What if there was a high-speed Olympic sport perfectly suited for drivers to adopt, and already has a strong connection to big racing brands? We delve head-first into the world of skeleton to find out more
Naysayers of Formula 1 love to argue that car racing is not a sport due to the extent that machinery dictates performance, and that professional racing drivers are not athletes. But the truth is their bodies go through some of the most demanding stresses in all of sport. Where else does the human body have to make as swift and as aggressive direction changes as in motorsport, and in what other spectator sports are the margins of error so small that drifting a centimetre or two too far and not correcting it within a split second can have catastrophic consequences not just for your result but for your own welfare?
To which the answer is sledding. In the Winter Olympics this is done on downhill ice-based bobsleigh tracks, which feature high-speed banked corners and tricky twists. With tracks usually wrapping themselves over hilly areas near wintery forests they can look like rally stages, but the controlled drifting of a rally car is less comparable to the sledding sports than the high-grip, high-precision task of driving a high-end single-seater car. And the similarities go way further than that.
Some of car racing’s highest commitment corners are similar to those of bobsleigh tracks in their physical challenge, with drivers and sledders pulling four times the force of gravity as they accelerate through them. And both require the same kind of physical training for that kind of challenge. The best in the world can take on these kinds of corners with millimetre precision run after run, and the fight to be fastest can be decided by thousandths of a second between multiple competitors.
This summer, Formula Scout went to the home of the British Bobsleigh & Skeleton Association in Bath to try out skeleton – the most physically and mentally demanding type of sledding – and to find out how a motorsport mindset has driven up the level of competition.
What is skeleton?
Skeleton is simple to explain. It involves an athlete navigating a bobsleigh track by lying down on their front, head-first, on a small tray-like sled with two runners (blades that run the length of the sled’s underside and are the contact point with the ice). They wear spiked shoes for startline grip, and aerodynamic helmets and lycra bodysuits as protection but also to increase their pace.
After seeing the starting lights they push the sled for 65 metres with one hand before a skilful manoeuvre gets them on top of it as it begins to head downhill. The clock doesn’t start until after 15m, and the first split time comes in at the 65m point.
That is all normally done in a matter of seconds, and they tackle the rest of the track at increasing speed. Steering is achieved via changing the weight distribution on the sled, so moving head and shoulders left and right and also applying pressure down on the sled with one knee more than the other (a subtle change when leg movement disrupts the aerodynamic profile). They can pull up to 5 G on a run, and the downforce level often brings the head down onto the ice.
With speeds as high as 80mph (128kph), it means that small errors are magnified and reaction times have to be on par with those of F1 drivers.
BMW is the title sponsor of the biggest skeleton competitions and has had long-standing technology partnerships with Germany and the USA’s bobsleigh and skeleton federations to develop sleds and provide engineering support, while Ferrari has done the same for the Italians’ efforts [pictured below] and the McLaren brand has worked with the BBSA. Red Bull has an involvement that goes beyond athlete sponsorship too, utilising other parts of the brand’s sports empire.
You need only look at the careers of Nico Hulkenberg and Jean-Eric Vergne to realise driver weight has become an issue in F1 over the last decade, and increases in the minimum individual and combined weight of car and driver has not helped taller athletes as teams still put the onus on drivers to be as light as possible so ballast can be used in the cockpit.
Although there are exceptions (such as Juan Pablo Montoya), to be able to drive a top-level single-seater fast you need to have a certain body composition. Being shorter is an advantage in terms of weight, as well as aerodynamics and packaging, but means there is less travel of the leg and therefore less force during pedal application. For much of the time the heel will already be rested on the pedal and it will be ankle rotation, ‘toe’, pushing it down, but is still takes a lot of leg strength (even with brake-by-wire) to slow down a car travelling at its top speed.
Steering requires strong hands and arms, and the car will feel like it weighs more at higher speeds due to the impact of downforce, while neck and core muscles have to be able to sustain the g-forces of acceleration, braking and cornering. But you don’t want too much upper-body mass as that is weight positioned fairly high in the car. A similar dilemma for skeleton.
Although it may not seem obvious that all the other muscles in the body are in use while driving, it’s crucial that strength and conditioning training is applied to the whole body not only so a driver can endure a whole grand prix but also because it can greatly reduce the risk of injury in a crash both in tolerating the sudden deceleration (think about how crash test dummies fold over or how reinforced beams keep buildings standing by reducing torsion) and also protecting the internal organs.
It’s the same in skeleton. Big leg muscles are needed for an explosive getaway off the line, and a bigger stride length means more ground covered in the first few seconds. Once you’ve thrown yourself onto the sled head-first, the upper body is doing the hard work.
