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Formula 1 Drivers are Lightweight Again

Thanks to KERS Technology, the Shorter and Lighter Driver Has an Advantage

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Driver walking away from Formula One race car
Jon Feingersh/Stone/Getty Images

It used to be common lore that a Formula 1 driver was a little, lightweight, horse racing jockey sort of guy. Think Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart or Alain Prost.

Then, however, as the car rules changed and car weights and sizes changed the driver height and weight ceased to matter much anymore. Suddenly, it was all right to be tall like Gerhard Berger, Alexander Wurz, Mark Webber, and even Michael Schumacher was only slightly shorter than these 6 footers. Ayrton Senna was taller than Prost and still beat him. David Coulthard was another 6 footer or more and won lots of races.

KERS Induces Return of the Lightweight Drivers:

But suddenly, a rule change in 2009 led to a return of the advantage given to the short, lightweight drivers: The FIA created a new technological element, known as the Kinetic Energy Recover Systems, or KERS, without changing another essential factor in the car's makeup. KERS is designed to save energy on braking and reuse it in short power bursts rather than drawing purely on fuel. Sure, but what does that have to do with driver height and weight?

The problem was that the rules of car weights from the pre-KERS time were not changed. That is to say, a Formula 1 car must weigh no more than 605 kilograms, or 1334 pounds, with the driver aboard during a race. Those are the rules. If the car and driver weigh more than that, they are disqualified from the race or race results. Where that created problems in 2009 was that a KERS system weighs some 30 kilograms.

The significance of this is that for a driver to get the most out of his car, a team creates a car with weight to spare. The extra weight is filled up with ballast. The ballast is placed in relevant parts of the car when a driver sets up the car to perform best on each individual circuit. In 2009, therefore, the taller, heavier drivers ended up being at a disadvantage compared to their lighter colleagues - particularly at teams where two drivers of drastically different heights and weights used the same kind of car chassis. So it was that the very short and light Nick Heidfeld had an advantage over the taller and heavier Robert Kubica at the BMW Sauber team.

Top Model F1 Driver Weight Syndrome:

This weight problem led to a situation not seen in the series before. Suddenly, over the winter, almost all of the drivers went on diets and worked out in a way to try to lose as much weight as possible. Nico Rosberg, the Williams driver, dropped from 72 kilograms to 66 kilograms. Kubica dropped from 78 to 72 last year - as he was already too heavy - and then this year dropped to 70 kilograms. Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari lost 3.5 kilos, Fernando Alonso lost 5 kilos, and even Heidfeld lost some weight going down by 2.5 kilos to weigh only 59 kilos. Jarno Trulli and Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel dropped to 64, 67 and 62.5 kilos. Webber, however, refused to lose weight, and he has been consistently slower than his teammate Vettel.

An Unforeseen Consequence of the Lightweight F1 Driver Syndrome:

Like the top models, F1 drivers found themselves not always in the best of health thanks to their weight loss. During the extreme heat and physical strain of some of the Formula 1 races, driver can lose up to 5 kilos of weight. At the hottest early race of the season in 2009, Alonso also found himself in another very difficult situation: His water bottle broke and he had nothing to drink throughout the race. Having lost 5 kilos over the winter, then a further 5 kilos or so during the race, and without anything to drink, the Spanish driver collapsed after the race in a state of dehydration.

It is no surprise that the FIA has agreed to increase the minimum car weight in 2010 from 605 kilos to 620 kilos.

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