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Canada's James Hinchcliffe puts on his helmet before a practice session for the Toronto Indy in Toronto on Friday, July 18, 2014. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canada's James Hinchcliffe puts on his helmet before a practice session for the Toronto Indy in Toronto on Friday, July 18, 2014. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

No time for fatigue for IndyCar drivers Add to ...

If a driver on a highway gets tired behind the wheel, the best thing to do is pull over for some rest. With recent studies showing that the effects of fatigue can make drivers act just as if they’ve had too much to drink, the consequences of staying behind the wheel when you are overtired can turn out to be deadly.

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When you’re an IndyCar driver, slipping into the pits halfway through a race to take a nap because you feel tired probably wouldn’t go down well with your team or its owner.

So, what can a driver in the Honda Indy Toronto do if his training falls short and he starts feeling drained during one of the two parts of the doubleheader on the weekend?

“You can pray for a [full-course] yellow [caution period], but other than that you are pretty much stuck,” said Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe, of Oakville, Ont.

“That’s why we put so much emphasis on the preparation – once you are strapped in, you’ve got what you’ve got and it’s either going to be enough or you are going to have problems late in the race.”

Driving an IndyCar is not like taking a jaunt down the road for some milk. They have no power steering and the downforce created by the wings shoves them into the ground, with increasing pressure as the speeds go up. This makes them more than a handful to turn. They also don’t have anything close to the creature comforts of most road cars, such as smooth rides, air conditioning and amply padded seats.

Most drivers will emerge from their cars after Saturday’s first part of the doubleheader with badly blistered hands from wrestling the steering wheel and bruised and bloodied elbows and knees caused by them bashing into the inside of the cockpit as the car hits the track’s many bumps. They’ll also weigh a few kilograms less from the loss of fluids during the race.

On top of the physical strain, drivers must keep everything in sharp focus for two hours or more at dizzying speeds or bad things happen.

To make things even more interesting, once they finish Saturday’s 85-lap race on the demanding Exhibition Place street circuit, they get to turn around and do it all over again on Sunday.

“People say drivers are not athletes, but man, I am telling you, it is very brutal because through the whole thing you don’t have time to rest except on the straightaways,” Penske driver Helio Castroneves said. “Normally, my trainer and I will do some type of focus training when I am doing hard exercise because those are the times that you are tired and your mind is tired too.”

The two races in Toronto fall at the end of a sequence of six starts in four weeks that began with another doubleheader weekend on the streets of Houston. There was also an IndyCar test right before the Texas event.

The drivers will get little rest after the Saturday and Sunday starts Toronto, with another test scheduled next week at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course before they return to the same track in two weeks for another race.

And don’t think that the test sessions at the beginning and end of the stretch are akin to picnics. In fact, says Hinchcliffe, test sessions can be even more tiring than a race weekend because the teams run the car almost all day to verify setups and gather data, so they are quite taxing on both drivers and crews. And, he insisted, it all adds up.

“We are not getting the same kind of recovery time we normally do,” Hinchcliffe said. “This is the first time that we have had to face this kind of schedule, so it’s all pretty new to us – we are not all Juan Pablo Montoya.”

The Canadian was referring to Penske driver Montoya, who spent seven years in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup stock car series where he ran 36-race seasons with few weekends off. The Colombian, who was the 1999 champion in the old Championship Auto Racing Teams Series, returned to IndyCar this year and may be most comfortable with the condensed 18-race schedule the series put together for 2014.

Although his new ride is more physical to drive than a stock car, Montoya wasn’t letting on that he might be feeling any worse for the added wear from piloting an open-wheel car.

“I am just getting started,” he said with a chuckle. “Right now I don’t feel tired – I might Sunday night, but right now I am feeling good.”

To make his point, Montoya will spend the IndyCar off-weekend after Toronto driving in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, rather than relaxing at home.

 

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