Breakfast with ... Josef Leberer

They say you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full, but Eric Silbermann risks the wrath of Mrs Manners by having breakfast with a pot-pourri of paddock people.

Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - Belgian Grand Prix - Qualifying Day - Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

Josef Leberer is undoubtedly the most experienced driver trainer-physio in Formula 1, having worked in the paddock since the Eighties. He is most closely associated with Ayrton Senna and although I promised Josef we wouldn’t talk about that, because it’s become something of a cliché topic, we couldn’t avoid it.

When was your first Grand Prix?

Actually working at a race, it was Rio, Brazil in ’88.

With McLaren of course...

Yes, McLaren: drivers, Senna and Prost. What a start!

And that’s how we met, as I’d just started working for Honda, who were with McLaren and Lotus.

I was already working for Willi Dungl (legendary Austrian, who nursed Lauda back to health after the Nurburgring crash and is credited with being the father of modern driver trainer philosophy and so forth.) And I went to one race in ’87, at Estoril, and I was told it was just in case I might be needed to go to races in the future. Up till then, I worked in the Dungl clinic (in Austria) looking after various sports people; ski jumpers, tennis players and people who were recovering from injuries or operations. I loved to do sport when I was young, many years ago, but I didn’t really know much about motor racing. Even though in Austria there was an awareness of motor sport through Jochen Rindt and Lauda, but I didn’t go and watch races.

In ’88, did you realise you were starting at the top with McLaren? Because it went on to become one of the most amazing periods of F1 history.

No. I was working with Willi and I liked his ideas about how the body and mind were connected and there were always interesting people at his clinic. He offered me this opportunity and I took it, but I never really believed it was going to be my job. Two weeks before the season started, I thought it was never going to happen, but then a telex – imagine! A telex! – came from Jo Ramirez (McLaren coordinator) saying “can you send Joseph to Rio de Janeiro?” I didn’t have time to think, it was like jumping into cold water and I thought to myself, can I do this? This is Formula 1 and I have no clue what it involves. But Willy persuaded me. I’d met Senna and Prost in the clinic but I didn’t really know them.

Film title: Senna

Memories of that first race?

Prost called me in the hotel saying he had a terrible headache and when I saw him he did look bad and I thought, shit what do I do now at my first race? “My head is bursting” he told me and I thought this could be my first race but also my last one if I messed up. I felt under pressure. I treated him without medicine in his room in the Interconti hotel, working intuitively with pressure points and so forth. Later he called me again and said, “it’s fantastic the headache’s gone.” Prost won the race and even Ron Dennis and Gordon Murray thanked me afterwards. But then on Sunday night, Senna rang me and invited me to go out with him and his friends for dinner. I couldn’t believe he was asking the masseur out for dinner at his first race (it was also Senna’s first race with McLaren.) Over the years, I became part of his close circle of friends, but that was just the first race weekend. Years later a friend said to me that Ayrton had probably been aware of what I’d done for Alain and wanted to have me on his side too. Typical Ayrton!

Did you know what to do during a day at the track?

I’m not stupid, I had a programme and of course Willi was helping me. I knew all the basics about nutrition and dealing with hot weather. My main task was to do the physiotherapy with the drivers, because of course the cars were much harder to drive back then. In the evening after a race the guys were dead tired. Apart from that, with the flyaway races, there was the poor standard of hygiene in some countries. I had to prepare their food and drinks. This was Dungl’s thing; very healthy food, organically grown and so on.

His ideas were ahead of his time.

Yes, far ahead and today I hear things about the importance of science in our work, which we were already doing back then. It was normal for us and our drivers immediately understood how important it was, as they were very smart guys. Prost said the food didn’t only taste good, it looked good!


You had to share the kitchen with the Marlboro catering girls.

They were fantastic, but I think I was a pain in the arse for them with all my requests.

I remember you getting in the way, frying tiny bits of steak, because you’d only allow the drivers a very small portion of red meat early in the weekend. 

I had to wash all the salads myself and I would bring special dressings and oil from Austria with me, even though I was only cooking for two and I took a lot of their kitchen space. They were fantastic and it was nice for me to be in a kitchen with pretty girls and you were always jealous!

But I had a different job: at 6 every evening, I went into the kitchen to mix them some Sea Breeze vodka cocktails. You started at the top in ’88, working with two drivers who would be considered among the greatest of all time, even if you didn’t realise it then. So, has the rest of your career been an anti-climax?

No, but even now I think back that I really started at the top. We are really blessed, we are really lucky to have been there at that time. But hey, we deserve it!

Has the actual job you do changed a lot? Or is the job of getting a driver fit and so on remain the same?

In the end, the job is the same. I am there to help the drivers do their job well. Simple. But the methods have changed, also because the drivers are much younger now. Prost and Senna were in their thirties and had so much experience. They were already physically very strong and also mentally. They understood they had to make the most of any opportunity and advantage. But back then they didn’t see that you have to take a step back to be strong. The mind needs the time to relax.

Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - Belgian Grand Prix - Qualifying Day - Spa Francorchamps, Belgium


Is there more data now from physical tests on the drivers?

We are more or less overloaded with data now on the scientific and medical side. There are some basic things that stay the same, because fitness is fitness. There are so many interesting ways of testing and checking now. We have to do it because it’s important for the drivers now and you have to present it to them in an interesting way. They have to learn to invest in their mind and body before expecting results, because all the Apps and gadgets won’t be any use unless you do the work.

Surely today, the F1 drivers enjoy being superfit, but they don’t need to be to drive these cars?

You can say that, I can’t!

No discussion - they don’t get blisters on their hands off the gear lever, they don’t have to anchor their helmets to the side of the cockpit…

Now the drivers in F1 have come through the junior categories and it’s quite easy for drivers to move up. That’s why people say Formula 1 should be more difficult. In the past it was not so easy. But on the other hand, you have to understand the current drivers started racing when they were four or five and they have so much experience and so the fitness level is very high, much higher than before.

Now we create these drivers, the different academies are searching for drivers, getting them under contract and eventually one or two of them make it to the top. Now it’s a business and the young guys are thoroughly tested.

Giancarlo Fisichella and Felipe Massa warm-up in Austria

It might look easy for them but they are under a lot of pressure. Youngsters are supposed to be out having fun, having girlfriends and doing stupid things. But these days you cannot do that anymore, because all these gadgets and smartphones that the kids love so much are used against them and the moment they do some bad things it’s on the internet. It seems they can’t live without all these gadgets, but, on the other hand, they can’t have a normal life because of them. When I started, the drivers could do what they liked, in another world, another country, another continent.

When you look at Formula 1 now it’s not like in the past when you had the impression you were watching people doing something that you could not do. Now they do what a lot of people can do, even if those in F1 are a little bit better than the rest. But it’s not the same as 20 or 30 years ago, as they are not risking their lives to the same extent anymore. But all the same the pressure on them is quite high. The managers and team bosses expect them to deliver.

Do you still enjoy your job?

I like what I’m doing and working with new drivers, doing something that’s a bit like human engineering. And I can use all the experience I have gathered. I learned a lot as well, but when I started and we were winning all the races, I think McLaren could have done that with any trainer. But then came Senna’s death and reality arrived. My life had been a dream and then I woke up. But now I use all my experience to give something back to the young drivers and that’s why I still love this job.