Nico Hulkenberg, Carlos Sainz Jnr, Renault, 2017

Analysis: How big a disadvantage do taller F1 drivers face?

2018 F1 season

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Last week the Formula One Strategy Group agreed plans for a new minimum driver weight to be introduced in 2019.

The significance of the change is that from next year the driver’s weight will not be considered part of the car’s overall weight. Any driver weighing less than 80kg will have to carry enough ballast to reach the new limit.

Until then taller drivers will continue to be at a disadvantage. But how great a disadvantage is it?

Driver height and weight comparison – 2015

The graph below shows the heights and weights of the 20 drivers who started the 2015 F1 season:

The trend for taller drivers to weigh more is clear. The 10 shortest drivers have an average weight of 64.9kg, the 10 tallest are 4kg heavier on average.

The reasons for this are obvious. Teams spend millions shaving grams of weight from their cars, so an F1 driver has a strong incentive to get their weight as low as possible while still being strong enough to drive the car. But becoming shorter isn’t a realistic option, so taller drivers are inevitably at a disadvantage.

The weight difference between the lightest driver three years ago (Felipe Massa) and the heaviest (Roberto Merhi) was 17kg. If the latter had been carrying that much more weight at every race, how much slower would he have been?

Esteban Ocon, Sergio Perez, Force India, Monza, 2017
Ocon is 13cm taller than team mate Perez
The answer depends on the track. Around Spa’s long, seven-kilometre lap, Merhi would have lost up to seven-tenths of a second. Around Monaco, the shortest track on the calendar, it would have been half that.

But taller drivers don’t have to run over the minimum weight limit, so their disadvantage is not this great. Teams are usually able to get their cars far enough under the minimum weight limit that even the heaviest drivers don’t carry more weight on the track than their lighter rivals.

The advantage shorter drivers have is that the ballast they carry to reach the minimum weight limit can be placed in an optimal position on the car. That means on the floor, and either forward or rearward as the car’s set-up requires.

How great an advantage this is has varied over the years depending on how difficult teams have found it to hit the minimum weight limit. For example when the KERS hybrid boost was introduced in 2009 some teams could only justify the weight penalty of running it for their lighter drivers. At BMW, for example, the heavier Robert Kubica had to make do without KERS but team mate Nick Heidfeld had it.

In other seasons where hitting the minimum weight limit has been difficult some drivers have raced without drinks bottles to save weight. This year designers are again finding it difficult to hit the minimum weight limit due to the introduction of Halo.

Introducing a minimum driver weight which is separate from the weight of the car promises to put taller drivers at less of a disadvantage. But the devil lies in the detail.

The crucial question for 2019 is whether the regulations will specify where driver ballast must be carried. If the new rules state driver ballast has to be contained within the backrest of the seat, then shorter drivers can kiss their weight advantage goodbye after 2018.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 57 comments on “Analysis: How big a disadvantage do taller F1 drivers face?”

    1. I believe Ericsson constantly complained about losing roughly .3-4 seconds per lap on Wehrlein. Come the end of the season, when the Sauber lost enough weight to bring him within the minimum range, he usually matched or even beat the German.

      1. Sauber had a third heave damper system for the rear suspension during the year. It brought you about 0.1s a lap by improving the aero, but weighed 2kg more than the std setup. Ericsson couldn’t use it, as the increased overweight of his car nulled the advantage. Pascal used it when it brought advantages as his car was still under the weight limit with it mounted.

        1. I didn’t follow Sauber’s drivers closely, but I guess it’s no surprise Ericsson was kept and Wherlein was not?

          1. While it is no surprise, that was certainly not because Ericsson was the better driver Paat. It is solely because his backers own the team and want him there. Otherwise they would have either kept Wehrlein, or taken up Ferrari’s other young driver on offer

            1. Ericsson was an equally good driver to Wehrlein (when the weight factor was included, my comment) but worked better with the team as he’s a team player said Vasseur said before Christmas. He had secured the sole vote from the owners when he joined, as to who should be the team’s drivers going forward.

              Vasseur is not so stupid as to field two rookies in a team like Torro Rosso or Williams.

      2. Correction: Ericsson himself NEVER complained about it. And i presume you mean 3-4 tenths of a second.

    2. Would it be possible for them to make the actual seat the ballast?

      1. Interesting question, particular as seats are fitted to a driver.

        1. It should be in the backrest specifically, otherwise it will all be placed on the very bottom of the seat, thus conveying a (smaller than previously) advantage to lighter drivers. Put it in the bottom 1/3rd of the back rest.

