In the driving seat

World champion Jenson Button is the fittest driver in Formula One, according to his physio. Graham Clews talks to the man who helped him achieve his victory

Mike Collier, left, with Jenson Button during his championship-winning season Mike Collier, left, with Jenson Button during his championship-winning season
A couple of years ago, world champion  racing driver Jenson Button was in no danger of winning anything in his car, so his physio Mike Collier suggested he try the triathlon to keep him focused and take his mind off his poor performances on the Grand Prix track.   In 2007 he achieved a grand total of six points and finished 15th in the Formula One championship. In 2008 he managed only three points and had slipped to 18th. But two years after Mike Collier joined team Button, not only is the British driver Formula One world champion, but he’s posting times in the triathlon that might not make him a double world champion but would give any non-professional triathlete a swim-bike-run for their money. ‘I will stick my neck out and say that Jenson is the fittest driver in Formula One,’ says Mike Collier. And he should know. He holds both a sports science and a physiotherapy degree, and he is one of a new breed of physios working with elite sportsmen and women who can specialise in both performance and rehabilitation. Mike Collier originally took a sports science degree at Bath University, and spent his third-year placement with what was then the Benetton Formula One team. It was developing a new human performance centre, and while there he spotted an opportunity for a professional who could enhance the drivers’ physical ability and also treat any musculoskeletal problems. He took a physiotherapy degree at King’s College in London back to back with his sports science degree, before spending two years on physiotherapy rotation at Southampton University Hospitals trust, and then taking up a post at the trust in musculoskeletal physiotherapy. He credits this time with developing the clinical and handling skills that have since proved invaluable. Having first met Jenson Button at Benetton, Mike Collier had kept in touch, and in 2007 he received a call from the driver asking if he would work with him because his current physio was emigrating to Australia. Jenson Button was then driving for the Honda team, which was struggling to be competitive, and almost as a distraction, Mike Collier says, they poured their energy into Jenson Button’s physical fitness and he developed a love of triathlon. ‘There is a growing trend in Formula One towards working on driver fitness,’ he says. ‘The exhaustion and dehydration that a driver can experience during a race mean that the fitter they are the more they can focus on driving. ‘Ayrton Senna was probably the first driver to up their game, and speaking to Ross Brawn, [Jenson Button’s team boss] he says the most notable thing about Michael Schumacher when he started in Formula One was his ability to put in fast qualifying laps time after time because of his fitness levels.’ Not all drivers on the Grand Prix circuit have their own physios. Some are provided by the teams, and drivers’ physical condition has traditionally been dealt with by sports therapists. However, Mike Collier says the trend is towards providing more comprehensive cover, and when Jenson Button teams up with Britain’s other recent world champion, Lewis Hamilton, at McLaren next year, both drivers will have their own physios who will report to a doctor responsible for human performance. Mike Collier will now be in Lanzarote until February, working with the new world champion on cardiovascular fitness, strength and conditioning, balance coordination, and flexibility – all the areas you would expect with an elite sportsman. But while there will be plenty of time for triathlon training, the real focus will be on readying Jenson Button to defend his title when the new Formula One season begins in March in Bahrain. And whether or not the driver’s physical condition helped carry him to last year’s championship, Mike Collier will be doing all he can to try to retain the title for his boss. ‘What is clear is that you need so many aspects to come together at the right time if you’re to win,’ he says. ‘You can have all the physical aspects in place, but if something else isn’t right then it won’t work for you. I like to think that I’ve contributed to his victory a bit, but to what extent I’ve no idea.’
Graham Clews

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