It’s the final week of September, just days before the Singapore Grand Prix, a race circuit dreaded for its high track temperatures and long lap times and said to be one of the most physically demanding races on the F1 calendar. Williams Racing driver Alex Albon is halfway through a treadmill pyramid workout—one minute on, one off, then two on and one off, and so on—feverishly sweating. He’s dripping on both the treadmill and his heart monitor, which registers a number he can usually withstand. Today he just can’t. His body struggles. He hasn’t felt this unprepared for a race in over four years.
Albon’s trainer, Patrick Harding, checks in.
How are you doing?
The two use a ten scale— “one” being, this is easy, and “ten” being, this absolutely sucks. Albon has never given Harding a ten.
Today, he gives him a ten.
Getting off the treadmill, Albon is dispirited. For the first time, he doesn’t know if he can physically drive. Like many drivers, Albon is taller and lither than one expects. Like the best drivers, he has a steely competitiveness, a race-track persona that’s equal parts don’t-fuck-with-me as much as if-you-fuck-with-me-I-will-fuck-with-you. Unlike most drivers, Albon’s overall composure is low energy; even before a race, he looks almost tired, as if being in the zone is really just a state of Zen.
Albon’s disappointment after the run today, however, is visible. Harding has been helping manage expectations all week. Singapore may not happen, they both know. But for Harding that’s okay.
It’s a slight miracle Albon is even running at all.
Two weeks ago, the team was racing in Monza, Italy. It was Friday, practice day. Albon drove for the two practice sessions before feeling pain in his side. He went to the hospital later that night and was soon scheduled for surgery in the morning; he needed an appendectomy. After the surgery, something went wrong. He was in clinical respiratory failure, with liquid building in his lungs. Doctors reintubated him and put him on a ventilator and into a medically induced coma. Harding and Albon’s family camped out in the ICU, Harding sleeping on the room’s small chair.
To everyone’s surprise the following morning, Albon’s condition rapidly improved and doctors slowly took him off the ventilator. (They had determined the cause of the respiratory failure to be fluid buildup; still, they were unsure when Albon would awake. Harding thought it might be several days.) By now it was Sunday, race day. Albon had been unconscious for over a day, missing Saturday qualifying, where teams vie for the best times to decide Sunday’s starting grid. Albon awoke, thinking he had just been out for the few hours of surgery. His first words to Harding after opening his eyes: “What were the quali results?” He was surprised his family and performance coach looked so distraught; in their minds Albon had practically died.
Albon’s next question for Harding was even more exacting: When can I get back to racing?
Harding and Albon in the Williams team garage.
Albon and Harding first met in 2018, when Albon drove for Scuderia Toro Rosso and then Red Bull. It was Albon’s first season in F1—the top tier of European motor sports—the path to which requires years of lower tier racing and thousands of dollars of sacrifice. Before F1, Albon says he could barely afford to keep racing, let alone hire a trainer. That’s not to say having a performance coach in motorsports is unwarranted—quite the opposite. Drivers face over 100-degree track temperatures and must withstand over 4 Gs of force while taking a corner. (For reference: a street car sees around 1 G on quick acceleration; a fighter pilot pulls around 9 Gs.) It’s not uncommon for a driver to lose over five pounds during a two-hour race.
Before Harding, Albon cycled through a few other coaches. He wanted someone who shared his life philosophy as much as his athletic goals; Albon is a practicing Buddhist, and he grounds his training in a similar humility. He doesn’t like being seen as “The Driver,” the star of the show. F1 naturally lends itself to this hierarchy, where everyone else—the mechanics and pit crew and engineers—serves the man in the racing helmet. Albon hates this. He wanted his trainer to also appreciate the need for modesty.
