Anybody who has flown from the UK to Australia's easternmost cities, across seasons, hemispheres and 11 time zones, will understand the sledgehammer jet leg that ensues
Wide awake at 3am, borderline narcoleptic at 3pm, even the hardened traveller discovers that normal circadian rhythms are scrambled into a state of extreme discordance.
It is a reality to which Formula One has traditionally paid little heed. While touring Ashes teams have three months to acclimatise, and tennis players at the Australian Open three weeks, many of F1's perpetual itinerants have just three days from landing at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport to preparing for the first race of the season. In a sport where grid positions are separated by thousandths of a second, and on a tight Albert Park circuit where drivers are but a mistimed brake away from causing a first-corner pile-up, sleep deprivation can become a serious occupational hazard.
Mercedes, showing a perfectionism befitting reigning four-time champions, have been quickest to recognise as much. It explains why, ahead of Sunday's Australian Grand Prix, they have ensured that almost everybody in silver-and-green, from drivers to senior management to the pit-stop crew, has come equipped with a detailed daily plan about when to absorb light, when to avoid it, when to power-nap, even when to take melatonin capsules.
The received wisdom is that the average person needs one day of adaptation for every hour gained or lost before the body clock is synchronised. In F1, where the calendar spans Australia, Bahrain, China and Azerbaijan in only five weeks, this gradual rate of recovery is unworkable. As such, Mercedes are seeking, through some shrewd application of sleep science, to increase the speed of their workers' adjustment to three hours per day.
Steven Lockley, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, has designed the bespoke sleeping advice that could help Mercedes steal a march on their rivals in Melbourne this weekend.
"There is a complexity around jet lag," he explains. "Much of what you read in the travel magazines is just too generic, and often wrong. You need, for example, different guidelines depending on whether you have arrived in Australia in the morning or evening.
"One important factor we convey to the team is that they have to know when to avoid light. If you see light at the wrong time, it shifts your clock in the wrong direction and makes your jet lag worse. You need to know when not to be outside, when not to have bright lights on indoors. Then, there is melatonin, which doesn't knock you out like a sleeping pill, but will help you sleep at the 'wrong' time in your cycle - say, if you're a shift worker trying to sleep in the daytime. We recommend the use of caffeine, too, little and often, not as a direct stimulant but to keep people awake when they should be."
If you are starting to think this sounds much like marginal gains, the school of thought of which Team Sky and British Cycling have been sometimes unwisely enamoured, you would be right. For F1 is a realm where such a philosophy, especially where sleep is concerned, has not been repudiated but embraced.
"For me it was pretty obvious that if we were to improve the way we sleep, it would eventually translate into real performance on the track," says Toto Wolff, the team principal of Mercedes.
Just because a truth is self-evident, though, does not mean that all are swift to comprehend it. When those on the F1 circus routinely stay 250 nights a year in hotels and amass 800 hours of flying, sleep is the most precious commodity possible, yet only Mercedes have been truly systematic about valuing it.
Professor Lockley's sleep plans are administered under the auspices of Hintsa Performance, a network of medical experts founded by Finland's Dr Aki Hintsa, a crucial support figure in Lewis Hamilton's early career at McLaren. When Hintsa died from cancer in 2016, aged 58, an emotional Hamilton described him as "instrumental" in his own success.
It is Hintsa's daughter, Annastiina, who has kept the family name prominent in F1, with her company working with Mercedes on attention to detail in nutrition, biomechanics, mental energy and general health. She realises that sleep, or lack of it, could prove a vital factor in Melbourne. When a race is won or lost on whether a pit stop is completed in 2.1 or 2.2 seconds, it will hardly do for a mechanic to be nodding off while changing a wheel nut. Part of her approach is to encourage F1 staff to improve quality of sleep by screening out digital distractions.
"These days, we check our emails within 15 minutes of waking up," she says. "It's a highly disruptive factor in terms of sleep. Mobile phones can also have an effect on your mental faculties during the day. There is a study showing that even if your phone is next to you but turned off, it can still impair your cognitive ability."
Lockley argues that it is time, in F1 and beyond, for a fundamental rethink about sleep. "Nobody does well on four to five hours a night," he says. "People might think they do, but when you test them you find their performance is sluggish. A sleepy brain is rather like a drunk brain - you can't self-rate how well you're doing."
One who appears to deal seamlessly with constant time shifts is Hamilton, who will not think twice about interspersing races with a foray to Los Angeles for a fashion event or one to Peru for a trek to Macchu Picchu. "There is a distribution of circadian responses," Lockley acknowledges. "If I put 100 people under the same light-dark cycle and then shift them, they will all act differently."
But the unavoidable fact is that sleep matters in F1 to a greater degree than almost any other business. While Mercedes look superior to the rest on the time-sheets again, their edge in 2018 could yet rest on their grasp of the power of some decent shut-eye.
This article was published and provided by the Sydney Morning Herald.