F1's minimum weight limit


All this noise about noise. Three races into the new Formula 1, many continue to complain that the new ultra-complex ‘power units’ are too quiet, and in Malaysia Sebastian Vettel weighed in with his own scatological observation on the matter.

This was not altogether unexpected, given that Seb has long shared with Melbourne promoter Ron Walker the presidency of The Bernie Ecclestone Appreciation Society. Late last year I was amazed to hear him criticise an Ecclestone brainchild, describing as ‘absurd’ the forthcoming introduction of double points at the last race, but now, with his robust opinion of F1’s new soundtrack, he is clearly back ‘on message’, as they say.

In point of fact, Bernie wavered slightly in Sepang, allowing that perhaps the V6 turbo exhaust note wasn’t quite as offensive as he had believed, so with luck perhaps all the hullabaloo will begin to subside, and we can consider matters of greater moment, such as the consequences of the minimum weight limit.

It is more than 50 years since the late Peter Ustinov recorded The Grand Prix of Gibraltar, but every time I hear the comic masterpiece it seems, just as with Yes Minister, ever less like satire, ever more akin to documentary.

“Von Grips!” barks Schnorcedes team manager Altbauer to his driver. “It’s time to blow your nose now!”

“Ach, now – already?”

“Please don’t argue!”

“What was that?” asks an American journalist.

“We have discovered, following our laboratory investigations, that the best time to blow the nose – to have it completely clear – is seven and a half minutes before the race begins. This is important because a handkerchief would be extra weight – and as we have no central pocket in our overalls, it would have to be in either the left pocket or the right pocket, which would completely destroy the balance of our revolutionary new car…”

In the course of the race Altbauer tells the journalist he is going to bring von Grips in: “On the last lap he took .6 of a second more than I had said he must – it’s time to blow his nose…”

Back to reality – I think. When I recently talked to Mark Webber about his new life in sports car racing, he was entirely content with his decision to leave Formula 1 after 12 years, and for a variety of reasons. As we lunched in a pub near his home, he happily dunked bits of bread roll in his soup: “Couldn’t have done this last year, mate!

“Driving for Porsche is going to need very good focus – but does it need being skinny as a rake 11 months of the year, because Adrian [Newey] is saying, ‘We still need you lighter…’? I mean, I’m 74 kilos – given my height, I can’t be any lighter! I’ve had years of being four or five kilos under my natural weight, but now I can eat a little more of what I like – I’ll be ‘on weight’ at Le Mans, that’s for sure, but it’ll be nice not to live on rabbit food for the whole year…”

As well as that, Webber pointed out, the new F1 was going to make life even tougher in that respect, for this new generation of Grand Prix car is necessarily heavier than the one that went before, and although the minimum weight limit has been substantially increased (from 642 kilos to 692), it has been a stretch to build a car close to the limit, and many have not succeeded.

In the recent past F1 cars had routinely been well below the minimum weight limit, and ballast (to get it up to that mark) could be moved around to aid the car’s handling and to reduce its centre of gravity. Designers still wish to enjoy that benefit, but now they don’t have the same ‘free weight’ to play with, so anything the driver can contribute is strongly encouraged.

That was a concern to Webber. “It was bad enough for the last few years, but it’s going to be worse now – and for the bigger guys it’s going to be a real problem. Given that we live in an era obsessed with safety, it seems a strange way to carry on…”

It does indeed. When the drivers showed up for Melbourne, most were plainly thinner than before, and showing less muscle, so it is perhaps as well that conservation of tyres – and now fuel – preclude their driving flat out for the whole of a Grand Prix.

Ustinov’s Herr Altbauer had little interest in his drivers’ comfort or safety. “We at Schnorcedes believe that the car is the main thing to consider – and that man must be a slave of his machine!” Half a century on, those words appear to resonate in the F1 of 2014.

In point of fact, we have been through similarly stupid scenarios before. Back in the ground effect days of the early ‘80s, the only way to keep the fixed ‘skirts’ in more or less constant touch with the ground was effectively do away with suspension.

