Formula 1 is a strange place. 600 or more people work for the top teams, attempting to build fast and reliable cars, facing huge logistical challenges, battling financial problems and the focus is on the two men driving the cars with one aim – winning races and become world champion.
All of the pieces of the puzzle, many of them unimaginable, have to fit together like a Swiss watch to make this happen. But at the end of the day you need the driver to take hold of the car and transform all this effort into a win.
Sebastian Vettel has established a good working relationship with the Finns and his first trainer at Red Bull was Tommi Pärmäkoski.
Tommi went to the USA, specifically North Dakota, to study “Sport and Exercise Psychology and coaching”. During his studies, he also played hockey for the university team.
“I think that I was a very dedicated and hard working athlete and I was always very curious about training and how to develop myself physically,” says Tommi. “That was the biggest reason for my interest in coaching because I was always willing to develop and become better myself. I tried many things. Some worked but there were some big mistakes too. But it was this process that gave me a lot of information on what to do and what not to do with my athletes. I have always been interested in psychology but I have never really studied it at school. Mostly through sport psychologists and books.”
The turnaround for Tommi came in 2008, when he got in touch with Sebastian Vettel via a Formula 1 connection. The German was looking for a trainer and he was introduced to Tommi, who was working at Kuortaneen Urheiluopisto when he received the offer.
“Being honest, I didn’t even know what to expect when I heard about the job,” says Tommi. “Likely I didn’t know how difficult and demanding it is with pressure, traveling, etc. When you are young you have positive attitude and re full of energy. If I would have known before starting my job how many things you have to take care of I would have been asked myself if I’m ready and knowledgeable enough to do the job.”
“For me, it was a big school and a huge learning experience to work in F1 where they have a budget and possibilities to do everything so that your driver will be in as good shape as possible when the race starts. You have to do work with physiotherapist, chiropractic, find how to take care of nutrition, traveling plans, training calendar, the psychological side and so on.”
So how did he react to the job offer?
“The first reaction was to be open-minded and go to see whatever I will face,” he says. “Luckily I had a very good supporting contacts through Kuortane sport institute and also through Finnish sport. Also Red Bull was very willing to teach and organize contacts with different experts when you were looking for info or support for your work!”
Tommi reveals that he wasn’t passionate about F1 before joining the circus.
“Being honest, I was never a big fan,” Tommi admits. ”Of course, in Finland F1 has been always big and I was watching when Häkkinen drove for the world championship title or how Kimi was doing so as a shooting new star. But I was never really a passionate for it. I only realized what F1 really is when I went for the first time to the Red Bull factory and I saw how over 600 people were doing everything to help to get the car better. On TV you basically see the drivers battle but when you know what happens in backstage you really see the team sport in it. It is amazing that you have around 45 mechanics and engineers, a few bosses, your own kitchen, marketing people, a human performance team -- basically around 100 people in a race circuit and many people in the factory doing whatever it takes to have the fastest car on the grid”
The key to this relationship was that both driver and trainer understand perfectly each other and are aligned towards the aim.
“Yes, in the end being fitness trainer or personal trainer comes down to the relationship between two people”, comments Tommi. “There are never really one or two things or elements. I think you have to be yourself and then the inner you has to work with the athlete. You have to make the bond that you feel you have same dreams and you know that you both are ready to help each other!”
Sebastian Vettel was another case though, a “special kind”. Tommi reveals a lot about Seb’s attitude in training and the way he approached it.
“When we did training he was always asking why we were doing something,” says Pärmäkoski “He tried to analyze everything and he was ready to do the training as long as he was able to master it. He was never satisfied until he was able to do something. There is no quit in his vocabulary. Also, the way how he loves winning is something I have never seen before. It didn’t matter if it was driving, badminton, or playing cards. He was ready to do whatever to win and if he lost you heard straight away the words ONE MORE!”
