Webber a lone voice
Mark Webber has renewed calls for Formula One drivers to be drug tested after fellow Australian, Moto2 rider Anthony West, was found guilty of using a prohibited substance. “I’ve always been championing the idea to do more of it, but the FIA have never really been that strong on it,” Webber said (news.com.au). Clearly in the wake of the Lance Armstrong revelations it is utter naivety from the FIA not to have a serious programme of testing in place.
One issue is consensus as Webber explains, “The other drivers have never been super strong on it, so it’s never really been a huge issue”. Well, when the lunatics run the madhouse – that’s always the argument.
The FIA became Signatory to the World Anti-Doping Code (the “Code”) in December 2010, thus joining the family of the major international sporting federations. It claims to have followed ‘the code’ since 2006, but was not signed up to it, why is anyones guess.
On its website they state, “The FIA believes that doping tests are necessary for fighting against doping. However, it also believes that doping prevention is even more important because it helps to raise the awareness of the drivers without putting their careers at risk.” Following this is a link to a 30 minute e-course on drugs awareness. (FIA.com)
Tomas Enge is the only F1 driver to have ever failed a drugs test. He obtained his Formula One break for Prost in 2001 amusingly using sponsorship from a Coca-Cola subsidiary (who allegedly used Cocaine in their early editions of the now worldwide popular drink). Though this is not a tale of performance enhancing drugs, but rather stupidly it was after smoking a large reefer full of marijuana – a drug that makes you lethargic amongst other side effects. In F1 history there have been some pretty slow drivers, maybe this explains it.
The FIA’s drug testing programme
So the FIA drugs test, what’s Webber’s problem? The failing he highlights is the testing programme is pretty lightweight. Below are the competitions regulated by the FIA where they conducted drug testing.
FIA Formula One World Championship, FIA World Touring Car Championship, FIA GT1 World Championship, FIA World Rally Championship, FIA GT3 European Championship, FIA Formula 2 Championship, FIA Formula 3 International Trophy, FIA European Rally Championship, FIA Middle East Rally Championship, FIA European Historic Sporting Rally Championship, FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies, FIA International Hill-Climb Challenge, FIA European Championship for Autocross Drivers, FIA European Championship for Rallycross Drivers, FIA European Drag Racing Championship, FIA Alternative Energies Cup, CIK-FIA U18 World Karting Championship, CIK-FIA South European KF2/KF3 Trophy, World Series by Renault
Wow, I guess you think – that’s some testing programme! Well the number of testing days performed in 2011 by the FIA in total was 22. They tested across all those series a total of 79 drivers – about 3-4 each day.
So there are 16 competitions and say 20 drivers in each = no less than 320 drivers, and probably a lot more.
Say 14 races per championship… 320 x 14 = 4,480 driver days of racing and the FIA tested 79 drivers which is a sample of les than 2%.
This is what Webber is critical of.
The common perception
There was a big debate on the James Allen site at the time of the Armstrong revelations about drugs and F1, what was fascinating was the copious comments from readers who rendered drug testing pointless, The predominant reasoning was that F1 drivers can’t take any drugs to make their cars go faster. (It wasn’t a main article but off topic comment debate – Sorry I can’t find it to give a link).
Clearly some of these comments were jocular, but conversations I’ve had with paddock personnel this year demonstrates how there is inertia throughout F1 to have a proper drug testing schedule. The sentiment I encountered most is represented in the first part of what Webber had to say, “It’s extremely unlikely…. but you never say never.”
Why is it extremely unlikely? On what basis can we assume drug taking in F1 is less prevalent than in other sports? Because there is no history of this kind of behaviour? Well we can’t know that when the drug testing is sporadic and irregular.
Is it because the drivers are now dedicated to athleticism and fitness unlike pre-Schumacher times, surely they wouldn’t want to damage their bodies? If the assumption being made is that recreational drug taking and olympic style training are incompatible – fair comment – as the modern F1 driver/athlete is the antithesis of some drivers from the James Hunt playboy era.
Webber hits the nail on the head as to why we should not assume automatically F1 drivers are clean from drugs. “You know, with what’s at stake, the money involved and all that type of stuff, people do things.” That’s right Mark, the money Armstrong made in an incredibly physically intensive endurance sport, was enormous – and the blood transfusions and hammering his body took from drugs appeared a price worth paying.
Drugs can make a difference to F1 drivers
So we have über fit athletes like Jenson, capable of competing in an olympic triathlon. It is exactly these athletic physical specimens (I mean in general – not Jenson) who look for a 1-2% improvement to be the very best of the best and are lured by the extra edge drug taking can deliver.
Why could drivers not be using EPO? (or whatever the latest version is) This increases red blood cell count and gives a continual boost of oxygen, allowing muscles to perform longer. Thus, for endurance athletes, more oxygen in their blood is like growing wings their feet. A typically grueling, uphill marathon suddenly feels like a cakewalk with EPO. (www.beginnertriasthlete.com). F1 drivers experience phenomenal lateral forces on their bodies requiring phenomenal strength and even in the modern cars, with continual access to fluid, the test of endurance – as embodied by Mansell collapsing out of the car in Monaco – is not dissimilar.
Then there are specific drugs that can increase focus and mental agility immensely. Amphetamines and methamphetamines increase alertness, concentration, and energy. Versions of these drugs were used by the Allied bomber crews and dubbed “Pilot’s chocolate” or “Pilot’s salt”, dispensed to sustain them by fighting off fatigue and enhancing focus during long flights. Japanese industrial workers in the 40’s and 50’s were also administered this class of drug to improve productivity. Is it not the case that an F1 driver would benefit from relatively small doses of these drugs and gain a benefit?
Proper drug testing leaves a true legacy
There is the argument that drug testing is pointless, because the athletes are always one step ahead of the tester. Until recently this argument held some sway but by having frequent, systematic and nigh on universal testing regime, the Union Cycliste Internationale had samples to test years later when the analysis procedures were better. So justice is done, even retrospectively – and Armstrong will not be allowed to race and he will be sued for $millions for his cheating. This retrospective action must surely be more of a deterrent today than the old hit and run drug tests of the early days.
Teams spend tens of millions for to find 0.1s a lap from aero solutions, what if a drug that increases alertness and focus can give the driver another 0.1s. What is for certain is it would cost a fraction of the car development costs for a similar gain.
Webber has been a lone voice on this matter for quite some time. Yet the indifference of his fellow drivers, particularly the likes of Jenson who is obsessively fit, actually denies them the opportunity to demonstrate that they are in fact clean.
Suggestions were made by Darren Heath (@f1photographer) that Schumacher may have cheated like Armstrong, thejudge13 rebutted this in our article “Legend or cheat” (LINK). Yet, spurious accusations like this can never be disproven unless the FIA gets its act together and starts to build that race by race bank of samples from all the drivers to demonstrate they are clean.
The FIA must act
The proof that the FIA driver programme is ineffective is evidenced in regular cases of mistaken drug test fails by athletes in other sports. Athletes have failed drugs tests with abnormally high levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline – produced by the body, or for taking a common cold remedy and a plethora of other non-cheating medication. Presumably F1 drivers don’t get high levels of adrenaline or catch a cold – of course they do – but the fact no one ever fails a test for ‘minor infringements’ is testimony to the lack of testing done.
The FIA is about to receive a very large increase in funding and radically improving this programme should be high on their agenda. F1 drivers demonstrate the highest level of lightning reaction times and mental endurance skills required in any sporting discipline on the planet. No one is on a witch hunt for cheats, but we want to demonstrate to the world that F1 drivers are clean.
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