Why F1 cars keep getting heavier

F1 technology

Formula One cars have been getting heavier for several years. That trend will continue in 2014 with the minimum weight limit set to jump from 642kg to 690kg – an increase of over 7%.

Weight is the enemy of performance in a racing car but the days of teams be able to run the lightest car they could get away with are long gone. The first minimum weight limit was introduced in 1961.

Its introduction was for the same reason many other changes have been forced upon F1 car designers: safety.

The 1958 season alone saw the deaths of Peter Collins, Luigi Musso and Stewart Lewis-Evans. For 1961 the sport’s governing body reduced engine capacity to 1.5 litres to curb speeds, and introduced the first ever minimum weight limit for F1 cars.

The minimum weight limit in F1, 1961-2014

Here’s how the minimum weight limit for F1 cars has changed since it was introduced in 1961:


Year 1961 1965 1966 1968 1969 1971 1972 1973 1980 1981 1982 1983 1986 1987 1988 1989 1993 1994 1995 2008 2009 2010 2011 2013 2014
Minimum weight (kg) 450 450 500 500 530 530 550 575 575 585 580 540 540 500 500 500 500 515 595 595 605 620 640 642 690
Minimum weight (turbos) (kg) 540 540

The rule makers believed excessively light cars had become an unacceptable hazard to drivers. In preceding seasons it was not uncommon for teams to drill holes in parts of their cars, such as the steering columns, to shave off weight in the pursuit of performance.

Unsurprisingly it was Lotus owner Colin Chapman, whose preoccupation with weight-saving bordered on obsession, who pointed out that light weight and safety were not necessarily mutually exclusive, and that recent fatalities had befallen drivers of the heaviest cars on the grid.

Chapman not unreasonably argued a heavier car is harder to slow down in a crash and dissipates more energy in an impact, making it more dangerous. But it was also true that many of his drivers were concerned his pursuit of low weight went beyond merely putting too little fuel in his cars and resulted in chassis that were too fragile and put them at greater risk.

However the weight limit was here to stay and in 1965 it was revised upwards when F1 engine capacities doubled to three litres. As the drive for safety increased momentum at the end of the sixties and into the seventies further rises in the weight limit were sanctioned to allow teams to incorporate innovations such as roll hoops and mandatory fire extinguishers.

By the mid-seventies most teams were able to get their cars down to the minimum weight limit or within a few percent of it. They were also starting to become more secretive about the weight of their cars.

Dodging the weight limit

Nelson Piquet, Brabham-Ford BT49C, Buenos Aires, 1981As the graph shows, the minimum weight limit has rarely gone in any direction other than up. But during the eighties it was temporarily reduced.

At the beginning of the decade several teams had switched to using 1.5-litre turbo engines. These proved spectacularly powerful but their higher weight and greater thirst for fuel meant the cars did not trouble the minimum weight limit. Rival machines which still used normally aspirated engines were far lighter.

In the early eighties the political clout of the non-turbo teams, most of which were aligned to Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Constructors’ Association, helped them secure some reductions in the weight limit to help them remain competitive.

Several of them were able to build their cars well below this lower weight limit and pursued various rule dodges though which they could do so. In 1981 Ecclestone’s Brabham team were accused of having special lightweight chassis which was only used during qualifying and did not appear on race day.

In Monaco, where Piquet planted his Brabham BT49 on pole position, rival Jacques Laffite told L’Equipe: “The practice car has carbon fibre brake discs which save 12 kilos, and I’m told that the car also has a tiny fuel tank, much lighter than the normal one. The car should be weighed as soon as Piquet stops, before the mechanics can touch it. But no, no one will do anything because it is a Brabham, owned by Ecclestone, and no one can touch him. Everyone is frightened of him.”

Brabham and rival teams took this practice a step further the following year. Taking advantage of a rule which allowed water tanks to be replenished after a race before a car’s weight was checked, they built cars with large tanks – ostensibly for brake cooling purposes – which were emptied at the start of a race. After the car completed the race beneath the minimum weight the tanks were topped up afterwards so the car passed scrutineering.