Performance coach and driver relationships in F1 are closer to childhood friendships—and sometimes therapist-patient relationships—than mere training partnerships. Drivers and performance coaches spend several months of the year traveling together. Albon sees Harding more than he sees his girlfriend. Harding sees Albon more than his own wife. “I’ve been married five years and have spent every anniversary with Alex,” Harding says. “I’m out for dinner on our anniversary and my wife is like, You going for dinner with Alex? And I’m like, Yeah.” During tight races, Harding can be seen nervously pacing around the garage, rubbing his beard, and meticulously refolding a sweat towel near Albon’s corner. It’s that kind of relationship.
After Albon woke in the ICU, Harding wanted to make sure Albon understood exactly what had happened: You went into respiratory failure, your body just experienced major trauma. Harding also wanted to drill down Albon’s motivation for driving in Singapore, then only three weeks away.
“It’s like when you’re on the bench in a sports game, you don’t want to be on the bench,” Albon says now, three weeks after Singapore. He says he lay in the hospital just hours after waking up, watching the Italian Grand Prix. Doctors ultimately told Albon to turn it off, because it was elevating his heart rate. “I feel like I’m born to race, in a sense. I only want to drive cars. I didn’t want to sit. I didn’t want someone else driving my car. It’s that kind of feeling.”
Harding called the motivation “pure.” The two then made a plan.
The difficulty, they knew, would be Albon’s lungs. They expected surgery to leave him muscularly weaker in the short term. But for Harding, this wasn’t as much a concern as the surgical complications, which had led to a fluid buildup in Albon’s lung tissue. Cardiovascularly, Albon had been set back weeks from his competitors.
After three days of hospital rest, Albon and Harding began with weighted strength work—to assess Albon’s muscular recovery and to also give him training confidence. Harding had Albon spend an hour in a hyperbaric chamber with high level oxygen saturation to help stimulate his lungs. They would then use a cryotherapy chamber to aid recovery.
By day four of training, Harding began stressing Albon’s respiratory system. The two ran through their usual benchmark test: a treadmill interval pyramid. It’s not an easy session, but one Albon can more than handle. The run that day become something of a reality check for Albon’s fitness level. Though Albon was dejected by his performance, Harding was encouraged; Albon, he figured, needed just another week of work. He wouldn’t be able to recover to full form for race day, but he would meet his goal: He could race safely. He wouldn’t sit the bench.
The duo’s next test came the following week: Race week. They went for a track jog. On Thursdays, before Friday practice sessions, Harding and Albon will often jog around the racetrack. It’s a common practice in F1 and not one Albon usually thinks about; at peak, he can run a 5K in under 20 minutes. Thursday, however, was also decision day for the team, and so Albon was uncharacteristically nervous. If Albon and Harding didn’t feel prepared after the track jog, someone else would drive Albon’s car. At 3: 00 PM, the two set off. They had been doing sauna sessions that week to simulate temperature stress. The track was unsurprisingly hot, but Albon wasn’t dripping as he had done early in training. “As soon as I did the run,” Alex remembers, “I knew Okay, I’ll be fine.”
“I feel like I’m born to race, in a sense. I only want to drive cars. I didn’t want to sit. I didn’t want someone else driving my car. It’s that kind of feeling.”
He drove in all three practice sessions, gritted through qualifiers, and then went 27 laps on race day until a car issue forced him to finish early. It may not have been the result Albon or the team hoped for, but it highlighted the rapidity of his comeback; three weeks earlier he was intubated and on a respirator. Even on race day, he says, he was only feeling 75 percent. (Harding put that number closer to 65 percent.)
“I want to push myself as hard as I can,” Albon says about his usual mindset going into race weekends. For Singapore, he had to change the intention. He wasn’t trying to meet a goal or benchmark, but rather commit to a process. “Instead of saying, Am I fit enough? It was more: Let’s just give ourselves the time, and if we’re ready, we’re ready.”
Given the traveling and race schedule, Harding figures it will take Albon the rest of the year to get back to 100 percent; they’ll start training for peak fitness in December, after the season ends. Until then, they have just one more race. And one more hot track to jog on a Thursday.
Joshua St Clair is an editorial assistant at Men’s Health Magazine.