Interview with Pyry Salmela, trainer of Pierre Gasly

It’s fair to say that Pyry Salmela is the most well-known Formula 1 trainer on the grid currently and it’s not without a reason. Pyry used to be an athlete before joining the world of Formula 1, and he studied his profession through some university courses as well. He truly has an interesting story to tell, so stay tuned and enjoy this interview.

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What does sport mean to you?

Well, it’s a brilliant question. Basically, I grew into sports and for me it was the way to express myself. Sport can show your energy and show your human movements. You can express yourself by singing or dancing, but for me, doing sports is the best way to do it. Sports and activities make me happy and I can release energy – I just love it. When I was a child, I did a lot of sports activities. I did weightlifting; I played football, and I did a bit of motocross as well. However, the main one was ice hockey—I’ve played it for 20 years.

When did you fall in love with motorsports?

To be honest, it’s never been my intention to work in F1—so it’s not something that I was always dreaming about but I’m very lucky to be here. The human performance side of things has always impressed me—and it’s there in motorsport, in football, in ice hockey or in the business world as well. The biggest driving factor of my career has always been around finding an answer to the question ‘How can I get the most out of you?’. When you work in a new environment, such as Formula 1, you address the sport-specific questions, like why someone is faster than the other. When you’re looking for the answers, you’ll find out the sport-specific needs, which is essential to create the right way of working to become successful. We have completely different dynamics compared to traditional sports—we have a marketing team, we have lots of engineers and mechanics and then we have a performance staff and the driver. It’s a unique environment, and it makes it just more exciting for me. It’s like a gigantic puzzle and several components need to work well to get the job done.

How did you end up working in Formula 1?

I used to work for a sports institute in Finland and I got in touch with Aki Hintsa through a friend of mine—who actually works with Valtteri Bottas. Aki was looking for new people to join his team and I was told that they were interested in me. Initially, I had no clue about the story, because the job description didn’t exist. We did the interview, but they didn’t even tell me what the job title was because they just wanted to see my personality and learn about my coaching philosophy. A week later, I got a call, and they asked me to travel to Bahrain in just 3 days. Funny enough, my passport has just expired, so I had to ask for an express renewal. In the end, I flew to Bahrain for a Pirelli tyre test in December 2013. Basically, that’s how the entire journey started.

Getting fit is a straightforward task to do

Pyry Salmela

What abilities does a good performance coach need to own?

Basically, the key thing is extracting the most out of your athlete. You need to have intrapersonal skills to make sure that you’re in control of the mind games. The sports science itself is an easy read, it’s quite linear and progressive. I think getting fit is a straightforward task to do, and the secret is not here, definitely. I mean, it’s all pretty logical: you set a target, build a plan and you just need to follow it. To be honest, it’s much more about the coaching abilities on how you engage your athlete, how you communicate with him and how you keep the right balance. You need to have the right people around you because it’s never a one-man show. I also have a team around me, including a psychologist and a nutritionist, just like the medical and marketing people. It’s important to build the right environment around them—let’s say. You need to make all these functions work closely and efficiently together. That’s where the secret really lies.

Can you put a ratio between the mental and physical sides of things?

I think it’s difficult to speak about numbers here. Someone told me earlier that it’s 80 to 20 percent for the mental part. Personally, I don’t agree with that, because the skill set of one driver can be really high. Meanwhile, the other driver can have slightly less talent and it results in different mental demands. Any interaction with your athlete is a mental game and you must cope with both physical and mental challenges every day. If you look at the drivers in Formula 1, they’re all expectational athletes, because the possibility of an error costs much more than in any other sport. If you break 10 meters later, you find yourself in the barrier. You can’t attend a marketing event in a bad mood. Even if you feel down, you still must do your best. The mental and physical challenge is really high, and that’s where my coaching philosophy comes into the picture. The day-to-day demand is outrageous, and my job is to create psychological and physiological resilience.

What do you like the most about your job?

The intensity—without a doubt. You see how a young man develops and matures through the highs and lows. Secondly, the job of a performance coach can be extremely rewarding since you are involved in such a variety of aspects of performance and day-to-day practice. There is hardly one day that is exactly the same because Formula 1 is a very fast-paced environment and you need to be very adaptable to face any last-minute change, which is not unusual.

I see no reason why Pierre couldn’t clinch the title

Pyry Salmela

Do you think Pierre has everything to become a Formula 1 world champion?

I think he’s already proved that he can drive consistently, which is essential if you want to win a championship. He’s already won a Grand Prix, so he can win. When you combine these two things, and you have the right car underneath you, I see no reason why Pierre couldn’t clinch the title.

Is there any specific area that an F1 driver needs to focus on when doing the training?

I don’t think there is one. From my point of view, it’s the complexity which makes motorsport so special and you need to be on top of your game in all different areas. You have the stamina demands, and strength demands and you also need to have the psychological resilience, just like the coping skill—it has so many layers of distinct elements. My way of working is to look at the body. For instance, I don’t isolate the neck as one part. Of course, it’s a very important part of the game but I’d never say that the neck is the most important part. You need to make the best out of your body and perform on the maximum level when you need it—it’s not about training 24/7, not at all.

We follow the habit: eat, sleep and train

Pyry Salmela

How strict diet does an F1 driver need to follow nowadays?

Well, it really depends on what we consider a strict diet. We’ve set a rhythm and we follow the habit: eat, sleep and train. It’s also important to loosen the diet a few times, because you have over twenty race weekends during a year, and you should spend some time with your friend and family as well. When we work, there is no place for excuses. If you are a professional athlete, you get paid for it and it’s your responsibility to be at your best all the time. Switching off can help to charge your batteries and it’s essential to look after and boost your mental health.

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