At the 1982 Brazilian Grand Prix FISA (now the FIA) threw out the winning Brabham of Nelson Piquet and second-placed Keke Rosberg’s Williams, declaring both were beneath the weight limit. In protest several FOCA teams boycotted that year’s San Marino Grand Prix on the fatuous grounds that they needed time to redesign their cars to reach the true weight limit.

Nigel Mansell, Paul Ricard, Williams, 1988But the writing was on the wall for the normally-aspirated runners and one by one the top FOCA outfits switch to turbo power – Ecclestone’s Brabham in 1982, McLaren and Williams the year after.

In an attempt to maintain some degree of parity between turbos and non-turbos, F1 temporarily became a two-tier formula. In 1987 and 1988 non-turbo cars were allowed to run at a lower weight limit. But it proved a vain hope: in these two seasons, as in the three before them, every race was won by a turbo.

From 1989 turbos were banned but the lower minimum limit of 500kg remained. By 1995 it had jumped up by almost 100kg due to a change in how the rule was enforced: for the first time the minimum weight limit referred to a car plus its driver.

Some drivers saw this as an opportunity to gain an advantage. When Michael Schumacher turned up to be weighed before the the first race of the season he tipped the scales at 77kg. That the world champion might have gained eight kilos in weight during the off-season aroused suspicion and led to suggestions Schumacher was trying to gain a performance advantage by having an underweight car. His weight after the race was found to be just 71.5kg, but both he and his Benetton were within the limit.

Heading towards 700kg

Robert Kubica, BMW, Suzuka, 2009The 595kg limit remained unchanged for over a decade. But in recent years the minimum weight limit has risen rapidly and next year it will reach almost 700kg.

Recent increases in the minimum weight limit appear to be less to do with safety. The introduction of mandatory impact-absorbing structures and crash tests have proved highly effective in making cars safer in high-speed accidents. Changes in the technical formula, such as the introduction of KERS in 2009, have prompted most recent revisions to the weight limit.

In the case of KERS, despite the rise in minimum weight some teams found their units were so heavy that it was only worth running them if their drivers were beneath a certain weight. BMW, for example, used KERS on the car of Nick Heidfeld, who weighed 59kg, but not Robert Kubica, who weighed 72kg.

The minimum weight limit was subsequently raised to prevent driver weight being a deciding factor when it came to using KERS. But even so the fact remains that a shorter driver can weigh less, making it easier to get his car within the weight limit. Any ballast needed to reach the weight limit can be situated in a position which better optimises the car’s centre of gravity.

Getting the balance of driver weight and ballast right is essential as Paul di Resta found out to his cost at Silverstone earlier this year. Having qualified fifth he was excluded from qualifying and sent to the back of the grid after he was found to be too light by just 500g.

Next year’s planned 48kg hike in the minimum weight limit comes as turbocharged engines are set to return, along with a wealth of complicated Energy Recovery Systems. The minimum weight for engines will rise from 95kg to 145kg.

Heavier cars, tighter rules

Paul di Resta, Force India, Silverstone, 2013The restrictions on car weight are getting ever stricter. In 2011 a new rule limited the teams to a narrowly-defined weight distribution limit in qualifying. This was introduced “for 2011 only” yet has remained part of the rules in successive seasons.

Next year teams will effectively be limited to a front-to rear weight distribution of 46% to 54% in qualifying, with 0.5% leeway in either direction.

A little over five decades ago F1 designers had a free reign in terms of the weight of their cars. Today there are minimum weights for the chassis, engine and other parts, as well as a fixed weight distribution.

As F1 cars are being fitted with increasingly tough safety structures, and more dramatic changes such as cockpit canopies are under consideration, it is likely the minimum weight will rise further. Colin Chapman’s maxim of “simplify and add lightness” increasingly seems to be a thing of the past.

Weight limit data sources: FIA Formula One Technical Regulations, various issues of MotorSport, various editions of Autocourse, Formula One: All the Races by Roger Smith, Colin Chapman: Inside the Innovator by Karl Ludvigsen.

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Images © Ford, Williams/LAT, BMW, Force India

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113 comments on Why F1 cars keep getting heavier

  1. Kanman1 said on 20th August 2013, 11:03

    the day when f1 car implemented with canopy will be the day i stop watching f1.