The average weight of F1 drivers this year is around 68 kilograms, putting them in the ideal ballpark to be a skeleton athlete.
“You have athletes with different weights, and obviously different heights as well. You and the sled have to be a combined weight. For women it has to be 92kg, so the sled will then weigh around 28-34kg, which is the maximum,” explains Donna Creighton, the BBSA’s events manager and a former world championship-level skeleton racer herself.
“For guys it’s 115kg [combined, with 43kg max. sled weight], so the athlete weight can influence how much the sled weighs. Most of the guys in our programme are around the 80kg mark. Ideally, you want to be in the middle, 70, 75, 80kg, around that.”
A bit like in processional motor races, the start off the line can be critical for determining your finishing position, and it’s the part that is practiced the most as BBSA has its own dry track that incorporates the start and a brief but speedy descent.
“The first 10, 15 metres is the most crucial part to the sport, so you have to be very powerful and explosive. Working on having glute, quad and hamstrings I would say is probably where the main mass is. You obviously don’t want to be too big at the top for aerodynamics, so having massive huge traps [upper back] and shoulders isn’t ideal. Obviously you don’t want to be hanging over the sled, either, because you’re then hitting walls and things, and that’s not great. So I would say the main kind of body mass would be quads and glutes.”
There may be a slight muscle imbalance if an athlete always launches on the same side of the sled, but many now train from both sides to be more adaptable.
“They try to push from each side just to work on that technique and being able to be flexible and dynamic to be able to when they go to tracks, one side of the spur [two grooves at the start of the track to ensure the sled is pushed in a straight line] isn’t always ideal going into the first corner, so you have to be adaptable to be able to push from the other side as well.”
Like how a grid spot can be off the racing line for the first corner of the race, athletes need to know to get their sled into position for when they reach the corner, regardless of the side they get on from, particularly with a short run to turn one.
Pat Atkin, one of the BBSA team and a racer in skeleton’s Europa Cup, adds: “Sometimes when the season’s over and we come back into pre-season, some athletes intentionally learn to push from the other side as well, almost to relearn the skill. To get rid of any bad habits that they might have picked up over the season. It’s almost start from scratch and learn it again.”
Once on the the sled, “most of the g-force will come through your head and your neck, so having good strong upper body, like trap and neck muscles [is key]”, but there’s a narrow window between building up muscle mass and having too much of it.
The athletes “do a lot of neck work in the gym”, using the same tools as racing drivers including harnesses and elasticated bands for resistance training, and plank-style isometric exercises where the body weight is supported by the head for a prolonged period of time. These stop drivers from having their hands slam down in the cockpit when braking or lulling to the side of the cockpit in turning, and in skeleton prevents the head from dragging along the ice. In both instances, neck strength is also critical to being able to see where you’re going when the scenery is rushing past you. A head that is being shaken, thrown about or is visor-down on the ice isn’t much use.
“It also helps with concussions as well, because concussions are quite common in the sport, as you’d imagine,” says Atkin. “But there’s a lot of research to show that the stronger your neck is, the less likely you are to get a concussion.”
In the previous decade, sports nutrition revamped how diet is approached across sport. But in recent years there has been more variety in food choice again, with Lewis Hamilton for example switching to a vegan palette.
“Because a lot of our programme is gym-heavy, it’s really high protein and really high carb in skeleton. Particularly during summer because we’re probably doing two gym sessions a day, and they’re really [max. effort].
“On-season, there’s the aspect of having to either maintain weight, so that you can be optimal in terms of combining your sled and your body weight, or making sure that you don’t lose weight, which is a problem for a lot of the athletes. Because the tracks are in quite remote areas around Europe, the darkest parts of Bavaria for example.”
When teams are touring Europe for events, the availability of food will often be determined by what hotels provide or what can be cooked on-site. Which is usually catered to a more general audience than professional athletes and their dietary demands. It oddly means that in skeleton, athletes may actually be in their peak physical condition during the off-season.
Concussion-like symptoms have been thrown back into the F1 spotlight this year due to the 2022 regulations inducing porpoising – a bouncing up and down of the car due to differences in air pressure above and below the vehicle – and drivers such as Hamilton have spoken about “micro-concussions” induced by continuous vibrations of the head.
The FIA has been working on a large-scale concussion research and response project for several years, and there are parallel advancements in research on this matter in other sports including skeleton where it is more than just heavy impacts causing head damage.
