Racing's largest drivers


The incredible Nico Hülkenberg has every right to be angry. His real-world size, all 6ft and 11st 9lb of it, not only outweighs his talent in some Formula 1 team bosses’ eyes, but also there’s a slim possibility that it might doom him to roam the world alone in 2014.

Pérez and Hülkenberg in 2012. That height difference is enough for McLaren to opt for the Mexican.

Fortunately, he is as calm and composed beyond the cockpit as he is within it, for there is little that he can do other than become unhealthily thin or, more reasonably, hope that his record – titles in Formula BMW, A1 Grand Prix, Formula 3 Euro Series and GP2 – tips the scales in his favour. It should – he’s been beating lighter opponents throughout his career.

Any future F1 employment glitch of his will have been caused by an insufficient increase of the minimum weight for the new formula. Its extra 48kg – up from 642kg to 690kg – has already been swallowed by turbocharging and energy-recovery systems heavier than originally presumed. Something else, therefore, will have to give.

It won’t be the drivers’ waistbands.

A fix – increasing the minimum by 10kg – would have been quick were F1 not so self-centred. Teams with ‘lightweights’ on their books are unlikely to concede those built-in couple of tenths per lap. Unanimity in the paddock is rarer even than magnanimity.

Not that weight – all-up or dry – is a new issue. It’s as old as the sport.

René de Knyff, pacesetter with Panhard et Levassor in the late 1890s and early 1900s, was the WG Grace of motor racing, his bushy beard, to-the-elbow gauntlets and to-the-ankle coat emphasising the bulk beneath.

Drivers and their riding mechanics in the inaugural Gordon Bennett Cup of 1900 had to weigh at least 70kg each, or carry ballast. A bit of blubber and padding, however, did not go amiss given the era’s exposed cockpits and extreme distances over exhausting surfaces.

It’s hard to imagine, however, that Tazio Nuvolari, as tough as teak yet as light as balsa, did not enjoy a natural performance advantage over Giuseppe Campari, a rival of operatic pretensions and dimensions, during the more refined Formule Libre races of the late 1920s and early ’30s. That’s not to say the latter did not often match and sometimes beat his wiry rival.

(Ironically, Marcel Balsa, the Frenchman who drove a BMW Special in the 1952 German GP, looked to be lugging a bit too much lumber.)

‘Latent muscle’ was still in vogue in the 1950s.

Fangio, Farina, Bonetto and de Graffenried at Monza, 1950

Juan Fangio tempered his steely core in epic South American city-to-city races without entirely shedding the comfortable exterior so vital for soaking up punishment in his Spartan, rough-and-tumble Chevy sedans. This held him in good stead during the final decade of the front-engined GP era. While more spry rivals fried in the Buenos Aires heatwave of 1955, he kept his cool by imagining himself to be sat up to his ample girth in snow.

Even Fangio’s beefier compatriot Froilán González – nicknamed ‘Fat Head’ by his closest friends – was cooked that day. He was, however, already in semi-retirement by then, having injured himself in Dundrod’s RAC Tourist Trophy of the previous year; according to the straining Ulster ambulance men who stretchered him away that day, he was solid muscle, not wobbling fat.

Alberto Ascari, the equal of Fangio in terms of speed, if not racecraft, was distinctly chubby – and, as proved by his 1955 Monaco GP harbour plunge, spectacularly buoyant.

Not until a minimum weight, aka designers’ target, for F1 cars – 450kg, with water and oil but minus fuel – was introduced, and horsepower simultaneously reduced in 1961 did a spare tyre become a definite hindrance. The gymnastically trim and fit Stirling Moss had already shown the way by the time Colin Chapman’s moulding of his 1962 Lotus 25’s bathtub around Jim Clark’s plum and peachy seat of the pants put lightness up in lights.

Even so, lanky Dan Gurney, jutting into the airstream, was still able to win GPs. As was Jack Brabham, hunched and crouched, when the limit was raised by 50kg for F1’s ‘Return to Power’ in 1966.

Thirty more kilos were added in 1970, by which time jockey Stewart was in the saddle. But still there was room for expansion. Nuggety Denny Hulme won GPs despite being more physically compatible to the taming of voluminous, thunderous Can-Am McLarens rather than the coaxing of their smaller, yappier F1 cousins.

(Macca always seemed to pick chunks during this era: James Hunt, aka the ‘Hunchback of Colnbrook’, whose M23’s steering had to be mounted upside down so that its UJs didn’t foul on his clodhoppers; and Jochen Mass, who lifted an impressive weight in TV’s Superstars despite a messy clean and jerk.)

