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The legendary Senna confidant who called time on a 35-year F1 career

Last year's season-closing Abu Dhabi Grand Prix featured the departure of a highly respected, long-time Austrian paddock member who has worked with countless Formula 1 greats over the years.

Josef Leberer, McLaren Physio keeps an eye on Ayrton Senna, McLaren

Sutton Images

No, we are not talking about former Toro Rosso and AlphaTauri team boss Franz Tost, who rightly received a warm send-off in the Abu Dhabi paddock, but about Josef Leberer, a pioneer physiotherapist and every bit the paddock legend that his compatriot is.

As the 64-year-old has always shunned publicity, he isn't as well-known as some of the other Austrian paddock pillars. But, inside the paddock, he is revered as a trailblazer, having worked as a trainer and confidant for Ayrton Senna at McLaren and Williams, before finding a home at Sauber for the past 27 years.

A protege of famed doctor Willi Dungl, Leberer was recommended to Ron Dennis by Niki Lauda, another Austrian icon, and joined McLaren from the opening race of the 1988 season in Rio de Janeiro. He steadily built up a good rapport with both Senna and Alain Prost, but it was ultimately the canny Brazilian that saw the potential of having Leberer on board as his personal trainer.

In 2017, Autosport sat down with Leberer to look back in depth on the special bond he developed with the mercurial Brazilian, all the way until his fatal accident in San Marino 1994.

At the time, that role was relatively new, with Leberer being a one-man band in charge of training, physiotherapy, nutrition, and mental coaching.

"It was a fantastic opportunity," he said. "I mean, starting at McLaren in Formula 1 with Senna and Prost... what more do you want?! Since then, I worked with a lot of other world champions, like Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel. Working with the new generation was also very exciting. This is what kept driving me.

"At the time Dennis understood that F1 teams pour so much money into the cars and technology, but that the driver is the most important asset. The driver is your strongest link, but he can also be your weakest link in the chain.

Gerhard Berger, McLaren relaxes with fitness guru Josef Leberer

Photo by: Sutton Images

Gerhard Berger, McLaren relaxes with fitness guru Josef Leberer

"What we did in nutrition already was even more than they do now, because I was cooking myself. I tailored everything to the driver.  They all come from different cultures, so you have to take that into account. 

"I did the training, the therapy, the mental side and nutrition, so I gained a very good understanding of the individual I was working with."

When asked to compare how much F1 has changed over the years from a driver preparation point of view, the increasing complexity of modern machinery has also had its impact on driver preparation and given the quickest brains behind the wheel a leg up on the competition.

"In Formula 1 the technology has been changing so much, it's incredible, Leberer explains. "But on the other hand, the demands on the drivers are more or less the same, even if they are applied in a different way.

"I would say these days it's very hard for young drivers on an intellectual level. You have all these systems, strategies, all this technology to get on top of with so little time or testing. To combine all that with your own driving style to bring the performance on the track, this is not easy. They are under a lot of pressure.

"In the early days, driving was physically harder. And when you knew what could happen if you had an accident... there was a lot of pressure on that. But now it's a completely different pressure.

"Back in the day, drivers had to make a lot of decisions themselves but now they have a lot of data to try and understand.

"There's so much information coming in while they have to drive and talk on the radio. Just the lap to the grid is a lot. The cognitive taxation these days is extremely high. Initially, some young drivers can completely freeze.

"A good example is Fernando [Alonso]. This guy is incredible. He's from the old school, but he has an incredible capacity. He knows where the other cars are, he knows how long the tyres will last, he knows what everybody's strategy will be.

"You have to have a three-dimensional understanding of what you are doing. If you have to start thinking, it's already too late. And this makes the big difference between the best drivers and the others. They make the right decision at the right time, under pressure.

"This is why they get paid 30 million or more, and others have to pay."

Josef Leberer, Alfa Romeo Racing Trainer

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

Josef Leberer, Alfa Romeo Racing Trainer

In such a mentally demanding environment, where drivers still put their lives on the line every time they strap in, it is clear mental preparation is everything. That also means taking care of mental health, which was once a taboo topic but has thankfully become more and more approachable in recent years.