  2. Lucas Wilson (@full-throttle-f1) said on 20th August 2013, 11:06

    A very doom and gloom story….

    • Spawinte (@spawinte) said on 20th August 2013, 11:31

      Not really, road cars have been getting heavier for years with only the very latest generation family cars managing to reduce weight over the previous gen. This is just another way in which F1 will remain “road relevant”.

      After 2020 pretty much every mainstream car is either going to have to have a tiny turbocharged engine or be a hybrid with heavy battery packs. Safety requirements will of course continue to develop which will increase body weight. The only hope is that carbon fibre tech and lighter weight electrical drivelines (capacitors?) will advance enough to stop weight getting out of control.

      • vjanik said on 20th August 2013, 12:25

        They would be even more road relevant if they weighed more than a ton and had a windshield. There are plenty of motorsports that are for people who want to see road relevance.

        i still think F1 should be ultimately about performance (with safety in mind). One thing that we are forgetting here is costs. The increase in weight limit over the years is largely due to the FIA trying to reduce costs and keep things competitive. For example by banning exotic materials that as tougher AND lighter. If teams were able to use those materials there wouldn’t be a need to raise the minimum weight. Even by adding additional safety mechanisms on the car, or a heavier engines, teams would be able to reduce the weight of other components by spending more money.

        So it all comes down to money and the need to keep costs down so that smaller teams have a chance. In an ideal world though weight of F1 cars would be decreasing while maintaining the same level of safety. Fuel consumption would reduce, and other technology would be developed that would end up in our road cars, making them lighter and more efficient.

        This is what F1 should be. Not following whatever is happening in road cars, but spearheading R&D and new ideas that will end up in road cars as a byproduct. Unfortunately there is so little sponsorship money nowadays that the FIA has to step in a put a stop to this for the sake of entertainment.

        F1 should be like NASA. Pushing the limits of what is possible. Unfortunately both are short of cash because of the current economy.

        • Boomerang said on 20th August 2013, 15:45

          F1 is ahead of NASA for ages…

        • HoHum (@hohum) said on 20th August 2013, 23:55

          @vjanik, here here, we have the ridiculous situation of being able to go into a Chevrolet showroom and buy a Corvette with titanium conrods in its pushrod V8 engine but titanium is not allowed in F1. F1 engines should be made of unobtanium and cantaffordium not iron and aluminium.

          • Dave (@raceprouk) said on 21st August 2013, 0:07

            The only place it can’t be used is the engine. Gearbox, diff, suspension, steering, all these and many more can use titanium.

            Anyway, who says titanium’s the best material to use in engines?

      • BJ (@beejis60) said on 20th August 2013, 14:51

        My problem with hybrid vehicles is that the battery technology/design and battery disposal is far more damaging to the environment than a larger-displacement engine without any sort of hybrid technology. I read a recent study where one need to drive something like 80k to 100k miles (128k to 161k km) for the trade off of hybrid technology to counteract its negative impact on the environment…. I don’t think a battery even lasts that long though.

      • PMccarthy_is_a_legend (@pmccarthy_is_a_legend) said on 20th August 2013, 16:56

        road cars have been getting heavier for years with only the very latest generation family cars managing to reduce weight over the previous gen. This is just another way in which F1 will remain “road relevant”.

        LOL what nonsense. This is what is known as “bro science”. A blanket statement based on one’s perception of a issue without presenting any evidence (scientific or otherwise) to justify said statement. This one had me ROFL.

      • BasCB (@bascb) said on 21st August 2013, 7:43

        Well, but in roadcars in the last year or 2 the trend has been for weight to stop rising as much, as you yourself mention @spawinte, and the trend is now for road cars to get bigger but stay the same weight, or have lower weight, as well as better aerodynamics, to save fuel.

  3. Thomas (@infi24r) said on 20th August 2013, 11:10

    Its very similar to why road cars keep getting heavier, safety and technology.

  4. Krichelle (@krichelle) said on 20th August 2013, 11:10

    So no wonder Charlie said: F1 CARS will be 2-3 seconds slower next year..

