Why Formula 1 cars have grown so big


Formula 1 cars are currently faster than ever before, but they're also bigger than ever. F1 technical consultant Rob Smedley explains the reasons behind the increase in size

Lewis Hamilton, 2020 Imola GP

The Formula 1 cars are at the biggest they've been, but will they ever shrink in the future?

Miguel Medina - Pool/Getty Images

The longest car that Mercedes makes isn’t the luxury S-Class saloon or eight-seat V-Class people carrier. It’s Lewis Hamilton’s title-winning W11.

This year’s Formula 1 cars are as big as they have ever been and the introduction of new regulations in 2022 won’t see them shrink.

Put any title-winning car from the 20th century next to a 2020 car and you’ll see that a modern F1 car has almost in doubled in size compared with its predecessors from two decades ago.

Ayrton Senna’s 1990 McLaren was 4394mm long; Hamilton’s Mercedes is one of the longest cars on the current grid and at least 5000mm long.

You’ll find some clues to this ballooning growth in the fact that modern cars are the fastest they’ve ever been as well because big doesn’t mean slow.

The long wheelbase-design championed by Mercedes offers more space for surfaces to work their aerodynamic, even if the car is heavier and less agile. Powerful V6 power units may have a small block, but the hybrid attachments bring bulky packaging constraints, and then there are the wide, grippy tyres.

Driver safety, regulation change and an eye for headline-making numbers have set F1 on the path to bigger cars, according to F1 technical consultant, Rob Smedley.

“The principal driver behind the bigger footprint of the car is the tyres,” he told Motor Sport.

“In 2017, we had a reasonably big rule shift in terms of the tyre size and that was to facilitate more mechanical grip and the bigger tyre footprint has led to a bigger overall car.”

Those changes led to an increase in the size of the tyres of around 25 per cent, rising from 245mm to 305mm in width at the front and 325mm to 405mm at the rear in 2017. Overall width of the cars was also increased from 1800mm to 2000mm.

And while those regulation changes morphed the cars into what we see today, the substantial increases in size were already underway before.

Much-needed safety improvements were already pushing dimensions up when the fatal crashes of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994 accelerated the change.

Increased crumple zones extended the length of cars, and better head protection made them look bulkier. Crash standards continued to rise, requiring larger and more complex crash structures, and the introduction of the wooden plank, underneath cars to this day, increased ride height.

Although cars were made narrower, from 2m to 1.8m in 1998, the move was reversed as part of the 2017 regulation changes aimed at making cars faster.

As safety improvements were introduced, engine sizes initially shrank, with V10s becoming V8s. But then the size of the power unit grew, as V6 turbo hybrids arrived, attached to battery packs and motors.

Jules Bianchi’s 2014 Suzuka crash, Dan Wheldon’s and Henry Surtees’ fatal accidents led to the development of the ‘halo’ cockpit protection in F1 and IndyCar aeroscreens, as the pursuit for safer cars continued.

“There’s no trade-off or compromise to be sought there between how much volume versus how many lives we save.”

“Over the past 20 years, if you take all of the chassis and the side impact structure, there’s a lot of impact protection there which can protect in most circumstances. That has added a lot of mass and volume to the cars,” Smedley says.

“If you go back even further than that, a classic would be there was a regulation where the driver’s feet had to sit behind a front impact structure. In order to do that, that had to be part of what we now call the survival cell. The survival cell that the driver now sits in has become a much bigger entity than if you go back 30 years ago. For example, the driver’s feet can’t sit beyond the front axle, whereas before they could have their feet in what we term as the nosecone now and within the impact structure rather than behind it.

“Rear impact structure is another one, that increased the length at the other end of the car. So there are safety aspects, laterally, at the front at the rear, and they’re being constantly worked on. We’re working with the FIA Safety Commission in order to build safer and safer cars but undoubtedly, there’s volume that we’ve added there which has saved many many lives.

“We’ve got to try and protect the drivers, anything else that we think about in Formula 1, safety has to be the number one driver. There’s no trade-off or compromise to be sought there between how much volume versus how many lives we save.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull 2019 winter testing

The rear impact crash structure has also led to an increase in car size

Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“The overall hybrid power unit, although an incredible feat of engineering in terms of efficiency, it does bring about packaging challenges.

“It’s difficult to break those laws of physics. With that, the car’s overall volume commensurably grows. The power unit – which is just an overall much bigger power unit than what we had at the end of the non-hybrid era.

“Then you’ve got the hybrid ancillaries, the MGU-K and then the MGU-H, which again brings packaging volume.”

The most recent size increases in 2017 were made to increase speed rather than improve racing. It resulted in record-breaking lap times but a much-criticised spectacle.

That focus has shifted with the 2022 regulations, which will cut aerodynamic performance to allow closer racing. However the size of the cars won’t change, despite suggestions that their bulk is restricting the ability to overtake.

“The argument doesn’t particularly stand up,” says Smedley. “I think if you look at the statistics of overtaking from pre-2017 and post-2017 and the width of the cars makes very little difference apart from in places where there’s very little overtaking anyway, like Monte-Carlo for example.

“Does the width of the car play any role there? If you looked at the probability of overtaking and what difference a 2017 car makes compared to a 2016 car, you’d be down to two decimal places of probability or something like that. The probability is .05 that you’re going to overtake there, it would go to .49. You’re not going to make that much of a difference.”