“The vibrations [cause the concussion-like symptoms],” Atkin explains. “A bit like shaken baby syndrome. So as you’re going down, it’s more the vibration. A lot of us, from what a lot of the concussions were from, were not just general impact.”
Like IndyCar, the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation has a concussion protocol applied at every event.
“We have a full protocol that’s been quite refined over the last few years. And it’s basically if you’ve got symptoms, it’s not worth risking it.”
Athletes report every day while at tracks about how they are feeling, and there are also post-run checks including physical assessments against baseline tests tracking eye movement and inner-ear functionality.
“We do lots of tests like that. There’s the SCAT [Sports Competition Anxiety] test, but then there’s also the stibula [inner-ear] testing. And then if you have any symptoms, it’s a very, very graded return to the sport again. So it’s not ‘okay, you feel better, you’re back in’, it’s very, very graded so that you’re not running any kind of risk, basically.”
Rushing back to action from concussion can prolong the recovery period, cause more damage and quite often just be more damaging to your career. Oliver Askew’s IndyCar dreams were undone by a concussion, while NASCAR is having drivers now sidelined by the issue. Due to the long-term risk of ‘sled head’, skeleton athletes are limited in how many runs they can actually do in a given time period.
“So the majority of athletes will only get two runs each day, especially through a competition period,” Creighton says. “And if they’re training on a track, they’ll be able to do slightly more. For us guys, we don’t risk them doing any more than four. And it will obviously depend on the types of tracks that they go to as well.”
F1 has taken action to reduce porpoising, but has been fairly lax on stopping drivers from getting in the car when they report feeling unwell, and of course the biggest risk of all in both sports is crashing. Athletes love racing on the edge, but they can pay the price heavily when that goes wrong.
There are “absolutely loads” of spare parts brought to competition, “because even if you don’t crash or hit a wall, some of the equipment can be damaged” from the brutality of skeleton runs. However the runners can “last a couple of seasons” if maintained well, and wear on parts will impact their performance.
You’ve made it to the track, but first practice isn’t until tomorrow, what do you do?
“When they go to a new track, they’ll usually do a track walk. So they’ll walk down the track,” say Creighton.
“They’ll be looking at the ice in the corners, and what it’s doing; if it’s slightly different from the last time that they were there. Trying to figure out kind of the best way to get through the corners, and then at the end of each session they’ll go through with their coaches any corners that they’ve filmed, so they’ll do a video analysis and the coach will feed back to them, and then at the end of the training day, they might walk down the track again.
“It’s an athlete preference really of how much they walk down the track, but they’ll do a hell of a lot of video analysis.”
This all sounds rather familiar. Track walks are part of motorsport at all levels, although some top drivers (namely Hamilton and Max Verstappen) have said they find them a waste of time. But they’re crucial for taking notes of inconsistencies in the track surface, having a base understanding of the grip level, noting any areas which could prove problematic should the grip change with track evolution, and learning the layout. Because of the pace of track walks, you also have time to discuss and analyse certain elements before even completing the course.
“[During skeleton events] they’ll clean the track, and they’ll spritz it with water. Every training day they’ll try to keep the ice as smooth as possible. If we’re with bobsleigh and things like that, that can have a little bit of an effect on how the ice is. And obviously weather conditions as well can make it slightly frosty, so they sometimes then have to shave it. So they’ll take frost off the ice to make it smooth again.”
It means tracks can feel totally different between runs, and also means those who go out on track later can have “very different” conditions to slide down. “The track teams have a real job on their hands to [keep it consistent],” remarks Atkin.
The track walk is also when it’s actually easiest to see what’s in front of you. When you’re attacking corners at speed, you have to be assessing the track further ahead at the same time, and only through the space the visor allows you to while your head rattles along. But for professionals that’s not an issue.
“You can actually see a lot more than you think,” Creighton admits. “When I slide, your head is slightly up so you’re looking forward. You’re almost kind of looking through your eyebrows, that position. So you’re able to see a lot, but obviously when you’re in the middle of a corner and you’ve got g-force on you, your head will get pinned to the ground so you won’t see a lot, but it’s only for a split second.”
Racing drivers have ‘super senses’ which means they don’t always need to rely on visual feedback, and should be able to navigate corners blind, as they drive from feeling through their contact patches with the car. The same on a sled, where the course has to be known off by heart and you need to react to what you feel through your body as much as what you see. In split seconds, athletes are assessing grip levels and make rapid calculations based on minute differences in sensation.
“A lot of it comes down to your feel. As you’re going through the corner, you’ll feel the pressures coming on and off of you, and that will give you an idea of where to steer and where you’re coming out of a corner.