        2. I don’t think a seat is a compulsory part of the car. I remember reading about one driver who was driving without a sit because he was too big for it.

          1. Oh, I remember what it was, it was Jeremy Clarkson running a Renault without a seat, but that wasn’t in a race, of course. Still, if the seat isn’t regulated, it might not be possible to use it as ballast.

    3. Taller drivers carry more weight higher up which can affect the CoG. In Karting this is a notable problem and part reason why tall drivers don’t come up through the ranks.
      Lead weights are normally bolted to the back and side of the seat low down.

      Heavyweight classes in Karting arn’t always tall drivers either. Usually older with different lifestyles than the younger drivers. The tall and big drivers are usually found in SuperKarts.

      I don’t see many of the F1 driver weights mentioned as ‘unhealthy’ .
      If anything the weight limit will help the older drivers. They can put on a few pounds and work less hard in the gym providing the cars don’t get more demanding to drive. Many of them actually use Karting to keep fit in the winter.

      1. Motorsport is one of the few sports where small people have an advantage or certainly arn’t dissadvantaged.

        Pity any of the young lads who were drawn to motorsport yet also fancied playing Basketball or Rugby.

        1. Cycling, gymnastics, horseback riding, short track speed skating, weightlifting, …

        2. Maybe NBA too should put ballast on the shirt of player under 200 cm. Or somewhere near player center of gravity.

          1. Lets skip different weightclasses in boxing too and we shall see who wins the belts without 3 digits in kilo….

      2. @bigjoe

        In Karting this is a notable problem and part reason why tall drivers don’t come up through the ranks.

        I seriously doubt that. Having a higher CoG can be an advantage in karting. Mind you, Verstappen is quite tall for a karter (1.80) and I cannot think of someone more succesful in karting in the recent history.

        1. Max was not 1,80m when he was 15 – his peak karting period. Nor was he as filled out as now.

    4. Update on my diet, I needed so shave off 5kg, fortunately and due to hard work and dedication, only 6kg to go now!

      1. @johnmilk I personally feel that you shouldn’t work so hard. :)

      2. @johnmilk
        You’ll probably have to work harder than that and convert most of that into muscles, unless you want the FIA to have a closer look at your biological mass damper. :p

      3. @neutronstar @nase I will keep working as hard or even harder, I do this out of pleasure and I don’t need anyone taking a closer look at my mass damper.

        I fully expect next week to be even closer to my goal!

        1. @johnmilk

          I don’t need anyone taking a closer look at my mass damper.

          I tried reading that sentence with a straight face. In vain.

      4. Are you now having to add ballast to your Office chair? Just wondering how that worked.

        1. @ramjet I haven’t, but I made my colleagues add ballast to theirs if they are below 80kg
          It makes coffee runs fairer

      5. @johnmilk I’m not fat, it’s success ballast…

        1. @keithcollantine the success of enduring the most challenging sport of them all. Only true greats get to the top

          Beer lifting

      6. I don’t understand, the amount of weight you had to lose INCREASED from 5 to 6?

        1. I believe that is the joke ;) (Basically, despite trying to lose weight, @johnmilk apparently managed to gain some. Probably in pure muscle, but still…)

    5. … then shorter drivers can kiss their weight advantage goodbye after 2018.

      That is as it should be. Driver skill and the car they are driving should be the differentiator, not biology.

      1. and shorter NBA players should wear heels under their shoes cuz skill should be the differentiator, not biology :)

    6. When was the last time an f1 driver weighed over 80kg??

        1. But Merhi looks to be around 76kg on the graph.

          How heavy was Montoya at McLaren when he was accused of being too fat?

          1. Ah, true. Sorry.
            Nowhere near 80 kilos, I’d bet, because he’s vertically challenged. He probably broke through that barrier late in his IndyCar career, where he looked like he was moonlighting in tyre commercials.

            The thing is, I wouldn’t listen to Dennis-era McLaren calling anyone fat. Their approach to sanity and/or basic humanity was … different.

      1. Probably Sutil, because he was on or around 80 kg for most of his career (apart from 2014, when he tried to lose a few kilos). However, because of the “on or around” bit, I would be hesitant to commit to anything more precise than “2008-2013”.

        I think Hulkenberg was slightly over 80 kg at the start of his F1 career in 2010, but quite quickly reduced it to something approaching the weight you see on the chart today.