    • Boomerang said on 20th August 2013, 12:22


    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 21st August 2013, 7:46

      not really. Because of the electrical motor they can have better drive out of corners, accelerating faster to their top speed. And the lower fuel consumption and limit on 100 kg of fuel for the race (compared with about 135-150kg now) means that at the start they will be about the same weight as cars have been this year.

  5. Michael Harries said on 20th August 2013, 11:19

    Is the minimum weight for the new V6 artificially high as per the current V8 and previous V10s?

    • Dave (@raceprouk) said on 20th August 2013, 11:42

      There may be some artificiality, but most of the extra weight will be the turbos and intercoolers.

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 21st August 2013, 7:48

      Yes. On the one hand theres the extra weight for the turbos and intercoolers @raceprouk mentions. But just as with the current engines, its also to stop engine manufacturers looking for exotic materials and intricate solutions to get down in weight, because the block could be built with lower weights if they wanted/could.

  6. Sumedh said on 20th August 2013, 11:57

    But higher weight allows for higher downforce and better mechanical performance as well.

    Why else do you see tightly sculpted rear-ends of F1 cars. The weight saved there is then used as ballast at the appropriate points on the car so that the centre of gravity remains low. I remember reading somewhere that titanium endplates on front wings are used by some teams only because they are heavy and hence give high downforce at low speed and also help in reducing the cente of gravity.

  7. TMF (@tmf42) said on 20th August 2013, 12:08

    I think it makes sense – reducing weight comes at a very high cost(money wise) and if they set the minimum weight high enough then smaller teams are closer to top-teams.
    Just look at the suspensions of the back markers – if they don’t do the minimum weight thing Marussia and Co would be nowhere.

    • HoHum (@hohum) said on 21st August 2013, 0:16

      @tmf42, there is nothing “inexpensive” about carbon-fiber suspension, if cost reduction was so important the FIA could regulate Aluminium or steel for suspension as they do for engines, this would also improve safety ( reducing carbon shards ) and have an infinitessimally small effect on lap times.
      After safety the only good thing about higher minimum weights is a slight reduction in the advantage smaller drivers like Vettel have over larger drivers like Webber.

  8. Boomerang said on 20th August 2013, 12:19

    Minimum weight for the turbos was 540kg, if I remember corectly…

  9. Lustigson (@lustigson) said on 20th August 2013, 12:30

    It’s interesting to note that, pre-WWII, the Grand Prix formula actually prescribed a maximum weight.

  10. AdrianMorse (@adrianmorse) said on 20th August 2013, 12:33

    It surprised me in the recent interview on the F1 site with engineers from Caterham and Force India, I believe it was, that the Force India guy stated that it was going to be a challenge to keep the cars at minimum weight.

    Nevertheless, I dislike the continuously increasing weight limit. Safety is important, obviously, but all the crash tests should ensure that a light car is still safe. I especially don’t understand minimum weights for the engines power units. Wouldn’t F1 be more relevant if it develops lighter engines and energy recovery systems?

    • Boomerang said on 20th August 2013, 12:54

      Yes it would, but it opens a chapter called: The balast!

    • Prisoner Monkeys (@prisoner-monkeys) said on 20th August 2013, 13:18

      @adrianmorse – One of the reasons for having a minimum weight is to prevent a situation arising where one set of teams gets an advantage because they have a lightweight engine. The engine freeze limits development for several years, so anyone with a lightweight engine would have an advantage for the foreseeable future.

      Furthermore, less weight is not automatically a good thing. When Adrian Newry designed the Red Bull X2010, he was give the freedom to do as he liked with the design. He deliberately made the car heavier than it needed to be so that he could fins the ideal power-to-weight ration.

  11. vincentw said on 20th August 2013, 12:40

    within a few years, the F1 car will be heavier than my first roadcar (opel kadett, <800kg) :p

  12. FernanDino said on 20th August 2013, 12:43

    Hold your horses! Did anyone notice that in 2014 the cars will take on 50 kg less fuel?

