There may only be 20 Formula 1 drivers on track at any given time, but there are countless people behind the global racing spectacle.
Michael Italiano holds the important position of a performance coach, tasked with putting drivers in the best physical and mental state possible to achieve success.
After five years of coaching fellow Australian and close friend Daniel Ricciardo, Italiano will be working with a new driver this year – AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda.
With the start of the 2023 F1 season less than a month away, the hard work is already well underway.
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Making the leap to the fitness industry
Whilst health and fitness were of interest from a young age, Italiano actually went into the engineering field straight after high school.
It was only after several years of office work that he made the decision to pursue a career in fitness.
“To be honest, fitness was just a passion of mine. And I always had this amazing thought of turning a passion into my career,” Italiano told The Sporting News.
“I know that’s not always the case with a lot of people. Sometimes with your passion, you can’t turn it into a career and something that you can live off.
“So that was kind of where I decided ‘Okay, hang on a second, would I be happy if I’m in an office for the next 10 to 20 years?’ And the answer was quite clear – the answer was no.”
Italiano built his clientele as a personal trainer from scratch, often working before and after his day job, totalling up to 14 hours a day.
His efforts ultimately paid off, as he was able to work full-time in the industry before his sudden move to the world of F1.
“There were long days of just grafting and obviously trying to make a career out of it,” he added.
“And I’m very grateful that I did because I never thought I’d be where I am now.”
The 2017 career-altering call
Italiano’s transition from office worker to F1 trainer didn’t happen overnight, but a phone call from Daniel Ricciardo certainly accelerated it.
During his fourth season at Red Bull, Ricciardo reached out to Italiano and asked if he wanted to join him as a trainer, beginning in 2018.
Both Perth locals, the pair met through mutual friends as 12-year-olds.
Italiano’s initial reaction to the opportunity was one of enthusiasm and consideration.
“It was a feeling of excitement, but also, I didn’t want to get ahead of myself,” he explained.
“It was obviously an idea in his head, which was fantastic. But I wanted to make sure that it could work on both sides – I didn’t want to just be that person who is just part of the entourage, but not actually making a difference.
“That was the whole point of why I transitioned to become a coach. It is so rewarding to help people change their lives and better themselves … so I wanted to make sure that when I sat down with Daniel (later that year) I could actually make a difference and help him do better in the sport.”
Travelling the world with a mate undoubtedly has its perks, but Italiano also had to balance being a friend whilst being a serious coach.
Their relationship was particularly important, acting as one of the few constants in the eventful five years they shared together on the F1 circuit.
They spent one year at Red Bull before Ricciardo’s two-season stint at Renault, followed by two years at McLaren.
“One of the first questions I asked him was understanding when to put my ‘coaching hat’ on and when to put my ‘friend hat’ on,” the Perth-born trainer said.
“I also had to ask him to ensure that he respects me as a coach, because I know he respects me as a friend. But there also has to be an element of respect for me as a coach.
“I guess I didn’t really know how it was going to go, but it actually was quite seamless. He knew when my tone was serious and I was firm, and then he knew when I was being a friend.”
New F1 challenge awaits
Following Ricciardo’s split with McLaren at the end of last season and his recent move to Red Bull as a third driver, Italiano has found himself in a new role for the upcoming season.
He has now become the performance coach of AlphaTauri driver Yuki Tsunoda.
Tsunoda is entering his third season in F1, having finished 14th and 17th in the constructors’ standings in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
His experience, age and personality are all considerably different to Ricciardo, but Italiano is looking forward to the change.
“(Tsunoda and Ricciardo) are definitely different characters, but I think that’s part of being a coach,” he said.
“You need to be versatile, and you need to be flexible with the athletes that you have on your hands.
“Yuki is a lot younger than Daniel – he’s 22. So he’s still figuring himself out in Formula 1.
“He comes from a background where he’s not used to the European lifestyle, so he’s also had to adjust to that. He’s had a lot of adversity and he’s dealt with it really well.
“I’m actually really excited to now take on a younger driver and almost nurture him in a way … give him my experience as an older person, being 10 years older than him.
“And I want to take on a little bit more of a mentoring role and help him get through life, figure himself out and make sure that he’s improving in Formula 1.”
Italiano and Tsunoda have already spent a good amount of time together ahead of the new season.
The pair had a two-week training camp in Dubai recently, which saw Italiano run his new driver through intense days, focusing on not just strength and conditioning, but building a relationship.
A typical day at Michael Italiano’s two-week Dubai F1 training camp with Yuki Tsunoda
- Wake up
- Outdoor walk
- Mobility work
- Gym strength session
- Contrast water therapy
- Cardio/neck/conditioning session
Working with a new driver and team also means new ambitions and goals.
Tsunoda’s contract with AlphaTauri expires at the end of this season, so there is plenty of incentive for the young Japanese racer to perform.
However, the unique nature of F1 – and motorsport in general – means that the car’s design, reliability and overall speed have a significant impact on a driver’s ability to compete in races.
As Italiano explained, this makes goal-setting far from straightforward.
“It’s an interesting one because results are the easiest way to measure success,” he said.
“But unfortunately in Formula 1, if the car isn’t competitive, it’s very hard then to know what a good result or successful result is. So, I would say it is probably a bit too early to tell [what our ambitions are for 2023].
“But I think the obvious metric is making sure that he’s very competitive with his teammate. He has a very strong teammate this year in Nyck de Vries, who is very experienced.
“So the goal would be to be quicker than Nyck, which will be very challenging but it’s something that we’re up for.
“I think that’s the initial goal – embed himself as a good driver and beat his teammate to start with, and then let’s move from there.”
Balancing life as part of the F1 travelling circus
The demands of being a full-time F1 performance coach sound like enough on one person’s plate, right?
Well, seemingly not for Italiano.
On top of his F1 work, the Australian runs his own business remotely, helping clients build healthy lifestyles through personalised training plans.
He works with a team and specialises in strength and high-intensity interval training.
His business commitments mean his days are jam-packed, having to deal with time zone challenges due to regular international travel.
Italiano begins his days by practising what he preaches – stretching and a workout takes priority most mornings before he does some admin and answers emails from overnight.
He will then look after his main athlete for the majority of the day, followed by a few hours working on his own business in the evening.
Italiano admitted that his schedule can get overwhelming at times, but believes having a commitment outside of F1 helps him cope with the emotional side of life on the circuit.
“I’m still trying to master that balance [of F1 and business commitments],” he explained.
“But my business is great because it gives me a bit of an outlet outside of F1 … it’s nice to have something to do that kind of takes your mind off it.
“It can be a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions, especially when results are going up and down. You do feel like you’re competing (alongside) the driver, so you do feel the losses, and you do feel the wins.”
Despite the chaotic and consuming nature of his life, Italiano regularly finds time to appreciate the surreal nature of his job.
This year will mark his sixth season in F1, and the thrill of the competition has still not gotten old.
“I always pinch myself. The moments when I usually pinch myself are when I’m on the grid before the race and lights out,” he said.
“It’s always an amazing experience when all the cars turn on and the crowd starts to start to cheer.
“The adrenaline is pumping, you get goosebumps … it’s pretty awesome, I won’t lie.
“It’s something that I definitely haven’t taken for granted, for sure. There are moments throughout the year when your body does need a rest and you can’t wait for the mid-season break and you can’t wait for the end of the season.
“But you wouldn’t substitute it for anything else.”