Article and Interview by Jo Taylor
It’s no secret amongst my friends that I am a massive F1 fan. I won’t stop harping on about the time I got a private tour of the Renault Sport F1 Factory at Enstone. Invite me somewhere on a race weekend and well, chances are you’ll get a swift decline.
It’s even less of a secret that Daniel Ricciardo is my number 1 driver. Chiselled jaw aside, he comes across as a really fun, down-to-earth person and last year I was lucky enough to FaceTime with him. He was super chatty despite a race result he wasn’t happy with, which cemented my fan-girl status. But it’s really his ability that brought him to my attention and sets him apart from other drivers. His growth and success over the past few years have been phenomenal and many (including me) rate him as the best driver out there.
Investing so much time in a sport and then getting behind the scenes insights from documentaries such as ‘Drive to Survive’ got me thinking: what makes a Formula 1 driver? In particular, a driver like Daniel? If you follow Daniel on Instagram you will have seen his performance coach, Michael Italiano, feature in a number of his stories and posts.
I started following Michael last year and quickly became a fan of his content, featuring workouts, behind the scenes race prep, and easy to follow screenshot-able instructions for those of us wanting to get in shape or at least pretend we have the stamina of an F1 driver. I was lucky enough to meet him in London during pre-season training for a chat about all things F1 and the launch of his own online coaching platform.
So how does one become the performance coach to one of the (if not ‘the’) world’s best drivers? Well, according to Michael, not by design – in fact it was a bit unexpected and random. “I started out in the civil and structural engineering industry for seven years” he tells me. However, finding the office monotony draining and after reading ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ by Robert Kiyosaki, Michael signed up to do an online personal training course. “It was overnight” he says. “Within a day of finishing the book I decided to follow my passion of training in health and fitness – the book made a lot of sense to me. Although it’s a book focused on finances, I took it as a life lesson and it completely changed how I thought about my life and career.” Michael was already playing semi-professional football and into health and fitness so making his passion his career made sense. Although the pace at which he made the decision surprised those around him, ultimately he was supported from the off to make the change.
But how do you go from an office job to deciding to become a personal trainer to coaching and travelling with Daniel Ricciardo? Michael already knew Daniel through friends and as he grew his business with corporate clients and professional athletes he also started doing some informal training with Daniel when he was home in Perth over the winter break – in Michael’s words "it was very low key, more of a friends catch-up." Then at the end of 2017 Daniel sent him a message saying he needed a performance coach and would Michael be interested. Michael laughs as he recalls that, because Mr Ricciardo is quite the joker, he understandably thought it was a joke so sent a cheeky non-committal reply, only to receive a ‘no I’m being serious’ back. After some discussions Michael agreed to take the role.
I was keen to understand if friendship was a big factor in their successful partnership and strengthening Daniel’s overall performance. “Yes”, says Michael. “Daniel knew what I was about and our friendship gave us the ability to be honest with each other, and because of that the last three years have been awesome. I spend more time with Daniel than with anyone else so that relationship has to be healthy.”
Given their relationship is clearly tight, I had a question that’s been burning a hole in my notepad for days. What exactly does it take physically to make an F1 driver like Daniel? Michael is quick to point out that Daniel was in the sport for 7 years before he came on board so he already had a really strong foundation for both his physical and mental preparation for races. However, there was room for improvement and clearly Michael is making a difference with strong driver performances at Red Bull and helping Daniel successfully manage the transition to Renault knowing it would be a year of change and development. “It’s a complete misconception that all we do is train, train, train” says Michael. “Drivers’ schedules are crazy with the travelling. The time zone changes mean it’s very gruelling on the body so the focus can’t always be on physical training.” This means Michael has a more holistic role in preparing Daniel for races. In a sport where success is defined by milliseconds, it comes as no surprise that a core part of preparation as a coach is focused on the detail and small, incremental change. “I work in the ‘one percenters’ in terms of performance improvement,” he says. “It is my job to think outside of the bubble of strength and conditioning and look at the broader picture.” He gives the example of Daniel getting a sore neck from sleeping on hotel pillows so he got him a proper memory foam pillow to use in hotels. Whilst this may seem like the minutiae, it’s all a huge part of the preparation to perform. As Michael puts it, “If you walk to the car and you’re not feeling good - you have a sore neck and can’t look to your left properly - then you’re not going to perform well.”
However, there are times when training is the priority, for example in pre-season: “From a strength point of view, cardio, core and neck strength are key and are where an F1 driver stands out compared to other athletes. From my perspective, drivers don’t have to be the strongest athletes in the world. As long as those components are there, then we will work around - and improve - everything else” Michael advises.