“Unless they change these stupid bloody cars,” Sid Watkins said to me at Rio in 1982, “all these poor lads are going to be crippled with arthritis in later life…” That same weekend Gilles Villeneuve told me why he hated them.

“I think I enjoy driving – for its own sake – more than most drivers, but no one outside of F1 can know how bad these things are to drive.

“There is a moment, going over a bump and turning into a corner at the same time, when you lose vision. Everything goes blurred. The g-forces are unbelievable, and the steering is ridiculously heavy – like being in a big truck, with the power steering not working.

“And, of course, we have no suspension. You go over a bump, and it’s like someone kicking you in the back. Your legs are flung around in the cockpit, and your head constantly hits the back of the cockpit or the roll-over bar. After a while, your sides ache, your head aches, and you become aware of not enjoying driving a race car…”

Nelson Piquet won that race in Brazil, and then keeled over on the podium. Earlier in the race his Brabham team mate Riccardo Patrese spun, and it was clear from his efforts to rejoin the track that momentarily he had no idea where he was.

By the late ‘80s the obsession of the moment was excessively tight cockpits. Only last week, during the recording of the latest Motor Sport podcast, Emanuele Pirro recalled his time with Benetton: “I had a lot of problems with my knees, and I always made sure to book hotel rooms near the ice machine – I had an ice bag on my knee every night…”

At Rio in 1989 I saw Derek Warwick hobbling round the paddock, and asked him what was wrong. “I’ve got three toe nails absolutely black, and starting to come off,” he said. “I’m having to wear boots a size too small – otherwise I can’t operate the pedals…”

His Arrows team-mate Eddie Cheever – like Pirro, tall for an F1 driver – told me he simply couldn’t sit comfortably in his car. “You’d have a hard job telling the designer that a two per cent loss on the aero package is worth it for the driver to be comfortable – and I understand that. I don’t blame the designers – it’s the regulations that are a joke. If you’re going to hit something head on, you don’t have the room to draw your legs back. Because of my height, I have longer arms than most drivers, and if I get sideways, God help me, because at present I simply cannot correct with the steering-wheel…”

All absurd, then and now. Am I alone in thinking it literally mad that these days F1 drivers are obliged to live on close to a starvation diet? It goes without saying that (with one or two exceptions) this generation is at a level of fitness unknown even to someone like Ayrton Senna. During a team PR event in Sepang, though, one driver passed out.

“I have to make the sacrifice if I want to balance the car perfectly,” said Nico Rosberg in Malaysia. “I’ve eaten no sugar since early December – for my dream I’m living like a monk. The diet alone is one thing, but training with little food is hell…”

Because of his height and size, one who suffers more than most, as did Webber, is Nico Hülkenberg, but it pleases me to note that apparently he is not cranky about it, admitting – as if it were a mortal sin – that he had visited a McDonalds in Kuala Lumpur: “This was the exception rather than the rule, but it was an emergency – I was really hungry and needed to have something.

“I’m not especially obsessed with my weight in 2014, because – as I’m taller than most drivers – all my career I’ve worked hard on it so as to be as light as possible. I think some of the other guys had some more weight in reserve that they had to lose, but I’m more or less what I was at the end of last year – I couldn’t lose any more…”

If you think it fundamentally unjust that a driver should be penalised simply for being taller – and inevitably heavier – than most of his colleagues, no one with half a brain could take issue with you. Perhaps to a degree it has always been that way: as long ago as the ’60s Ferrari had to build a special chassis for Mike Parkes because he was simply too tall to fit into the regular cars, but whereas a few kilos didn’t make a lot of difference back then, now it is a very different story.

Given Hülkenberg’s stunning performances in the first couple of Grands Prix, you might be forgiven for surmising that raw talent can still make up for a lot, but Herr Altbauer’s response would doubtless be that, without that Big Mac, Nico would have been quicker still!

Bonkers, if you ask me, and certainly a weightier matter than the decibel count.

More from Nigel Roebuck
The demise of FOTA
What next for McLaren?
The farce of the 1999 title decider

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