Sweet dreams are made of this

A tiny chalet at Mangawhai was the venue. A member of the Team New Zealand America’s Cup inner sanctum was the source. That year, many in the media were in love with Team New Zealand. The bitter Coutts-Butterworth power play and subsequent schism had still to explode into public awareness. I was hosting a group of media on the Rally of New Zealand for Tourism NZ.  And quite bizarrely, talk had turned to a topic that seemed far removed from the buzz of the Viaduct, or indeed from the tool-clattering, generator humming excitement of a WRC service park – or even the high energy maelstrom of F1’s pit lane.

With a good Cabernet Merlot behind us and a day out on the stages of Rally New Zealand ahead in the morning, we were talking about sleep and how to do it.

For those who are not aware, the world of competition yachting is a tapestry of itinerant talent. Nobody stays in one place for long, and by the end of a Cup or other campaign you’d better have the next one already sorted or face a layover of three or six months.

So it was that year, and the Team New Zealand that came together behind ‘Blakey’ – Sir Peter Blake – was about to face the well – heeled elite yachting syndicates of the world.  Team New Zealand were a bunch who’d come from match-racing, Olympic yachting, rowing and of course the marathon around-the-world races.

From the latter came the insight into sleep. It turns out none other than NASA had carried out millions of dollars’ worth of research into sleep, and how much their astronauts might need in the busy depths of Earth orbit.  Their studies determined an ideal sleep period, with a margin of plus or minus ten minutes: 45 minutes.

Yep, for days on end, as long as there’s a good rest period afterward, it turns out that we can survive for extended periods on cat-naps of just 45 minutes.  In fact over the course of the night watches on a race, the sailors could look forward to getting their minimum complement of sleep, separated into bursts of three quarters of an hour.

I never found out how NASA was persuaded to share their insights, but it was gold for the round the world yachties, who found if they set this rhythm in even the worst conditions their crews could work on with their strength and stamina sustained.

A ‘watch’ could be set up as an hour, the crews would get below decks, usually staying in their gear, and crash out without hesitation. The hour would give the resting crew members their 45 minutes of sleep, 15 minutes to eat something hot or cold (the yachts had no galley as such, no cook as such, often the meal was survival or camp meals in pouches with hot water tipped in) and do their other business before coming back on deck.

In this way the yacht always had alert crew members on deck, everyone got enough sleep and the race would go on. This was a winning boat by the way.

From my informative chat with the bloke from Team New Zealand, I know how important good sleep is to metabolic, cognitive and physical processes. The negative impact of a poor sleep, even for one night, should never be underestimated.  Studies have shown you never get back the sleep lost on a bad night – it remains a sleep debt for as long as you live.  Poor sleep affects mood and attitude, derails your metabolism such that those prone to weight gain will rapidly put on weight. It can trigger narcolepsy, that weird twilight state where you fall into ‘microsleeps’ without realising it.

And as it turns out the same kind of deep thought has been applied in Formula One, where the teams have a clear understanding of how important the right amount and type of sleep is.

No more the roar of a happy Denny Hulme zig-zagging down hotel halls at 3am.  No more the wild shagadelia of the infamous Hunt parties. Even stroppy old Eddie Irvine was famous for the parties he threw on his floating gin palace in Monaco’s harbour each year. Not these days.
No, it’s all about how to get quality sleep, and how to set enormous intellects into resting mode over a race weekend.’

Predictably, the story gets picked up in the pristine silver halls of the Mercedes camp.

Autosport in the UK brought us the scene as the F1 community moved on from the sweaty warmth of Singapore.

Kiwis who have been to that race will know it’s a massive harbourside event that includes a motor race. Singapore – with no permanent race circuit of its own – goes nuts for F1 over a period of about ten days.

But for the teams and drivers, it can be a nightmare.

They are away from their native European time zone, they are grappling with jet-lag and adjusting back into race mode after the summer break. Worse, they are racing in the evening, when the temperature dips to around 25 degrees and humidity back down to 80 per cent. Many of them opt to remain on a European time zone; which means eating, working and sleeping at odd hours of the day and night.

So how does the team achieve quality sleep at strange hours of the day? Dark, quiet hotel rooms out of the party zone. It’s important to have a really dark hotel room wherever possible, and managing noise means choosing rooms with no view, away from the front of the hotel. Keeping to their Euro-zone timings as much as possible also means sleeping to a routine and doing it at odd times of day. For those who snore – and who doesn’t – team medical staff will organise C-PAP breathing machines, nowadays miniaturised into an ideal size and weight for travel.

But Mercedes has a further secret weapon: noise-masking sleepbuds. These comfortable sleepbuds use noise-cancelling technology and play soothing sounds to mask irritating noises.

Autosport again, quoting Valtteri Bottas’ number one mechanic Stuart Green: “It doesn’t matter where I am in the world; having a good routine ensures I get that good night’s sleep, every night.” The sleep buds then knock out annoying comings-and goings that otherwise disturb even heavy sleepers.

The team believes that by maximising quality sleep across a race weekend they can measure benefits in improvements in accuracy during pit stops, reduced pit stop times, lap times and performance. These small details combine to make a real difference at a time where championships are won or lost.

Mark Baker

Mark Baker has been working in automotive PR and communications for more than two decades. For much longer than that he has been a motorsport journalist, photographer and competitor, witness to most of the most exciting and significant motorsport trends and events of the mid-late 20th Century. His earliest memories of motorsport were trips to races at Ohakea in the early 1960s, and later of annual summer pilgrimages to watch Shellsport racers and Mini 7s at Bay Park and winter sorties into forests around Kawerau and Rotorua to see the likes of Russell Brookes, Ari Vatanen and Mike Marshall ply their trade in group 4 Escorts. Together with Murray Taylor and TV producer/director Dave Hedge he has been responsible for helping to build New Zealand’s unique Toyota Racing Series into a globally recognized event brand under category managers Barrie and Louise Thomlinson. Now working for a variety of automotive and mainstream commercial clients, Mark has a unique perspective on recent motor racing history and the future career paths of our best and brightest young racers.

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