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In the hot seat

We get behind the wheel with 2015 Supercars Champion, Mark Winterbottom.

Being a pro race car driver is a lot harder than it might look. Just ask Mark “Frosty” Winterbottom, 35, who currently competes in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, driving the No. 5 The BottleO Racing FG X Ford for Prodrive Racing. Following a golden year in 2015, which saw him win his maiden Supercars championship title, Winterbottom was frustrated in his attempts to reclaim his title in 2016. But with a new season now underway, he plans to fight hard to win it back.

“A lot of people don’t realise that it’s a physical sport,” he says. “The car temperature is about 30 degrees hotter than ambient. So when you’re racing in Darwin or Clipsal or Homebush where it’s 40 degrees outside, that means it’s 70 in the cabin. It’s pretty extreme heat.

“The best way to describe the sport is that it’s like sitting in a sauna on a cross trainer playing chess – it’s physical, strategic and HOT, so it’s a combination of everything.”

Along with the searing heat, controlling a vehicle like a Supercar takes surprising strength.

“The brake pressure is like a 90kg single leg press,” Frosty explains. “The gear shift is like sitting on a seated row machine with one arm pulling 40kg – that’s the force it takes to move a gear stick. They’re pretty physical vehicles to drive.

“Fitness plays a big role in the sport. People think two hours in a car is not that hard, but it’s completely different to driving from Sydney to Newcastle – and there’s no air con!”

Training for such conditions is difficult, as you couldn’t really replicate that kind of oven-like environment in a gym even if you wanted to. But by maintaining peak physical fitness and mental stamina, and with the assistance of the pumping adrenalin of a race, Winterbottom is able to deal with the scorching temperatures.

Before each race, hydration is extremely important. Winterbottom starts hydrating in the days leading up to a race, aiming to add an additional 2kg of fluid weight on race day.

“I load up on fluids; then out of the race I come out about a kilo lighter than normal,” he says. “So I artificially load up on two and during the race I lose three – all fluid loss.”

Every year in February, before the racing season starts, Winterbottom and his team attend a pre-season training camp.

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“We train regularly throughout the season, but every year we do a week-long training camp, three to four sessions a day, to absolutely smash the body,” Winterbottom says. “It’s good because in our sport the hardest thing is keeping fit. Unlike footy players who have daily structured training sessions, we have to work and travel a lot with our sponsors, so staying fit is harder, and there is more of an onus on the individual.

“Sponsorship is important – it plays a huge part in funding our sport. Without it, Supercar teams wouldn’t exist. I’m lucky enough to be the ambassador for Brut. It’s Australian, representing the hard-working bloke who backs himself to give 110 percent in everything he sets out to achieve, which is what I have had to do to be successful.”

The training camp “smashes” the team and, while they were already fit going in, they come out of it fitter, and try to maintain that for the year.

“It’s a starter to the year,” Frosty says. “You hit Round One, and you hit it mentally and physically strong.”

A healthy, balanced diet is also essential for pro racers’ season prep, as every driver needs to keep their weight down while maintaining strength and stamina.

“Weight is a big thing for us,” Winterbottom says. “There’s a 90 kilogram driver weight – anything over 90 kilos is effectively dead weight. Weight and speed really don’t go together – the heavier you are the worse it is. Being as light as possible but as strong as possible is the aim. I’m 75 kilos, so I can put 15 kilos of weight where I want in the race car.

“We try to eat well, but hydration is what we need to focus on mainly – once you’re dehydrated you can’t get it back. So it’s nutrition for weight, hydration for performance.”

With over 10 years’ experience under his belt, Winterbottom has found that – unlike with many other sports – his added years have only improved his performance.

“It’s a sport that, the older you get, the more experience you get, the better you start to deal with things and cope with losses,” he explains. “You’re really self-taught, and you have to learn what works for you.”

Racing season begins in mid to late February and runs through to December. It’s a long season – 15 races or rounds in 11 months.

“There’s not really any downtime,” Winterbottom says. “December and New Year we have time off, then it’s straight to training camp in January. It’s a long season. But it’s the travel that’s the hardest – I have to travel all over the country for sponsor events.”

At the time of writing, Winterbottom was preparing to race at the Clipsal 500 on March 3 to 5. While he’s feeling well-prepared, experience has also taught him that you never know what’s around the corner.

“I feel ready, but it’s a tough sport,” he says. “You’re pumped about the season, but it’s always a reality check when you get to Round One with 26 guys who think they’re going to win, then one wins and 25 think, ‘I’ve got work to do’.

“We won in 2015 and lost it last year, so we’ve had good and bad years. I’m just hopeful that we have a good year again and start strong – but that’s the unknown. That’s the nerves of pre-season.”

STATS
Name: Mark “Frosty” Winterbottom
Born: May 20, 1981
From: Sydney, NSW
Lives: Melbourne, Vic
Height: 181cm
Weight: 75kg

CAREER HIGHS
Event starts: 182
Race starts: 413
Race wins: 38
Podiums: 113
Poles: 36
Front rows: 83