Funny, just after considering writing about concussion and finding a cool reason to do so, I started thinking that I should perhaps write a bit about the antidoping efforts underway. And, again, no sooner do I think that then I start to see a series of my tweets from mid-August resurfacing, this time inserted into “debates” with various other actors.
Now I don’t need to point out that “journalistically” speaking (I’m not a journalist but I maintain a strict and copious diet of good journalism daily) this is methodologically atrocious. Had the points in question (more on this momentarily) actually been discussed among those quoted, the outcome, impact and implications would likely be entirely different. So in the interest of making my slant on things clear, here goes.
In August an “authority” spoke to the press about doping in F1, mentioning specifically use of a drug called “tacrine” to help drivers memorise circuits. He said it’d been going on for years.
In typical (wiseguy) fashion, I responded on twitter. In essence I said that having done a few laps with a few decent drivers on circuits they’d not driven before, and spoken with a fair number of others, I never found that the rate-limiting-step in performance was (after the first 5 or so laps) memorising the circuit.
In addition, the drug mentioned was only (barely) effective in its specific target group (patients with mild-moderate dementia of the Alzheimer type), and had a fairly significant side effect profile. Making it rather . . . improbable that it would be used routinely, over the years, by otherwise fit young men.
Lastly, and most significantly, tacrine is not nor has ever been, on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List. Now the FIA follows this list, and has for years. In fact, it recently became a fully participating Federation in the WADA community. In essence, if a substance or technique isn’t on this list (revised annually by expert scientific and medical consensus), then taking it or doing it isn’t doping. That’s by definition, and with a drug that’s been around for years (meaning it is reviewed over and over again based on new data) it reflects a general agreement that that specific drug does not enhance performance.
In that series of tweets, I expressed my rather strong feeling that Formula 1 does not have a particular problem with doping. Those tweets have now been resurrected in an entirely different context. So I’ll use this opportunity to clarify and nuance my remarks just a tad.
I think it useful to separate two aspects of driver performance enhancement. Let’s first consider strength and muscle mass, especially of the upper body.
This is obviously an area where pharmacology can intervene, to accelerate and intensify gains made through “classical” strength and resistance training. But remember, in essence ALL known anabolic substances are on the prohibited list both in and out of competition. And as the “bad guys” develop new compounds, they’re added to the list. This kind of doping would likely take place mostly during the off season, and would logically be most prevalent among drivers just coming into the championship. The out-of-competition ban is why the FIA requires whereabouts notification for just about all of a driver’s free time. And they are regularly targeted for random, out of competition testing. Knock-knock, 6 AM, bathrobe, wtf kind of testing. They hate it, we love it, it works.
I don’t need to point out of course, that while drivers are extraordinarily fit, their schedules are often almost built around the several hours per day they need to be doing fitness activities. This is LARGELY enough to develop the strength and mass necessary … with neither the physical, legal, or sporting risks of anabolic substances. Oh, and we’ve not yet had a positive test in F1.
Now let’s look on-track.
I think we can pretty much agree that once in the car, any pharmacological enhancement of performance is going to come from what we might call “vigilance enhancers”. There are a number of these, all of which are on the prohibited list, and all but one class of which are associated with rather dramatic side effects. These are certainly consistent enough and significant enough to NOT go unnoticed – by anyone around anyone taking this stuff. And of course, they’re all tested for during each in-competition test.
Those of you who follow me know I’m not naive. At all. And while Jean-Charles Piette is correct in pointing out that pole position sometimes comes down to a few thousandths of a second, I’m quite confident that our guys are not finding them in prohibited substances – the side effects and risks to their health and careers are just too severe to risk.
That said, I agree with Mark (Webber) – the more you test, the more credible you are. Testing is EXTREMELY expensive (think how strict things must be legally, in terms of evidentiary quality, to risk depriving people of their livelihood!). And the Medical Commission has consistently pushed for as much testing as possible.
The FIA has put in place an effective and credible system to help guarantee that its championships are clean. I have no doubt that the pool of Formula 1 drivers consists of a VERY low risk pool for doping violations, largely because of the specificities of the sport. I think we’re all gonna wait quite a while before there’s a doping scandal in F1.