“But in the end the key elements are same as in life. You have to feel trust between trainer and athlete. You have to be able to communicate (it doesn’t matter how difficult the things are), you have to have same dreams together and you have to do anything so that your athlete is able to be successful. Also of course I think that athlete wants you to have the knowledge, to be someone who is able to push him over the limits to the impossible. Someone who the athlete things to bring some advantage to him and help him to be a better athlete”
Sebastian Vettel clinched his first world championship in the very last race in Abu Dhabi in 2010. In that race Vettel was the outsider, having to fight with Fernando Alonso and team-mate Mark Webber. Greek poet Konstantinos Kavafis once said that “It’s not the destination that matters, but the trip” and this is something that Tommi agrees with.
“Of course, the first championship is a great experience but in the end it is never about the championship,” he says. “The coolest thing is the road to success. You always remember the first GP victory in China for Red Bull. The emotions of the mechanics and people who had been years in F1 and had never won anything. But the biggest thing for me was always to see behind the success. I saw how badly Sebastian wanted to win and how much work he was putting into making his dream come true. He was like a machine when were training. And He was analyzing his driving, working with engineers, mechanics. Also, the coolest thing is when you see the up and downs. You saw the blown engine in Korea, you felt the pressure and anger when Sebastian and Mark crashed in Turkey. You have seen also the days when the driver is so tired that you have to push him through training, ask him to put everything in when it is tough. I love the motivating part, or the time when you have to cool the driver before race. Sometimes you fight, sometimes you are laughing, sometimes crying together but always you have the dream what you are working for together”
“Also, it is important to realize that you are only a small piece in a puzzle. You have to have a great car designer, great car part planners, great engineers, mechanics, team bosses, marketing people working with sponsors, kitchen to make a good food and keeping the spirit up, and so on. So many things have to be right so that in the end the driver can do the miracles with the car. When the car and team works your small job is to do everything that the driver is in a good shape mentally and physically when he steps into the car.”
“But in the end, to be world championship driver there has to be some small miracles. You have to have the support of your family, find right sponsors, meet the right people around the way, be successful in a right place, dedicate your life for your dream, do every day everything as well as possible. I don’t believe there are any shortcuts in life or sport, the success comes through dedication, dreaming big, working hard and smartly, being curious to learn new every day, wanting to be better every day.”
For the spectators, Formula 1 is about only free practice, qualifying and then the races. But for people working inside the circus, it is far more demanding. Formula 1 is not as shiny as it looks from outside. Tommi shares with us his experience living within the circus.
“I liked the fact that F1 is the highest class sport in the world,” he says. “When there is money there is also pressure and huge competition between teams and drivers. I don’t see any negative about that. It is natural that every team wants to be the best and every driver wants to be the best man in the podium. From my point of view, I was so happy to have the chance to develop my skills. Because of the budget and connections I was always able to find information, learn from the best people in different areas, able to get the latest info in nutrition, physiology, or find the newest info of physiotherapy. If we were racing in Malaysia and I wanted to test different sport drinks or hydration programs and I had chance to do so. I liked that there was readiness to guarantee the optimal results.”
“But also in the end everything happens in a person. In the end human being is a whole. It is important he has the life in balance with training, work, friends, family, etc. In the end, when you are stable with yourself you have the world in a right balance and you know what place the sport plays in your life. It is important but at the same time it is only racing. There are so many other big things in a life. But if you ask what I loved the most in F1 was the last 60-15 minutes before the race when you are along with your driver. There is only you and athlete. You will do the relaxing massage, do the warm-up. You try to understand what is going through the driver’s head. You try to help him. Sometimes you say a lot and motivate, sometimes you don’t say anything. You are the closest person to the athlete. The one who he reflects. If you are shaking the athlete starts to shake. If you are too confident, the athlete might become too confident, and so on! The best feeling is when you both know that you had done everything as well as possible before the race to get the maximum out. Then you can follow the race with peace in your heart hoping for the best.”
As we mentioned earlier, F1 is very demanding, and at the end of 2011 Pärmäkoski decided to leave F1, with Seb having secured his second World Championship. Why?
“I don’t know if there was a specific reason,” he admits. “I was living in a Switzerland but living 250 days in a hotel, 80 days in Switzerland. I was over 300 days a year with Sebastian. We had the deal that we do everything as well possible to make the success possible. We trained together, we traveled, we ate basically the same way. This way I was able to recognize from myself how he was doing. Also you saw the signs of tiredness, or you saw today is a good day and we were able to change the training plan through it. Over three years, I put everything on the game for my job. I had to say no to my friend’s weddings, and so on.