“You’re head first, so the main part of your body is on the sled, from shoulders to your knees. You’ll feel the most pressure coming through your upper torsoe, and it’s almost like a squeezing sensation. So you’ll feel that there. And your head, you’ll feel the g-force coming through that. When you’re in a bobsleigh it’s slightly different. Again the force will come down more through your head downwards, but you’re holding on to the D-rings, so you’ll get a little bit of feedback through that as well.”
To actually get track time on the ice can be quite difficult, once the calendars are released announcing which venues will be hosting major events. Some nations, such as Canada, Germany and the USA, have home tracks that often appear in tournaments so they “will have a home advantage because they’ll be able to slide on that track as many times as they want”.
For smaller and warmer nations: “We have to then go over and try to gain ice time. It can be tricky to get on some tracks when it’s not competition period. But some tracks are open to allowing us on.”
High-level sport is all about marginal gains to extract performance, and athletes are normally the most error-prone part of the equation, regardless of which sport that is. So eradicating mistakes is key with limited track time.
“It is the smallest margin for error,” Atkin explains. “You can feel like you’re on the sled holding perfect form, perfectly aerodynamic, and you’re not doing anything to unsettle the sled.
“And you’ll watch the video back, and your foot will be – I don’t know – an inch higher than your other foot, and that could send you into a skid, not being very fast aerodynamically, or it’s sending you late into a corner. The margin for error is very slim, and even in a corner, say you have to steer just before the pressure comes on. If you’re too soon, it’s a mistake and you’re going to come out of the corner badly, and if you’re too late you really do know about it because you’re not controlling the pressure. There’s a really, really fine margin, and you don’t have a lot of time to make that decision.”
Racing teams use data trackers to measure the use of throttle and brake, as well as onboards, to find out what is occurring in the car at places where time is lost, and it’s important to find those errors that may not be obvious from video alone.
“If you’re sliding well, and you know the track really, really well, it can feel – Donna was my first coach when I went out to Iceland – she said ‘make it feel like you’re dancing with it’. And if you’re sliding well, it really does feel like that and you have so much time to be relaxed and make those decisions. If it’s not going your way, things happen a lot quicker and you find yourself with a lot more tension through your body and a lot less time to make those decisions.”
Racing drivers also speak of reaching “the zone”, a state of harmony with the car where decisions behind the wheel become unconscious. Ayrton Senna famously mentioned having an “out-of-car experience” in Monaco, and he was known for his exceptional ability for reading rapidly changing grip levels through feel.
The level of on-site analysis in motorsport has now been picked up by many other sports, particularly in using video.
“Year-by-year everything is developing and changing,” Creighton reveals. “Coaches will go to certain corners and they’ll film different sections of the track for each run. We try to get the usage of the track’s footage as well. They all have state-of-the-art camera systems. So if we can get hold of those, then we will. They’re a bit strict on drones and putting anything on the sled, so we have to be wary of those. Don’t want anything falling off.”
The data analysis “breaks everything down, puts everything into graphs, look at certain points throughout the track that we might be losing time, and then work with the coaches to figure out why”, so it’s very much applied in the same way too.
Before races, drivers can be spotted sat against the pitwall with their eyes closed. Usually they’ll be visualising the lap they are about to drive, and neurological research [linked below] has shown that they’re also capable of physically mimicking the responses their body would have in the car. Skeleton athletes apply the same technique.
“The guys will go through the track visually, but they’ll also go through the steers that they need to as well,” Creighton says.
“You’ll see them sat in the changing room, and their head will be moving, their shoulders will be moving, their knees and their toes. So you’ll actually know that they’re going through each steer that they need to be on the track.”
Atkin adds: “Some people are hilarious with that, it’s almost like a full dance routine. It’s the easy way to go through the routine [of the run].
“Particularly in the beginning, I found it useful to use YouTube footage. You can put it in a virtual reality headset, lay on your front and go through the motions with a point-of-view video. That’s probably one of, I found the most effective ways of actually learning a track. Obviously you have [not] the specific feedback of actually doing it. But it’s probably the closest we can get, at a very base level, of understanding which way the corners go, what that might feel like. And you can almost speculate [how you would react physically] just by watching some of the onboards.”
That’s a low-budget way of having a simulator, now commonplace at all levels of motorsport, but other specialised technology seen in F1 is more commonly used.
Where single-seater racing led the way, the rest of sport has once again followed. Research-and-development is a key part of skeleton, as racers seek to have the fastest sled possible.