The push for safety in F1 and growth of cars


Regulation changes between 1966 and 1969 limited the height of wings to prevent unsafe high wings from being attached to cars, but the majority of safety changes in the decade were focused on driver equipment and circuit facilities.

1960 Championship-winning Cooper-Climax T53
Width: 1372mm
Length: 3500mm


1972 brought the first cockpit ‘protection’ regulations into effect with mandatory headrests and minimum cockpit dimensions brought into regulation. A structure around the fuel tank was required by 1975. A single fuel tank was brought in to prevent the shearing of fuel lines and ignition upon impact that the earlier separated fuel tanks had regularly caused.

1970 Championship-winning Lotus 72
Width: 1881mm
Length: 4191mm



The banning of ground effect and introduction of carbon fibre as chassis material was a major step in the road to the modern Formula 1 today.

In 1981, the first survival cell was implemented, with a zone in front of the driver’s feet intended to improve survivability in the event of an accident.

From 1985, all cars were subject to a crash test in order to be deemed suitable to race.

1980 Championship-winning Williams FW07
Width: 2130mm
Length: 4460mm

McLaren Honda 2015 announcement

The 2006 Honda RA106, 1988 McLaren Honda MP4/4 and 1965 Honda RA272



A more strict testing process of the survival cell is introduced in 1991 and ’92.

The headrest area is increased in 1993 from 80 to 400 cm2 and the wooden plank is introduced in 1994 following the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna.

In 1995, the cockpit area is increased to avoid driver impact in the event of a crash, side-impact tests are introduced and chassis is lengthened in front of the drivers’ legs from 15 to 30 cm.

From 1998, the side impact test demands are increased with the front impact tests following suit the in the next year and cars are made narrower from 2m to 1.8m.

1990 Championship-winning McLaren MP4/5
Width: 2133mm
Length: 4470mm



The survival cell and cockpit entry dimensions are increased in 2001.

The rear crash structure tests are made stricter in 2007.

2009 sees major changes with the reduction in rear wing size from 1000 mm to 750 mm and with an increase in height from 800mm to 950mm. The front wing is increased in width from 1400mm to 1800mm, while the rear diffuser is made longer and higher.

2000 Championship-winning Ferrari F1-2000
Width: 1795mm
Length: 4397mm



Car width is increased back to 2m from 1.8m, front wings are made wider to 1800mm. Tyre size is increased from 245mm to 305mm in width at the front and 325mm to 405mm at the rear.

2010 Championship-winning Red Bull RB6
Width: 1840mm
Length: 4960mm


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One suggestion recently floated was the return of refuelling, but this would not shrink them significantly either, with engineers always looking to push the limits of the rulebook. While the fuel tanks could be reduced in size, it would not make a big difference to the current size of the cars according to Smedley.

“I do listen to and enjoy hearing the certain narratives that pop up on how to fix Formula 1, and I think that the key point here is that there is that it’s such a complex sport that there is no single magic bullet. You can’t say, bring back refuelling and everything will be fixed, bring back narrow tyres and everything will be fixed.

“Would we reduce the overall size and mass of the car if we had refuelling? You’d have to do the exercise but I’m sure that it’s very dependent on tyres because, with very low degradation tyres which we have at some races, the one-stop is always the way to go.

“That doesn’t mean that you [only] need half the fuel though. Like at Spa this year, everybody stopped under a safety car around about lap 10 and then ran to the end.

“The designers and engineers would definitely not build tiny fuel cells like we could in the early 2000s because we had a higher degradation tyre. You’d be almost forced to build a tank that could do two-thirds of the race or something like that.

“Then, of course, you’ve got all of the refuelling ancillaries. The valve that sits on the car carries a great deal of mass. Would you end up with smaller overall cars? You might do. It might be a small incremental change but again, there is no magic bullet. If we did decide that what we did want was smaller cars, there would have to be a whole host and range of ways of doing that.

Might we see a reduction in size in the future? Smedley says it is not something Formula 1 is actively considering but is instead focusing on ensuring the new 2022 cars perform as intended on track.

“In 2022, we don’t expect to get it right 100 per cent from the off, but if we are able to make a positive impact then that is a huge step forward”

Great lengths have been taken in producing cars that will theoretically improve the wheel-to-wheel spectacle on race days, with computer simulations, thousands of different data points analysed and even fan language used to assess what is truly valued by the viewer versus what could be morphed into something else.

“The size of the cars is not something that is at the forefront of our minds. I think what we’ve got to do is get the new generation introduced in 2022, as Ross (Brawn) has always said, we don’t expect to get it right 100% from the off, that would be absolute folly if we tried to say that.

“I think if you look at the way that the regulations have been designed, with a lot of engineering and teams engineering knowledge which I think is key, and simulation and technical methodologies, we’re fairly hopeful that we’ll be able to make a positive impact and that should be not all you want to make but, if we are able to make a positive impact then that is a huge step forward.

“I think it’s a case of looking at the 2022 cars and then understanding what we need to do to improve it. Have we found the right direction in certain areas? Absolutely fantastic, that’s already a massive box ticked, and then it’s developing those areas further, or looking at areas that we haven’t been able to get on top of and doing a better job there.

“Having a technical or engineering methodology process to be able to drive the technical regulations and therefore the shape, volume and mass of the car, is already in my opinion a huge step forward.”