Who is nearer the edge ?


For a few years I’ve asked myself, who has the toughest, but also the coolest job? Members of the extreme motorsport (Formula 1, DTM and MotoGP and NASCAR) or jet pilots? In the end, all “professional groups“ are related by having a workplace “on the edge”.

Related in that vein, both groups do enormous tasks which you can’t see from the outside.  One could think that these people just have a lot of fun and everything is easy for them. The three different motorsports have much in common: the preparation, the work and the fitness are quite similar. Due to the amount of money the F1-drivers get, there might be the obvious assumption that those must the toughest in motorsports. After my ride with the F1 two-seater McLaren MP4-98T I have to admit, it was nothing I ever had experienced on wheels. In the interview with David Coulthard I was impressed how much these drivers are doing for their fitness, strength training, cycling, running and swimming, all over 4-6 hours each day. The G-forces in a F1 race reach up to 6Gs at high cornering speeds .

Sitting in the DTM everything seems more cozy in the enclosed cabin, but while racing in the closed vehicle,  it gives a very different impression. Having driven three rounds at the Nürburgring with Dirk Adorf in a BMW Renn M3, I was impressed with the powerful forces that welled up during the ride.  When you have such a ride, your mind knows how your own street car feels during braking, but the DTM is light-years ahead of your average family car. But, it is also far lower that the F1’s G forces.

For NASCAR, one jumps in, buckles up and drives away, no electronic driving aids, just sheer power. The cars are labeled with the name of the manufacturer (Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet), but in principle it is a unit chassis, developed by NASCAR. The dimensions are specific, there is no latitude for the teams to alter their equipment except that the “face“ of the car – including the radiator cowling – which can be customized and given the look of a street model. But you have to take a closer look. The rules of NASCAR are very strict and include even the material thickness of the outer skin of the chassis. In principle NASCAR is a silhouette-series like you know from the DTM. The V8 engines all have a a 5.5-liter displacement containing some interesting technology – the valves are moved not by a camshaft but by tappets.  In the Nationwide and Truck series a carburetor is still used. In the Sprint Cup an electronic injection with a single ECU is used. In addition, a 4-speed transmission is in use, however, there is no shifting in the ovals. The motor comes up to a maximum speed of approximately 9600 U/min which represents about 750 hp at the end. The output is regulated and adjusted by a “restrictor plate”. On the Las Vegas Speedway, I gave myself a few rounds; it was a highlight to drive with these cars out of the pit lane. The tires were warmed up and then we “drove” with nearly 350 km/h through the oval. You have to experience it by yourself, words here cannot describe it.

Then came basically the scoop, MotoGP, 1000 ccm, 160 kg and 280 hp… welcome to the real world. Nearly all of the drivers come from the Moto3 or Moto2 world, and go from their childhood on two wheels, dominating their bike perfectly and have that feeling in their back which is necessary to drive these “rockets” to the limit. The drivers weight an average of 65 kg with a height of 170 cm, in principle they’re lone fighters and live life via the slogan “prize cup or hospital”. Even if you only watch the sport, you ask yourself if they’re completely mad, are they from this world? During my interview with Alvaro Bautista of the Gresini Team, the facts came through. No fear, but a lot of respect, around 6 hours of training each day, 100 km cycling, swimming, and running.  In the winter there’s motor cross and spending a lot of time on the motor cycle. In contrast to Formula 1, the race courses are not simulated on a PC or Playstation; everybody has the track memorized in his head. After the carbon brakes were cleared for the MotoGP, a lot of force affects the body from braking. The main reason for a camber in the MotoGP is for when the front or back wheel slips away in a curve. Usually the driver slides on the asphalt into the gravel next to the track. The riding suits are made out of kangaroo leather, weighing about 3,5 kg. The built-in back- and breast-protectors are made out of carbon-, kevlar- or titanium alloys, to give the driver the best protection with a minimum of weight.

Although the jet pilots are not the ones who spend  4-6 hours daily in the fitness room, it is they who work in the most physically and mentally challenging environment, at the top end of 9Gs (alone the training in the centrifuge speaks for itself). Low-level-flights, nightflights and air-to-air refueling speak a clear language all of their own. The high acceleration forces acting on the pilot affects the body significantly. During 20 minutes of air-to-air combat training, some pilots loose 3-4 kg of their weight. After returning to their air base, their flight suit is wet, and the adrenalin level is so  high that some need a short rest to recover before their post-flight de-briefing. Fighter pilots wear anti-G-suits to prevent too much blood from flowing into their head.  By using compressed air, the suit bolsters circulation in the neck and forehead. Here’s a different realm from the car drivers’ world, the negative G world where exceeding minus 2 G’s can be lethal to the pilot. “Combat Edge” helmets were developed, which control how much blood is flowing into the head by pumping up a bladders to control blood flow to the neck and the forehead. During launch off of an aircraft carrier, 5G’s must be tolerated routinely, and during air combat the aforementioned 9G’s can easily be reached. The F-16 Fighting Falcon was built especially for air combat; to cope with the G-forces the pilot nearly lies flat in his jet, with his back and heels almost in the same plane to avoid blood rushing too fast into his legs.

You should only get into one of these jets if you are ready to become one with it.  Most pilots start flying after they gain acceptance into a military branch and complete some higher education.  After three years of training (out of 1000 applicants, 3 will get the pilot’s license or “wings”), they continue their education in a combat unit. The American pilots usually go to a unit overseas to get more training from experienced pilots and get experience in a foreign environment.

The lesson is clear: these are all very tough and cool guys, but by the time they’re 30 years old they’re physically at the end of their job and need other challenges for their lives. This leads to totally different results; some stay in their domain, while others do something totally different. We have seen it in the Formula 1 series: there were teams where one driver was fighting for the championship while the second driver drove in the rear third of the pack.  You can’t learn talent, but some can compensate for the lack of it with better fitness, persistence and more training. In contrast, even physically talented jet pilots can have their careers ended when an administrator deems that important qualities such as teamwork skills are missing. It applies for all jobs – you have to bring skills that aren’t given to every person.


F-15 Technical data:
-Speed:                             mach 2.5 (ca. 2500km/h/1554mph)
-G-forces:                         9+
-Performance:                  129,5 kN (29102 lbf)
-Range:                             5500KM (3452 miles)
-Empty Weight:                14.515 kg (32.000 lbs)
-max. Takeoff Weight:     36.740 kg (80.998 lbs)

MotoGP Technical data:

-Speed:                              350 km/h (218 mph)
-G-forces:                          5+ (brake)
-Performance:                   280PS/17000 rpm
-Range:                             150KM (95 miles)
-Weight:                            150KG (330 Ibs) without Driver

Nascar Technical Data:

-Speed:                               325 km/h (200 mph)
-G-Forces:                          5.5+
-Performance:                    850PS/9000 rpm
-Range:                              400KM (250 miles)
-Weight:                             1500KG (3306 Ibs) without Driver

I had a lot of help in making this article and like to thank the Gresini Team, Alvaro Bautista and Alberto Cani, Judith Pieper-Köhler, Dorna and Miss Frine Velilla from MOTOGP, Mercedes AMG and David Coulthard, BMW Motorsport Ingo Lehbrink and Dirk Adorf, Richard Petty Driving Experience, Wolfgang Hofmann and especially the PAO and pilots of the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath.

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Peter Boschert

Peter is a photographer covering events in the United States and in Europe. He likes to cover Nellis AFB, NAS Fallon and RAF Lakenheath.

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