That said, he puts almost more emphasis on the mental preparation, which makes sense given F1 is at its heart a very dangerous sport where fear has no place. In Season 1 of 'Drive to Survive', Christian Horner, Team Principal of Red Bull, compares the mentality of F1 drivers to those of fighter pilots: the desire to be the first, to be the best. Michael is in agreement: “The main thing that stands out by a mile is their mentality and drive. Their concentration levels under fatigue are as good as it gets. The penalty for making a mistake is bigger than in any other sport.” He goes on to add that “F1 drivers are special. It’s hard to describe, but the way Daniel’s mind works is different. If you saw him walking down the street you wouldn’t necessarily think he was an athlete in the traditional sense but spend some time with him and you’d quickly see why he stands out. How he can switch on with all the distractions around him and be perfect for two hours is beyond comprehension.” How, then, do you maintain that focus and work on the mental aspect of sport? Michael is clear that you have to believe in the psychological aspect of sport and the benefits mental work brings - which Daniel does. They prepare by walking through scenarios including the thinking process as they walk to the grid and to the car, with consistency being absolutely key. “Every race, every warm-up is the same. We do it the same so that we know we are prepared both physically and mentally.”
Given Michael is a one-man band and Daniel relies on him heavily during race weekends to bring that consistency, what happens if he gets sick? “Ah, well this actually happened last year in China,” Michael admits. “I got a severe bout of food-poisoning on the Thursday and was bed ridden until the Sunday leaving Daniel without a coach through practices and qualifying. We got one of Daniel’s friends who was attending the race as a guest to learn the pre-race routine so he could do it with Daniel and we had to get the team physio to hand him his drinks.” Daniel finished in a very respectable 7th place at that race so looks like all that scenario planning paid off in the end.
Understandably, Michael is tight-lipped about what is involved in the specifics of race weekend preparation itself given that’s where he sees their competitive advantage. However, he’s happy to enlighten me on a key part of the weekend - the post-race de-brief. “Everything is analysed and not just the car, the drive and the race. We look at the flight, at the hotel room, food…literally all aspects to determine what had an impact.” I ask, rather tentatively, if there is a difference in the de-brief based on race outcome? “Not really” he replies. “The only difference is the energy – if it’s a bad race then the energy can be a bit dull.” A key part of Michael’s job is keeping Daniel on track; literally and mentally. "I’m a big believer in giving Daniel the 24hrs he needs to dwell on a bad race, but after that we move on. I don’t like him to focus on negatives as all this does is hinder his performance for the next race. We have analysed the race, highlighted issues, come up with a plan, we take 24hrs to vent and then we move on.” However, he concedes that one of the hardest things to manage as a coach is handling disappointment when it’s out of a driver’s control. “There are so many obstacles that can impact a race - be it a puncture or impact with another car, or a slow pit stop that you just cannot predict. This is when a driver feels the most frustrated. Formula 1 is a rollercoaster so you have to be mentally resilient.” And this is where Michael comes in as a coach. “I have to be a sounding board, bring positive energy and be a motivator regardless of the circumstances.”
A key focus for Michael is being a role model for Daniel. “Everything we do is a team effort,” he explains. “If he’s eating healthily and not drinking then I do the same. I would never ask Daniel to do something I couldn’t do so we do it together, the same or I am better at it than him so I can show him how it’s done – and we get quite competitive,” he laughs. So competitive it turns out, that they have a little bet on at the moment – they plan on doing a 100m sprint later in the year to see who is the fastest. “Okay, but then who’s the fittest?” I ask cheekily. With a wry smile Michael tells me that Daniel is definitely the better runner especially at long distance but when it comes to strength he wins hands down. However, he acknowledges that he has the weight advantage given Daniel is at driver weight so that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
With a role so focused on motivating someone else, I was left wondering how Michael motivates himself with a tough schedule and so much travel. Unsurprisingly, Michael has a lot of people say to him ‘you have the best job’, and from an outside perspective it does indeed look amazing. “I have a great job and life but this isn’t for everyone. There are elements of the job that are really tough,” he says. “I live out of suitcase all year round, I don’t even unpack it when I’m in London as chances are I’ll be leaving again in five days’ time. I don’t have a routine anymore, which used to be really important to me and there are times in the year when you are really run down.” He further adds that the first year was really hard, a lot harder than expected. “It does mean sometimes I don’t have a social life outside of the F1 calendar. You do your best to get out and be social during a race weekend but when you fly back home you just want to reboot and rest for the next race.” FaceTime has become key for Michael: “it’s the closest thing to getting some face-to-face time with friends and family as I tend to only see them twice a year if I’m lucky.” So how do you deal with that? “I know this sounds a bit clichéd but I just tell myself to live in the moment because I get to do this amazing job, to travel, to coach Daniel and it puts it into perspective for me” he says.