Also there are unflattering photos of Ronnie Peterson during his short and unhappy stint at Tyrrell: two spare tyres.

The minimum weight ballooned, too, as cars were required to become stronger and safer: 550kg in 1972; 575kg from 1973; and 585kg in 1981.

An F1-plan diet then ensued: 580kg in 1982 – less if Gordon Murray was your designer; 540kg from 1983 (plus 500kg for the atmos of ’87); and 500kg for all from 1989.

Throughout, the category found space for the likes of Brett Lunger and ‘Little Art’ Merzario, whose rangy limbs and nimble fingers combined to click-clunk Niki Lauda from the flames at the Nürburgring in 1976, while solid citizens Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg and Nigel Mansell thrived against the daintier lead foots.

Then, in 1995, the minimum incorporated the driver: 595kg to begin with, and then 600kg from 1997 to 2008.

Scurrilous stories abounded of lead-lined crash helmets at pre-season weigh-ins. Sleights of head and hand aside, in theory this was a levelling of the playing field, although in practice flyweights benefited from the favourable attachment of ballast. Not that this stopped Michael Schumacher, all 78kg of fit-for-purpose muscle of him.

Given the choice, no matter which era, you’d pick a good little ’un rather than plump for a good big ’un. Not until now, however, has the weight of the law of diminishing returns (and dimensions) threatened to squish so promising a career.

C’mon, 17-stone Gerry Marshall raced in Formula Ford ferchrissakes! His Lotus 61, jokingly designated L for large, featured cutaway cockpit sides so that this hurly-burly driver could twirl its wheel. He might have won first time out, too, but for a mechanical snafu on the last lap at Snetterton in June 1969. Clearly, however, he was better suited to roomier tin-tops and GTs.

A pair of seats is an obvious help in this regard. Chunky Duncan Hamilton was a more potent force in a Jaguar D-type than ever he was in a single-seater. Matt Neal, at 6ft 5in – and a handy martial artist to boot – has won more than 50 BTCC races. And no doubt Mark Webber, who has been starving himself for years in a bid to keep pace with his slighter Red Bull team-mate, is ravenous for some carbs before going the WEC distance with Porsche.

But it’s in America that the commodious have been most comfortable.

AJ Foyt in victory lane at Pocono, 1975

New York socialite David Bruce-Brown, winner of the 1910 and 1911 American Grand Prizes held in Savannah, Georgia, was built like a linebacker. So was AJ Foyt – as intimidating a presence off the track as on it. The once Fonz-like Mario Andretti filled out nicely, and his son Michael didn’t exactly fit the chiselled F1 Identi-Kit look in 1993.

The truly stacked, however, were the Detroit Iron men of NASCAR’s golden era.

Junior Johnson, the winner of the 1960 Daytona 500 and 49 other races, was a 240lb farmer from the mountains of Wilkes County, North Carolina.

And genuine tough guy Cale Yarborough, a winner of 83, allegedly regularly wrestled his pet bear.

And Donnie Allison…

The mightiest Redwood, however, was DeWayne ‘Tiny’ Lund, a 6ft 5in redoubt of a man who refused offers from pro American Football teams in order to follow his motor racing dream.

Badly injured in his first NASCAR race in 1955, Lund drifted in and out of the scene until he got his big break in 1963 in remarkable circumstances. While attending Daytona to tout for a drive, he rescued Marvin Panch from a flaming sportscar wreck in testing. As a reward, he was offered Panch’s prime NASCAR ride with the Wood Brothers.

This journeyman from Harlan, Iowa, then ended this fairy tale by coasting across the finish line, out of fuel, but in the lead, of the Daytona 500: his maiden NASCAR victory.

A fast-living, compulsive practical joker with a quick temper, Lund won four more times before he was involved in a Talladega T-bone, the violence of which caused even his frame to buckle. Ironically, he had only taken the start because another driver had forfeited following the sudden death of his crew chief.

Buddy Baker in 1985

This frenetic 500-miler in August 1975 was won by Elzie Wylie ‘Buddy’ Baker. Devastated when brusquely informed of his friend’s death, he excused himself from the post-race press conference. Floored by a sudden and overwhelming sadness, it was all Baker, another 6ft 5in, 200lb hulk, could do to get up and walk out.

Never judge a book by its cover – or its ‘thud factor’.

Word is that Lotus has done exactly that: ignored the width and felt the quality by signing Hülkenberg for 2014. Let’s hope so.

Click here to read more about the history of motor sport

Click here for more from Paul Fearnley

opinion  My dream F1 season

You may also like