a little ‘back’ground. Despite being medically cleared by the FIA on the Thursday before the Australian Grand Prix, Wehrlein conceded after Friday practice he wasn’t physically fit enough to complete a race distance with the new generation of F1 cars, despite stressing that he’d recovered from the back injury he sustained at the Race of Champions in December only a day earlier.

At the time, Wehrlein stated that given the timing of his injury he had suffered a two-month setback in his training, and given higher degree of difficulty the new F1 cars are to drive, would mean that the German wouldn’t be able to give 100 per cent. Many expected him to be back in the C36 (a car he has now barely driven) only for Sauber to confirm Giovinazzi lining up on the grid again tomorrow, presumably despite the fact Wehrlein would have passed his FIA medical again had he taken it.

So is there more to the tale? Strictly speaking, Pascal doesn’t have to divulge any information if he doesn’t want to and if it is up to everyone to accept him at face value, then so be it. It’s a good poker face though.

His decision to sit out China was naturally a keen topic of conversation amongst his fellow drivers as they arrived in Shanghai, his rivals offering a mixed bag of reactions when asked whether they would soldier on had they been given the green light by the FIA.

“Two months of a rest, it’s just hard,” Romain Grosjean said. “It’s fair to say he could have not said anything to anyone and just go for it and then retire for some reason. But he was quite brave to say I’m not taking the risk to put myself and others in danger, because I suppose he wouldn’t have been able to drive the car.”

Support… until Grosjean was asked outright what he would do, replying: “He would hate me for saying that, but I would drive!”

Force India’s Sergio Perez had no hesitation as to what he would do if he was in Wehrlein’s situation.

“I would be racing even if I was not fully fit,” said Perez. “Every driver, every person is different. But certainly I will be in the car. If I was in that position, which I was I remember after Monaco my accident in 2011, as a race driver, you don’t really bother if you’re not 100 per cent to do the race, I will be doing the races without a doubt. And even if I suffer in the car, that’s the best way to get your physics back up. But every driver and every person is different, so I respect his decision.”

Dismissing the conjecture and guess work, the most logical reason Wehrlein isn’t racing is most likely the one which came from his mouth – that doing so is an unnecessary compromise for himself and Sauber.

Indeed, the racer mentality of a driver sometimes supersedes them and the ego can take over when it comes to competition, however, the new generation of Formula 1 cars differ dramatically from last year’s thanks to the increased level of downforce. Higher downforce in the corners requires a much higher level of strength, in contrast to previous years where a driver’s cardiovascular capabilities took priority.

This means a different approach to training was required over the winter, drivers swapped the outdoors for indoors as much more focus needed to be put on resistance training in the gym.

The increased load in G-forces put a significant strain on the neck, shoulders and test a driver’s core stability, which constantly require a driver to fight the forces while navigating around fast-sweeping corners. Keeping in mind the mental awareness needed in a racing situation, an unfit driver poses as a risk to himself and other drivers, as fatigue or the slightest lapse in judgment could end badly.

“The cars are a lot more physical to drive,” Jolyon Palmer commented. “And last year for me it was a trade-off from trying to lose as much weight as I could and still drive the car. This year you can’t just drive the car, so I have had to put on some weight. If I was still as lean as I was last year, then I would be struggling.”

In Australia, the differences were highlighted immediately when drivers hit the track for free practice. Turns 1 and 11 saw lateral G-forces of over 6G, with Lewis Hamilton recording 6.5G in his Mercedes. Last year, drivers pulled 3.7G through Turn 14 at Albert Park, with higher aero this year, the forces jumped to 4.5G.

“It was going into T12, and it was flat out, it was just great. I mean you come from -5 and then you go to the other one which is +8, so you’ve got around 13G difference and it just shakes you quite nicely!” Grosjean said.

Having entertainingly referred to anyone believing in conspiracy theories as ‘a very naughty boy’ in Australia, though Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn makes a point that Wehrlein was clear to race in the tests, she remains supportive of his decision and is prepared to wait until he returns.
Given the higher physicality the new breed of F1 cars present, and having only participated in the second pre-season test with a total of 151 laps, it’s perhaps clearer as to why Wehrlein played safe by letting a fully fit driver substitute for him while he worked on his fitness.

Dr Ian Roberts, Formula 1’s Medical Rescuer, emphasised the importance of driver fitness in race specification and the risks a driver takes competing if they’re not fully fit.

“For racing, any increased G-force with higher cornering speeds will affect the whole body,” Roberts told the FIA’s AUTO+ Medical publication. “But the extra forces placed on the head require good strength and endurance from the neck and shoulder muscles. Rapid driver fatigue, countered by good preparation, can certainly be an issue over the duration of the race.

“Good muscle bulk and tone can reduce injury severity to the joints and bones that they serve, but if the forces are sufficient, injury can still result. Weak muscles in the neck, for example, support the head poorly as the G-forces act upon it, and consequently soft tissue and ligaments can be torn.”

With the information provided by Formula 1’s doctor, it is perhaps fair to give Wehrlein – who of course is young and far slighter than many of his fellow F1 drivers – the benefit of the doubt on this occasion. More than that, he could be commended for looking at the bigger picture especially with the FIA’s push for a safer competition.

Indeed, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff and Sauber team-mate Marcus Ericsson, who both defended the German’s choice to sit out in Australia.

“I’m impressed with the maturity he has shown to inform Sauber that he wouldn’t be able to perform at the level required in Melbourne. That took courage and selflessness, which I know earned him a lot of credit within the team,” Wolff said. Now, he needs to build up his fitness and come back strong. I have no doubt that when he’s back in the car, he’ll prove he’s still the same Pascal.”

Ericsson added: “In the end, it’s the guy in the car who can feel how your body feels and everything. Every one of us can speculate for days at what he should or shouldn’t do, but it’s Pascal or whichever driver in the car who knows if he’s good or not.”
“From a medical perspective he was declared fine to race, already at the tests. The rest is a question of his fitness to the extent that he wants to be able to deliver 100 per cent during the entire race.

“He’s working flat out on his fitness. It is very difficult to say, because the body is not that logical or analytical in its development, on what day it’s going to be there but his target and our target is to have him as soon as possible in the car, ideally at the next race, but if not, it will the next one.”

Additional reporting by Ollie Barstow

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