So what’s next? What does the 2020 season look like? “This year I am looking forward to seeing Daniel’s development now it’s his second year in a Renault. Last year was a big change so this year it’s time to raise the bar.” And the long term plan? To win a World Championship with Daniel – that is definitely a bit of unfinished business for Michael. “I truly do believe Daniel is a very special athlete and that he is the best on the grid. You need some good fortune in this sport and I definitely want to be around when he starts dominating the world.”
As much of a DR fan as I am, I wanted to know more about Michael’s own career plans. It turns out 2020 is a big year for him too. To take on the role as performance coach for Daniel he gave up his broader client set. “I wanted to get the job with Daniel right and to do that I needed to be dedicated to him.” Michael tells me. But three years in Michael is now at the point where he feels ready and able to offer a platform to help a broad range of people train. “I love training Daniel but I miss being able to provide a service to the general public.” So this year his online coaching platform is being launched through a website he is currently designing with the aim of it going live at the end of February. Initially it will consist of three training programmes – Body Weight, Fat Loss and, wait for it…. Daniel’s F1 pre-season programme itself. Hurrah! Unsurprisingly, that one is for the more ‘advanced’ fitness-wise, including those already in karting or other driver’s categories and wanting to train to an F1 standard. But, happily for those of us who break into a sweat just looking at a dumbbell, the other two programmes are aimed at novices and eventually there will be a levelled approach on the website with intermediate and advance levels too.
Will I be signing up? Uh yes 100% I’m sold.
And as for becoming well-known in his own right? Michael jokes, “yes, celebrity is my driver” before taking a sip of his coffee and giving me an eye-roll/faux-stern look for using the term ‘influencer’ in his presence. Oops. As far as he’s concerned health and fitness are his passion and he’s in it for results and helping people reach their goals. “I’d be wrapped [‘delighted’ for those uninitiated in Aussie slang] if people use my programmes and see benefits,” he tells me, whilst pragmatically acknowledging that year one will be focused on building website content and growing his client base. He happily embraces the fandom that comes with being with Daniel at the track. “The occasional fan will come and say hello and I’ll get little gifts which is sweet,” he admits, but it’s clear that he is more humbled by the recognition than actively seeking it.
Despite the challenges and nuances of the role, Michael is in his dream job. So what advice does he have for anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps to become a performance coach within F1? “Definitely study hard and be open minded. It’s hard to prepare for such a job until you’re actually in it. The F1 world is a unique space and does require adjustment. But if it’s your passion to become an F1 performance coach then I say go for it, dream big but be prepared to work for it.”
I only had one question left and it’s the obvious – what’s the best race? “Can I give you top three?” he asks hopefully. I of course say yes, because he’s the man in the know. From a leisure and fun perspective then definitely go to Austin, Texas he advises. If you want a spectacle then Monaco it is, the history and the overall delivery of the weekend are unrivalled, and from a fan perspective Michael’s pick is Monza. “The Ferrari fans are so passionate, giving it a unique atmosphere - it is awesome to see.” Get booking, people, you now have the inside track from, well, someone on the inside of the actual track.
I didn’t know what to expect from Michael other than he’d generously given me an hour of his time. In fact, I found out during the interview that he had come to the café opposite his gym early to meet me before a training session with Daniel himself. Eeek! However, my first impression is excellent. Michael comes across incredibly well. I can see why Daniel puts so much trust in him. He is articulate, driven and open. He conveys a sense of being very calm and collected, yet focused with a deep passion and motivation for what he does. And he’s kind to boot. As I walked out of the café I realised I’d forgotten to ask for a picture to use for Instagram. However due to a dodgy ankle my sprinting abilities are somewhat limited. Ever the optimist, I hobbled up the road after him as fast as I could muster. Luckily he saw me, and as I approached he frowned with concern and said, “oh no your ankle, I’m sorry I didn’t see you sooner, are you okay?” before happily taking the photo. What. A. Guy. If I were in a high-pressure sport, Michael is definitely someone I would want by my side.
For more insights on life of an F1 performance coach along with training tips plus updates on his coaching plaform follow Michael on Instagram @michaelitaliano