“We do a lot of work in the windtunnels. We work on body positions that are ideal for each athlete. So they know to then maintain that body position as they’re going down. We’ve used Southampton’s tunnel a lot, but we’ve also been up in Silverstone as well,” Creighton says.
“We have an R&D team which will work on developing the sled over a four-year cycle. The athletes will be involved with that. They’ll look at developing their sled and what works for them best, really.
“The saddle can only be a certain height. So unfortunately we can’t make it higher than specified. But they all fit the athlete perfectly. They’ll be designed to the body shape of the athlete, so they fit them nice and snug. Almost like a bodice.”
Single-seater cars are certainly snug too, but there’s more compromise coming from the driver to fit their frame in.
Although individual drivers can lead car development within teams, it is preferred to find extra performance that is equally accessible to the entirety of a team’s line-up. But in skeleton it can be much more personalised, and because of the resources being used, such work “will maybe help in another sport like cycling”. That’s not just wishful thinking, as F1 teams repeatedly work on other sports as side projects.
Lizzy Yarnold, Britain’s 2014 Olympic gold medallist in skeleton, had her sled designed at McLaren Racing’s sister company McLaren Applied Technologies and she ended up marrying its designer.
Despite its basis of ‘person uses gravity to slide down ice’, skeleton is a “very high-tech” sport where the helmet, suits, spikes and the sled are all developed each year “to try to find that small margin, and that can win medals at the end of the day”.
Of course rival teams do the same, and have easier access to full tracks (an advantage some F1 teams also have) too.
“The sleds have changed a hell of a lot, more aerodynamically [in the last 20 years]. Like the shape of the belly pans. There’s been a huge development [race] in the sport. If you look at the the helmets and suits, they’ve changed dramatically as well.”
A winter sports pipeline?
The two sports share a surprising amount in common, but how transferrable are the skills in each? Would a top skeleton athlete have what’s needed to be a fast driver, and are single-seater stars athletic enough to go sledding and be competitive?
IndyCar driver Simona de Silverstro has half-answered this question, as at the start of 2022 she moved into bobsleigh. She chose the one-woman sled as her way in, although bobsleigh and luge are better known for multi-person sledding, and immediately found after her first race that the sprint start was the point she needed to work on most. She already has eyes on the 2026 Winter Olympics, but has also recently increased her IndyCar commitments after the women-led Paretta Autosport team found the budget to run her for more races.
It’s no surprise that many ‘failed’ track-and-field athletes transition into winter sports to put their sprinting, strength and stamina to use in a different discipline, and it’s all a matter of training and honing those skills to a new sport.
There was an ex-sprinter trying out skeleton for the first time on Formula Scout’s day with the BBSA, and although he had explosive speed out of the blocks it did not necessarily make the start easy. A bit like hurdling, stride length, balance and aerial control are important for the move between running to get on the sled at the right moment. No earlier or later.
“I would say there’s definitely some transferable skills [from car racing],” says Creighton, although Atkin adds “there’s definitely an easier way to get the transfer”.
“I think body-wise, it would be good,” he explains. “And certainly if you did skeleton for a winter, you would definitely see some benefits for [a return to motorsport]. We get back [from] season and our necks are so strong compared to like mid-summer. But I think there’d be easier and probably safer ways of getting that adaptation for another sport, that’s for sure.”
But any professional will tell you, and this writer can attest to this, that once you’ve tried skeleton it can become an addiction. Like motorsport, the adrenaline is immediate and the speed, the closeness of the walls and the tiny margin for error makes you want to experience it again and again. And of course once you see your time, you only want to go faster.
The Bath track is used by professionals for training from March to October, then they travel around the world to go on the ice tracks during the winter.
Although it may be easier to find venues across the UK for other high-speed sports, and the cost of a try-out session (Team Formula Scout pictured in action below) with the BBSA isn’t cheap, it’s under £100 and is important income for financing the BBSA’s activities. Skeleton is also open to anyone old enough, is less restrictive than motorsport in determining who is ‘fit’ to take part (for example epilepsy is not a barrier to entry in winter sports, unlike motorsport), and is considerably cheaper than trying to prolong a single-seater career which has stagnated or if at the junior level isn’t headed to the top.
Don’t feel those years of training and adaptation to working at high speeds and being able to control a fast-moving vehicle with millimetre precision has been a waste when there’s opportunities (the BBSA runs annual talent discovery programmes for bobsleigh and every two years for skeleton) to apply those skills in a different type of sport.
Oh, and the pipeline goes the other way too. Britain’s 2010 gold medallist Amy Williams went on to drive in the World Rally Championship and got into motorcycling after retiring from a successful skeleton career.