Wednesday, June 16, 2010

24 hour endurance races pits drivers against sleep deprivation

Few events in all of sports measure up to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in terms of pure difficulty. Drivers must battle their own circadian rhythms and maintain at speeds up to 210 miles per hour to finish the prestigious French endurance race held every year in June.

Manufacturers usually dominate the race coverage. Make no mistake the outcome is largely determined long before the race, during the car development phase. A car must have near flawless aerodynamics and incredible durability to compete.

Similar lofty expectations are asked of team members from the pit to the track. Each has to perform at a maximum level with an attention to detail even in the dark of the night.

Rules state that no driver is able to remain at the wheel for more than four consecutive hours. Each racer is allowed to drive a maximum of 14 hours.

Only a couple drivers have ever attempted the near-impossible task of completing the 24 hour race alone. After a well-publicized driver-fatigue related disaster in 1955, Le Mans began requiring multiple drivers per car.

Drivers usually take off about three hours at a time. Rarely do they get more than an hour or so of real rest. They usually say nighttime is the most difficult, due to the natural human circadian lull that occurs around 3 a.m.

The exhaustion tests teams to their limits emotionally. Friction becomes more common and shouting can happen amidst the crew.

The key is the weeks of preparation teams spend to preparing their bodies and minds for the 24 hour grind.

Driver Alexander Wurz told the New York Times he practiced driving until midnight the entire week before the race. Debriefing sessions typically lasted until 2 or 3 a.m.

With enough practice, the drivers and crew are able to minimize mistakes caused by sleep deprivation.

Drivers know every inch of the track, and can identify the less experienced cars that may cause problems.

Relief comes at the finish line, at least for the successful teams. “You can sleep afterwards if the race has been good,” said Wurz.
Image courtesy Audi USA

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