Formula 1’s weighty issue

Amid all the noise about noise in the new-look Formula 1 for 2014, a far more disturbing side-effect of the new regulations has emerged. The new power trains are complicated and heavy. The additional weight of these power units has put pressure on drivers to lose weight in order to make their cars as light, and therefore fast, as possible.

To a degree, driver weight has always been an issue in motor racing. Taller drivers are naturally heavier, so have always faced a disadvantage. F1 drivers look like superheroes in most of their physical attributes, but they tend to be shorter than average. Felipe Massa, for instance, is 1.66 metres tall, or 5′5″.

If you are Nico Hülkenberg (1.84 metres tall, or 6′0″), that puts you at a severe disadvantage. Not just on the track itself is Hülkenberg hindered. It has severely limited his career possibilities, as his constant inability to find himself a top-line drive demonstrates. The fact that he still manages to score good results, despite his weight and the limitations of his machinery, speaks volumes of his talent.

Hülkenberg’s mental strength is also demonstrated in his admission that he is not as worried about his weight just now, and even ate a Big Mac while he was in Malaysia for last weekend’s grand prix. He is used to keeping his weight down, and knows where the limit is.

Mark Webber revealed to Nigel Roebuck the ways in which he had been forced to lose weight in recent years.

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!

…Given that we live in an era obsessed with safety, it seems a strange way to carry on…

For many other drivers, the need to lose weight has only come about this year. And it appears that some drivers are pushing their bodies to extreme, possibly dangerous levels.

Adrian Sutil revealed that he will be racing without a drinks bottle during some grands prix this year in a bid to save weight in his car. It seems that he may not be the only driver using this tactic. Sutil said, “You can’t guarantee that every driver is on 100 per cent at the moment from a physical point of view.”

Now reports have emerged that Jean-Éric Vergne was hospitalised after he collapsed as a result of “a lack of water and a little bit of lack of everything”.

Formula 1 drivers need to be in strong physical shape. They are constantly enduring extreme g-forces. It goes without saying that their concentration needs to be very high, for safety reasons if nothing else.

But it now seems as though some drivers are routinely driving when they are not at the peak of either their mental or physical strength, all for the sake of a few kilogrammes.

I should preface the rest of this article by pointing out that I am not a medical expert by any means. But it does seem as though this is an issue that the sport should be taking much more seriously.

I do not know which drivers are pushing the hardest to lose the most weight. Could it be that the odd comings-together between Jules Bianchi and Adrian Sutil (racing without his drink, remember) came about due to impaired judgement brought on by a lack of energy? What about Pastor Maldonado’s unbelievable lunge at Esteban Gutiérrez? Or the incident that caused Jean-Éric Vergne to describe Maldonado as “absolutely mental”?

I have no idea. But anything that increases the possibility of a driver’s judgement being impaired should be eradicated from the sport on safety grounds.

Apparently drivers have been discussing the idea of having each driver plus their seat weighing the same (as opposed to the driver plus their car, which is how weight is measured at the moment). They have been unable to agree on a solution, with some of the shorter and lighter drivers blocking the move. This may be natural — any F1 driver would try to exploit any type advantage they might get. But it reflects very poorly on the sport’s ability to govern itself.

As such, Jean Todt’s comments on the matter are deeply worrying. The FIA president appears to shrug off any suggestions that F1 has a weight problem:

I think normally you can do a good diet and not to have to go to hospital because you have been losing so many kilos.

I don’t think you go to hospital because you are on a diet.

It is utterly crass to sweep the issue under the carpet in this way. According to NHS Choices, “The physical effects of an eating disorder can sometimes be fatal.”

Some people who work in F1 often appear to believe that the sport’s drivers are among the greatest athletes in the world, in peak physical condition and able to take on any mental challenge. F1 drivers are indeed impressive humans. But the sport should remember that they are just that — only human.

F1 drivers are indeed a different breed. Almost by definition, they are just the sort of people willing to risk their lives in the pursuit of their dream, of being the fastest.

David Coulthard suffered from bulimia as he made his way up the racing ladder in his quest to become an F1 driver. With the current obsession over drivers’ weights, who knows what some current drivers might be going through.

Formula 1 has a duty of care towards its participants. For decades, the sport has spent a lot of effort into reining in the dangers of the cars and circuits themselves, and rightly so. It ought also to look at the mental strains and dangers that drivers — and their bosses — might be placing on themselves.

5 comments

  1. Jean Todt’s ignorance is astonishing. Lots of people go to hospital for mismanaging diets. It’s hardly surprising that drivers who are inexperienced in a particular form of dieting also end up in hospital (and making serious misjudgements) when they get it wrong. Though why Pastor Maldonado should need to be on such a diet (I didn’t think he was among the heaviest drivers on the grid) is a mystery. Of course, the fastest, safest way would be for the drivers to be eating a healthy diet. Perhaps the FIA needs to tell the drivers this and be ready with enforcement if it isn’t heeded. Certainly Mr Todt needs informing of this.

  2. Great article. Spot on. Such an easy problem to fix it reflects very badly on the FIA when they do nothing about it – just like the cost cap.

  3. Reading this reminded me of a debate from last autumn when there was all the furore over Nico Hulkenberg not being able to get a drive due to his weight. You might have already read it but it’s this article: http://www.jamesallenonf1.com/2013/10/insight-why-is-weight-a-potential-stumbling-block-for-nico-hulkenbergs-f1-career-progress/

    I was particularly intrigued by the contributions on Comment No 11 (in the comments section of course), particularly from AuraF1 (I even added to the thread myself). Admittedly, not knowing the guy in real life means I can’t vouch 100% for his experience but equally I have no reason not to believe it and he (I think it’s a he) seems to add some weight to the critical analysis you’ve provided here.

  4. Rishi,

    Thanks for drawing attention to those comments on James Allen’s blog. Fascinating stuff, and it is abundantly clear that F1 urgently needs to take action on this trend.

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