“After the second world championship I felt that I had done my job and I needed something else. I believe that you can do this job when you are 100% full of energy. When your fire is out it is time to step off and bring someone else on. Someone who is ready to push again the athlete to the next level. In the end, Seb still sometimes calls and asking some things. You have the history and you have learned so many things from each other. Yes, I learned so many great things from Seb. Sometimes he was my mentor in life, sports, and so on and I guess I was teaching him a bit of life, how to train, how to learn to listen his body and so on. It is the two way street and that is the beauty of the work!”
He adds that he doesn’t miss it: “I’m missing the hardest trainings with Seb, the looks with Seb seeing his eyes looking for support or seeing the fire in them. Or the atmosphere in the drivers room before the race! But I saw the circuits, how to became a champion, how the team works. I learned so many great things and I thought now it is the time to use those things somewhere else. Also, at the moment it feels nice to have some stability in life with less travelling, more time with friends and family. Also, I’m very happy to have the chance to be back to Kuortane. I’m able to learn from the great coaches and Finnish Olympic athletes from the different sports. I’m able to develop my knowledge every day and trying to be a better coach. Also I’m able to share my knowledge for Finnish sports and maybe tell forward the best things that I learned when working in F1.”
Tommi has now two main activities, the Kuortane sport institute and Finnish ice hockey association.
“I’m working for Kuortane sport institute (Finnish Olympic training center) were we are developing the Finnish sport system and offering the coaching/testing help for mainly Finnish athletes,” he says. “Also, I’m working with the Finnish ice hockey association. My main responsibility is to be the physical trainer for Finnish women’s team and also helping with the women’s under-18 team. I started to train with hammer thrower Merja Korpela last September. She has been participating in Olympics, WC, Euro championship games. I’m working together with Harri Huhtala who is her other coach and responsible for her throwing. So I’m helping with the other physical trainings (like power, speed, etc). So basically at the moment my life is full of coaching but at the same time when working in Kuortane I’m able to research and develop my skills every day and able to learn the newest info that happens in Finnish and international sport.”.
Having had a huge success in F1 with Vettel, it would be interesting to find out if he had thought of a driver, from whatever era to pick up to be his trainer.
“Such a difficult question because in the end you need so much time to get into the soul of the driver,” he says. “I’m always saying that for me it is difficult to believe that I will ever meet anyone like Sebastian. He was not perfect but I can say deep from my heart that he was living for the sport. The kind of passion he had is amazing. He really loves what he is doing. But of course as a Finn it would have been great to see the early days and successful times of Mika Häkkinen or the glory days of Michael Schumacher (who brought the physical fitness to the new level). But still I have to say that something in the character of the Ayrton Senna is giving me the feeling that working with him would have been a journey. Not the easiest person but inside he had the fighter that knew what it takes to be brave and successful behind the wheel. I have always said that the greatest sporstmen had something unorthodox and I bet what I have heard that Ayrton had it. So my answer is Senna!”
It’s very interesting to watch that teams and F1 people are getting Finns for their training programme and support.
“When I start to work in F1 there was Ossi Oikarinen with Ferrari as the chief of testing, Kari Lammenranta the mechanic of McLaren and Aki Hintsa the medical chief of McLaren,” he says. “There were no Finnish trainers. At the same time when I start with Seb, Petri Lehikoinen (former fitness coach and physiotherapist of Finnish alpine skiing team) was named the trainer of Heikki Kovalainen. So now it is amazing that there are 6 trainers from Finland. I believe the biggest reason is the character of the Finnish drivers that had made the name for Finland but still I think that Aki Hintsa had made the best name for Finnish knowledge. He is really respected human performance person in the paddock. He has the years of experience and the knowledge. But why so many Finns? I also think that Finnish people are usually honest and hard workers. They like to be on the background but at the same time they are very dedicated and loyal for their team and for their driver.”