  13. MazdaChris (@mazdachris) said on 20th August 2013, 13:19

    Personally I think it’s a good thing. I’m glad we no longer see the days of parts engineered to be so flimsy that they often failed just from the stresses of the race, endangering the lives of the drivers. I’m also glad we don’t see the likes of Mark Webber being penalised for their greater body mass, or see drivers on extreme diets to get their weight as low as possible, risking their health in the process. If they hadn’t increased the weight limit in order to accommodate the heavier new engines, then weight would need to be pinched back from other parts of the car, making them weaker and more likely to break. All for no real gain. If you look at how fast the cars were when the weight limits were lowest, they were nowhere near as they are today. While weight is ultimately a factor in performance, it’s by no means the only factor. As evidenced by the much heavier turbo cars being quicker than their lightweight naturally aspirated counterparts. All other things being equal, the heavier car is going to be slower, but in F1 all things are far from equal, and the increase in weight limit is to accommodate a raft of technical changes. The end result is likely to be that the cars will be broadly the same speed as they are now, although perhaps faster or slower at various points on the track. To simply say that heavier is worse is nonsense, or at best a massive oversimplification.

    The weight increase is being made to facilitate technical changes which ensure that F1 remains at the technological cutting edge. It has never been a no-holds-barred unlimited formula where you literally build the fastest car you can. If that were the case you’d have cars lapping circuits in half the time, with drivers having G-suits, and spectators having to watch through binoculars from half a mile away, in case anything goes wrong. It would be ridiculous. Maybe that’s what some people would like to see, but that isn’t, and never has been, Formula 1.

    • HoHum (@hohum) said on 21st August 2013, 0:36

      Uffa Fox said “Weight is only useful in steamrollers”, I agree with some of your points, especially on safety, but F1 as it is now is far from cutting edge. We could allow more “cutting-edge” development and keep speed and G-force levels as today by reducing some weight and making smaller capacity engines.

  14. Libellula (@ladyf1fanatic) said on 20th August 2013, 13:41

    Getting heavier and (hopefully) more eco-friendly one day maybe…Who knows?!

    • Jejking (@jejking) said on 20th August 2013, 13:52

      You obviously forgot that next year there’s (again) a fuel flow limit. Therefore, the engines will have to be more environmental friendly already. So, see you in 2014 treehugger!

  15. Force Maikel (@force-maikel) said on 20th August 2013, 13:56

    Why do I find all of this quite frightingly bad for the sport? I mean if the V6 Turbo sounds good enough with those lousy 15 000rpm, then I’ll accept that and get on with it but the cars are already getting slower and now heavier and before I forget that ERS is going to weigh a bit extra too doesn’t it? F1 is starting to look more idiotic in my view, I just hope that one day we can go back to either a screaming engine like the V10 and V12 that is enviromentally acceptable for the treehuggers.

    F1 doesn’t need to be astronomically fast but if a Le mans car starts being faster on a straight line then an F1 car, that’s a sign something isn’t going right. Keeping in mind that without DRS that is absolutely going to be the case

    Who can convince me otherwise?

    • crooky369 (@crooky369) said on 20th August 2013, 23:59

      There was an article in Motorsport magazine with an old Jaguar Group C driver called Win Percy and there was nice little snippet about this subject.He said when he was in the Jaguar testing at Paul Ricard Alain Prost was also there in a Mclaren F1 car. He said he’d breeze past the Mclaren because it’d only do about 190mph whereas the slipperier Jaguar could hit 210mph. Bit he also added he stayed well wide to let Prost through going into the next fast bend because the high speed cornering of the Mclaren was so much better.

    • Dave (@raceprouk) said on 21st August 2013, 0:17

      The McLatren F1, Koenigsegg CCX and Bugatti Veyron are all faster than an F1 car in a straight line. Yet they are hardly a match for the current crop of F1 racers.
      Similarly at Le Mans, LMP1 cars hit 210-220 on the Mulsanne. Yet an F1 car would dance round it through the bends.

    • HoHum (@hohum) said on 21st August 2013, 0:39

      @force-maikel, MotoGP bikes are already faster in a straightline!

    • DC (@dujedcv) said on 22nd August 2013, 15:01

      LMPs were always faster than F1 in the straight line because F1 has more downforce and therefore more drag. Moto Gp and some production cars also, and WRC cars have faster acceleration. Hovewer, F1 has highest cornering speeds, and because of that fastest lap times.

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