        As for Juan Pablo Montoya… according to “The 2004 Formula One Season” (Jean-Francois Galeron), Juan Pablo Montoya was 72 kg at the start of 2004, which is when Ron declared Juan Pablo was too fat (or one of the times – I think he may have had that accusation thrown at him by Ron twice). Of course, that was 3 kg lighter than Michael Schumacher at the time, and nobody ever accused the 7-time world champion of carrying excess weight… If F1 Racing’s headine of “Now with 10% less fat” following the winter 2004 fitness regime McLaren set for Juan Pablo had been literally true, then by 2005 he would have been 65.8 kg, the same weight as the likes of Fisichella.

    7. I’ve a friend who’s about 6kg heavier than me. In road cars in a track, he’s a faster driver. But in a go kart I’ve got him beat by a few tenths.

      Driving is an unusual competition where unlike soccer or boxing, the extra strength that comes with mass is no use, but unlike say table tennis or archery it still negatively impacts performance.

      I think there’s only so much you can do to help. Separating car and driver weight seems fair, but why only 80kg? What about a super tall driver who would struggle to be that light?

      1. @philipgb
        A super tall driver probably wouldn’t physically fit in the car anyway. It’s a simple measure to even out performance across common heights, no need to over-complicate it. I’m 6’3 average build and weigh about 80kg, so it should be possible for anyone up to about 6’6 to get there.

        1. The regulations themselves require a 6 foot 4 inch (1 metre 90 centimetre) driver to be theoretically capable of getting in and out of the car, and have done for years. Though, as Justin Wilson found out when he tried to test a Jordan in 2002, there is no corresponding regulation that requires accounting for a specific driver’s knee location. As long as some racing driver somewhere of that height could embark and disembark, the regulation is deemed to be met :(

    8. The whole thing is absurd.

      Maybe I can start a campaign to get Usain Bolt to wear lead boots so I can have a chance at beating him (I still think he would win of course!)

      1. @psynrg Absurd?
        Don’t you think its good that they drivers can race with the same conditions?

        Do we want to see a bunch of hobbits driving the f1 cars in the future?

        I think it’s absurd it hasn’t been implemented years ago.

        1. @orchide Show me a world class basketball player less than 6ft tall.

          Yes, there are some.

          Despite their height disadvantage, they succeeded in establishing themselves in the top flight and not because they lowered the basket to accomodate…

          1. A result of these regulations is the liklihood teams will not look to drivers who don’t meet an ideal minimum in weight and height.

            1. @psynrg Erm, why?
              Wasn’t the min weight of a driver 80kg, if below they have to add ballast to reach 80 kg.

              Don’t you mean the opposite? Teams can now choose between more drivers, even those who are quite tall & heavy.

              I can’t understand your logic?

          2. Possibly because they can jump better than most. Many years ago, when I was pressured into playing, I could out jump several players who were 3 inches (7,5 cm) taller. But my main physical sporting activity in the summer was jumping, long and triple.

      2. There is a reason why there are different weightclasses in boxing….

    9. The concept is sound, but four kilos on average is a lot. I don’t see how they can add that much weight to the cockpit area where the driver sits. In case of an impact, I don’t think anyone would want to have a brick of lead in their seat backrest!

      1. It would be even harder if they use feathers.

        Btw did you know 4kg of feathers are actually heavier than 4kg of lead? This happens because you would have to carry the weight of murdering all those chickens

      2. The ballast weights are made of tungsten. It is three times the density of iron and about 1.7 times denser than lead.
        Density Tungsten: 19.35g/cm3
        Density Lead: 11.35g/cm3

        1. That would make a 10 kg lump of Tungsten about 16 cm square 2 cm thick.

    10. SaturnVF1 (@doublestuffpenguin)
      22nd January 2018, 18:50

      It will be nice to see tall athletes finally able to succeed in sport.

    11. Just have to stir the old pot here. Mark Webber. Mark Webber. Did I mention Mark Webber? hee hee

    12. Instead of separating driver and car weight, how about increasing the minimum weight of the car? That would also erode the advantage if lighter drivers to some extent as all drivers will have enough ballast to play around with.

      It will also maintain the importance on driver fitness instead eliminating that as a factor entirely. Our sport is after all not just a team sport but a driver sport itself. So, there should be some focus on driver’s athletic ability/fitness as well.

    13. Keith, a suggestion. When I hover over a particular driver’s name, the title comes as “Height (cm)” followed by the weight and height in the 2nd line. Could you change that title to the drivers’ name instead?

      1. Yeah I had to zoom right in to figure out the overlapping group of three names is Verstappen Grosjean and Ericsson.

    14. I personally think this is ridiculous. Aren’t all jockeys smalller people? You don’t see this kind of stuff happening in horse races.

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