After many years, the tide might finally be turning.
Ever-fattening Formula 1 cars have been in vogue in recent seasons, but now the rule-makers have finally put a limit on single-seaters ballooning further, with the hope that they could reduce in future, similar to other series like Formula E.
For many, the image of the perfect racing car is often something close to a Lotus 25 or an early ’90s F1 offering – compact, nimble, twitchy and agile.
Now though, due to strengthened safety cells, increased aerodynamics and large hybrid power units grand prix machines are relative giants compared to their forebears – and have gotten over 200kg heavier over the last 20 years.
With new rules brought in to limit size and hopefully reverse the fattening of F1 machines, the championship’s chief technical officer Pat Symonds told Motor Sport reducing car size is “something we want to do.”
Larger cars mean space is now at a premium – former jinks round Monaco have turned into processions and ideas of going two-wide through Eau Rouge are now a thing of the past.
Drivers have complained too: Max Verstappen, who has previously described the current heavy F1 machines as “not great” said at last week’s 2023 Miami GP that cars are now too “heavy and stiff” to take different lines at many circuits, limiting overtaking opportunities.
Lewis Hamilton has had his say also: “I don’t understand why we go heavier when there’s all this talk about being more sustainable – just as the sport is going in that direction.”
Other series are now moving towards smaller and lighter cars, most notably Formula E – with great success so far.
Its Gen3 car, whilst not scoring many marks on the aesthetic front, has a smaller, more agile chassis that has managed to generate some thrilling races, most notably at Monaco: last weekend’s e-prix featured an incredible 116 overtakes, with cars going three-wide at various points on the circuit and Envision driver Nick Cassidy scything through the field from 10th to win.
The chances of a similar spectacle at F1’s race in a few weeks is basically zero, the cars having supersized in comparison…
How big is an F1 car?
F1 cars are currently are a maximum 5.63m in length, 2m wide, 95cm tall and weigh 800kg without the driver. Compare this to the one of ultimate machines of modern F1 design – the Ferrari 640, which raced in 1989 and set up car design for most of the ’90s, and the differences are stark.
Though a similar height, and in fact wider by 13cm, the 640 was significantly shorter than a current F1 machine at 4.4m and weighed just 510kg, making it and cars like it much easier to race, particularly on tighter tracks.
Why are F1 cars so big?
Whilst until this season there has been are no stringent rule on car lengths, what has allowed cars to grow are changing regulations on the overhang of aerodynamic devices – the larger the component, the more aerodynamic grip you can generate.
Front wings now sprawl out ahead of the car whilst rear wings hang out over the back. Whilst for 2022 devices such as bargeboards were outlawed, floors are now becoming ever more elaborate which flicks and attachments to try and regain downforce, again adding to weight.
The current 1.6-litre turbo hybrid F1 engine also hugely adds to the size and weight of the current machines.
As well as the dimensions of the ICU, the battery, regen system and electric motor, the sheer weight of the extra equipment is making cars much bigger and heavier than when they were simply powered by relatively compact V10s, V8s and V6s.
In the future though, once PUs potentially become more efficient and rules on length gradually more stringent, we could see cars shrinking again, encouraging better racing.
The same goes for F1 safety cells, which in strengthening over the years have become bulky, quite unlike the slight examples from the ‘90s.
The 6mm-thick carbon composite shell with a Kevlar layer is almost indestructible, but again adds weight through its strength.
Further piling on the pounds is the Halo safety device, which is made from titanium and weighs 9kg.
F1 wheels are now bigger too, weighing in at 74kg – almost 30kg heavier than they were 20 years ago.
The final weight added is the current fuel tank, which now has to be larger to accommodate the ban on refuelling, with the petrol of course adding weight too.
Will F1 cars get smaller?
Things could change in the not too distant future though. F1’s chief technical officer Symonds emphasised the direction F1 was hoping to go size-wise, starting potentially in 2026.
“One of the things we want to do is make the cars a little smaller because they’ve grown massively over the last few years,” he said.
“We’ve put a limitation on wheelbase for the 2022 car, which in my view was was generous. My 2014 Williams was actually shorter than the current regulations require, so it can be done [though] it needs a little bit of thinking about. Our aim is to make quite a significant [further] reduction in wheelbase [in 2026].”
Symonds also emphasised another aim of current rule makers, which could go hand in hand with reducing the cars’ mass.
“We’d like the weight to come down but we’re way away from [achieving] that yet,” he said. “However, we absolutely must make sure it doesn’t grow.”
However, whilst F1 is aiming to make its cars smaller, other series like Formula E has already made it a reality.
Whilst comparisons to the attractive dart-shaped Brabham BT52 and a fighter jet at its launch earlier this year might be stretching it somewhat, the shrinking of the car has helped improve racing by giving more space and optimising the car’s efficiency.
The weight of the new Gen3 car was reduced from its predecessor’s 900kg to 760kg, making for a more nimble racer far closer to the mid-2000s weight of 600kg F1 cars.
At just over five metres, the markedly shorter machine has managed to generate a huge number of overtakes so far, perhaps putting further pressure on the F1 to downsize its cars.
The new Formula E Gen3 car is smaller, lighter and more powerful – does it signal the way for electric racing by bucking the trend?
Formula E isn’t the only series which has a car better suited to racing than F1. Though introduced now eleven years ago in 2012, the DW12 IndyCar still provides great on-track entertainment, and a lot of this is down to its dimensions.
Lighter than an F1 car at 750kg, the DW12 is just 5.1m long and 1.9m wide. The difference numbers might not sound huge, but the extra space allows for more wheel-to-wheel running and, like Formula E, the cars rely less on downforce, allowing them to follow more closely.
Even with the series will to move to hybrid engines in 2024, there are no plans to greatly increase the size of the car, and the racing will therefore not suffer.
It is likely to be at least till 2026 before we see F1 cars as raceable as Formula E and IndyCars.