An F1 Driver's Seat: The Pursuit of Racing Perfection

By Craig Scarborough on at

The fortunes of the Mercedes AMG F1 team have revived this year, and with it their infamous driver Michael Schumacher has come back to prominence. At 43 and now in his 19th season, Schumacher is one of the most recognisable faces in F1. He is also known for his perfectionism and attention to detail. Nowhere is this more recognisable than in his cockpit. There, the German driver has things set out quite unlike any other driver and he has some unusual requests.

Schumacher made his first appearance in F1 in 1991 at the Belgium Grand Prix, and his rise to fame was meteoric. His time at Benetton brought two word titles and then a further five more were earned at Ferrari. He retired from the sport in 2007, yet returned with Mercedes three years ago.

Perhaps his biggest luxury is his seat. Every driver has a seat custom made to suit their own shape. The driver sits on a bag of foam or special polystyrene beads. These mould to form the shape of the driver’s posterior. Then this mould is laser scanned into CAD software in order to have the rest of the seats gubbins (mounting brackets, seat belt slots and safety straps) designed into the shape. This is then used to machine a new mould, from which the final carbon fibre seat is made.

The seat starts at the shoulders and reaches to just below the driver’s thighs. It will wrap around his torso to provide support under braking and in corners. Weighing only a few hundred grams, the seat is made from carbon fibre just a few millimetres thick. In some areas the shape will be a sandwich construction, with a honeycomb core for extra strength. When complete, the seat has extra straps added, in order for medics to be able to lift the driver and seat out of the car in one motion in the event of crash.

Drivers often have coverings or padding added for their own comfort. The fastidious Schumacher has all this done for him, but then the seat has an additional series of inflatable cushions added, to bolster him in the right position for complete security and comfort when he’s driving. These bladders are linked with pipes to valves at the top of the seat. His engineer will fit a pump to these valves and tune the padding to meet Schumacher’s needs. This makes his seat the most complicated in F1.

However, the Mercedes driver has a few other additions to his cockpit to yet further enhance his performance. One small simple addition is a tiny sun visor Velcro’d over the top of the steering wheel. This provides a degree of shade for the tiny LED dash display underneath it, making the digits easier to read.  Also, his steering wheel has recently gained a large digit Casio stop watch. But this isn’t to time his laps -- it's to provide a countdown in the qualifying sessions, which are limited to 15 or 20 minutes.  Knowing how far he is into the session will allow him to time his last runs to the dot in the critical qualifying session.

Having such things like a comfortable seat, sun visor or alarm clock are probably not related to Schumacher's advancing years, as he is the oldest driver currently in F1. But instead, they are a sign of the lengths he will go to make sure his comeback results a win.

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Craig Scarborough is a London-based freelance F1 journalist and illustrator who blogs here and tweets here.