Boost for light drivers?

New rules provoke fear of unfair weight penalties

The issue of Formula 1 driver weight has been brought sharply into focus in recent weeks, as teams have come to realise that their 2014 powertrain packages will be heavier than expected – thus potentially handing an advantage to shorter, lighter drivers.

The FIA long ago attempted to avoid that sort of discrimination by defining the weight of an F1 car as including “the driver, wearing his complete racing apparel”. However, teams have traditionally built their cars light to allow them to use ballast to reach the minimum weight, and inevitably lighter drivers still had a marginal advantage because there was more to be moved around. While front/rear weight distribution is now limited by the FIA, there is still much to be gained by having that weight as low as possible.

The importance of driver weight really came to the fore in 2009, the first year of KERS. The new technology reduced the scope for ballast, and in the case of BMW left Robert Kubica regularly starting races over the weight limit while team-mate Nick Heidfeld’s car was still below. That scenario forced bigger but already ultra-lean drivers to undertake punishing training regimes aimed at shedding kilos they could ill afford to spare.

The teams and the FIA knew that the much heavier 2014 powertrains would require a substantial weight increase, and to that end the minimum was initially raised from the current 642kg to 685kg. In June that was further revised to 690kg after the FIA learned from teams that the new technology would be heavier than expected.

It has now emerged that the June increase may not have been enough, and that heavier drivers could be going to the grid over the 690kg limit. Not only will they have to carry any excess weight for the duration of the event, they also have no scope for juggling ballast, whereas lighter drivers will.

The key issue is whether a driver’s size counts against him when a team is choosing drivers, and while no one will admit to that, it is clearly a concern for those in the higher range.

“I’m sure all the heavier drivers are in agreement that something should change,” said Jenson Button. “It’s a crazy situation to be in. For a driver to have to worry about his weight that much is wrong. It should not stop people looking at heavier drivers, especially if they’re tall. It’s not such a problem for us, but for younger drivers coming up through the ranks, it’s really going to hurt.”

Inevitably there are differing opinions on what the FIA should do. We hear that another minimum weight increase is seriously being considered, to ensure parity, but all teams need to agree – and those with lighter drivers might not.

There’s also a debate about how the three powertrain manufacturers compare, and the consensus is that the overall weight of the Mercedes package compares favourably with that of its rivals. Intriguingly Ross Brawn is one of those downplaying the issue.

“Being lighter has always been an advantage,” Brawn says, “whatever people think. If you’re 60kg, then you’ve got 15kg on the floor of the car that we don’t have with our drivers. If we reach a situation where people clearly can’t make the overall weight limit with let’s say normal drivers, then we should have a look at it. But I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think there are many drivers massively heavier than ours, and we’re planning on making the weight limits next year.”

Adam Cooper