It seems extraordinary, in retrospect, but there once was a time when racing drivers’ health, namely food diets, were regarded as transitory fads which only a handful of paddock insiders took seriously. Even Niki Lauda could see the funny side when I stormed into the McLaren motor home at Estori, 1984 or 85-ish to inquire how they seemed to be relishing a quite disgusting plate of what I could only describe as aspirin salad. Apart from the fact that Niki had to spend a couple of minutes explaining to his French team-mate what I was talking about, my stinging efforts at humour were middle of the grid stuff at best!
Physical fitness, of course, is the main area which has evolved out of all recognition when it comes to an F1 driver preparing to maximise his opportunities in his chosen sport. Five decades ago, in the early 1960s, that colourful Scottish competitor Innes Ireland - a close friend and contemporary of Bruce McLaren - may have been able to burn the candle at both ends, mixing drink and tobacco in pretty well equal amounts - but the nature of the sport was such that he could still indulge himself in that manner while sustaining a competitive F1 career.
One of the most memorable photographs of Innes was taken on the slowing-down lap after he had won the 1961 US grand prix at Watkins Glen, the first Grand Épreuve victory for a works Lotus entry. As he waves to the crowd, he cuts a jaunty figure as a cigarette hangs casually from his lower lip. By the early 1970s, of course, the G-forces involved in competing at the top level in F1 and Can-Am sports cars - of which McLaren was a leading exponent - was starting to put a whole generation of drivers under a whole new area of physical pressure. Granted, there was still some way to go before the sport saw its competitors keeping to the story of strict dietary regimes as that adhered to by Jenson Button in order to maximise his competitive situation.
Dietary considerations were also a major factor largely under-estimated in the early 1970s.In 1972 Jackie Stewart tested the McLaren M8F Can-Am car at Goodwood prior to a full summer’s racing programme at the wheel of this daunting machine. Yet he simply could not get into the swing of things and was eventually diagnosed as having a bleeding stomach ulcer which caused him to have a break from racing for six weeks in order to effect a complete recovery. As a result Jackie never got to race the Can-Am McLaren, but his health in the long-term was rightly judged as more important than racing achievement in the short term. As Jackie mentioned at the time, it was extremely satisfying to have demonstrated to the cynics that he was not worn out by trying to do too much - or trying to earn too much money!
Compare this to the focus around health, fitness and diet which now plays a huge part of a driver's career: the team of personal trainers who prescribe a programme of dietary advice, health checks and exercise and the catering team who travel to each Grand Prix to deliver nutritious balanced meals for the duration of each race weekend. The antics of Ireland have now been replaced with a passion for fitness and endurance both on and off track, as Jenson recently reminded us when finishing the Honolulu marathon in Hawaii in a very respectable 2:58:34.