Many current drivers have been refreshingly open about their work with sports psychologists to find peak performance or overcome difficult patches, including the likes of Sergio Perez, Lando Norris, Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly.

Leberer applauds that the stigma around mental health issues is starting to disintegrate. But even 35 years ago he was already very focused on the topic, becoming some sort of mental coach by default simply by spending so much time with Senna.

"For us it was nothing new," he says. "That's why I was excited and interested in this kind of sport, because the mental side is enormous. When you have to focus on so many things, you have to keep your emotions under control and understand how your autonomic nervous system is working.

"In the early days, nobody was keen to show any weakness. They were not eager to talk about it with managers or anybody. But now they understand how important it is to diagnose what the problem is.

"I did not study psychology academically, but I would like to believe that I learned and studied psychology in a real, practical and demonstrable way in training, preparing and looking after multiple F1 drivers of which many of them became world champions. Through 40 years of working with F1 drivers you gain a lot of knowledge and that makes it easier if you have a good relationship with these guys. 

"When you're working together day and night, you always do a little bit of psychology or mental training even if it's not an official session.

"Even Senna really understood how important it is to calm down in the evening, to change your thoughts, to try not to let people provoke you and bring down the tension.

“If you want to be performing at 100% tomorrow and over the next couple of years, you have to look after yourself. Sleep is so important. You can have this huge talent, but you have to use it correctly and not overload it."

Josef Leberer, Damon Hill, Williams

Photo by: Josef Leberer

Josef Leberer, Damon Hill, Williams

Looking at Leberer's CV, his career path has been defined by a huge sense of loyalty. He stood by Senna's side until Imola 1994 and in 1997 he found a new home at Sauber, which he has stayed with for the past 27 years.

"Yes, this is a part of my character, it's how I was brought up," he replies. "First of all, everything with McLaren was a little easier when you're winning a lot. And then coming into a new, young company at Sauber was very exciting.

"The people there were sensational, first of all Mister [Peter] Sauber, and I always had and still have a very good relationship with the people there."

But even if his passion and drive are still untouched after 35 years in the Formula 1 circus, at the age of 64 Leberer decided it was time to take a step back.

The 2023 Abu Dhabi GP was his last grand prix as a travelling physiotherapist with Sauber, moving into an ambassadorial role with the Hinwil squad. That will also give him more time to focus on personal projects, such as his involvement in the development of augmented reality tools that focus on combining physical activity with cognitive activation, one of his biggest passions.

Leberer's departure falling on the same weekend as Tost is a happy coincidence and with the latter joking he'll now have more time to go skiing, Leberer is eager to join his friend on the slopes. 

"We know each other quite well," says Leberer. "I'm from Salzburg and he's from Tyrol but I'm living not too far from him. He's a great guy, a very focused man. We'll definitely go skiing together!"

When asked why the time was right to step back, Leberer grinned: "Why now? That is always the question. I'm 64 already, but I'm feeling still very young.

"I am happy to have been in F1 for so many years. And I saw a lot of drivers come and go, while I'm still here. But now it's time to go while I'm still young enough to make the next step.

"Recently, I co-founded a project called ARCKfit, which stands for Augmented Reality Cognitive Kinetic Fitness.

"This is the culmination of everything I've worked on since I started working with Ayrton. I've used all the years training the world's best athletes physically, mentally, and cognitively and then put it all together in a way that young drivers, other athletes, and even kids can benefit from, using cutting-edge technology. 

"This is something that I would like to do using the contacts I have, as I'm still not out of the business yet.

"As for my ambassadorial role with Sauber, I am happy to share my experience. It could be with seminars, helping new people come into the team, or with VIPs and partners. Whatever they need.

"But I'm getting a little bit older and wiser. I've always looked after drivers, now it's time to focus more on my passion and business interests.

"I hope I’ll be able to help many more athletes rather than just individual drivers."

Ayrton Senna, McLaren confers with Josef Leberer, McLaren Physio

Photo by: Sutton Images

Ayrton Senna, McLaren confers with Josef Leberer, McLaren Physio

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