Paul di Resta, Force India, Silverstone, 2013

Why F1 cars keep getting heavier

F1 technologyPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

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

113 comments on “Why F1 cars keep getting heavier”

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  1. F1 fanatic is the most F1 critical publication I have ever encountered. Here, everything is wrong with it. DRS is bad for F1, the rules are bad, KERS is bad, tyres are bad, the stewards are bad, & what else? Ah, the weight too is a bad thing now… I guess progress is hard to adapt to. Oh and Vettel is king (apparently).

    1. I think I’m better placed than most to tell you your characterisation of my views is, for the most part, wildly inaccurate:

      tyres are bad


      the stewards are bad


      the weight too is a bad thing now

      Kindly point to the part of the article above where I said that.

      KERS is bad

      I like KERS, I was disappointed when it was temporarily dropped for 2010, I was glad when they brought it back and I’m looking forward to it being more powerful next year.

      the rules are bad

      What, all of them? I would say the vast majority of them are fine, but I can think of a few examples which aren’t – the mandatory pit stop rule springs to mind, and I’m hardly in the minority when it comes to criticising that.

      DRS is bad for F1

      Of course it is, wretched artificial nonsense.

      My view on F1 today is nothing like as negative as you paint it to be. Of course the garden is not all bunny rabbits and roses, there’s the occasional thorn in there too.

      And while I never restrain myself from pointing out when F1 gets things badly wrong – like Bahrain or costs – I also like to celebrate what I love about the sport. For example, here are ten ways F1 has improved in ten years and 50 things that made the last season great.

    2. Bjornar, I guess you live in Utopia where everything is always perfect.

  2. A Ferrari 458 weighs 3,274 lbs. A Ford Motel T, 1,200 lbs. I’m too lazy to look up the numbers but I’m sure a Eurofighter Typhoon weighs a lot more than a Sopwith Camel.

    You could probably say that “All else being equal, lighter weight leads to better performance”, but there is much more to the first part of that claim than is apparent. All else very rarely is equal.

    Some older driver (Prost I think) was driving a modern F1 car and the biggest difference he noticed between it and the machines he drove in the 1980’s was the rigidity of the chassis. The older cars flexed under acceleration, under braking, and under cornering loads. Modern F1 cars are much stiffer. Of course there is a weight penalty associated with that

  3. Minimum weight (as of 2013) for various forms of racing from least to greatest. All weights without driver unless specified, not sure if LMP weights are with or without driver though.
    GP3 (with driver): 630kg
    IRL Indylight: 684kg or 693kg
    GP2 (with driver): 688kg
    IRL Indycar: 709kg
    LMP1, LMP2 & LMPC: 900kg
    Grand-Am DP: 1,009kg or 1,031kg
    NASCAR Euro: 1,179kg
    NASCAR Modified: 1,199kg
    NASCAR Mexico: 1,215kg
    NASCAR Canada: 1,360kg
    NASCAR K&N: 1,428kg or 1,462kg
    NASCAR Nationwide: 1,451kg
    NASCAR Cup: 1,496kg
    NASCAR Truck: 1,542kg

    All that being said though preformance is more about Power to Weight Ratio and Weight Distribution then it is just weight and a decent chunk of that weight (I’m gonna say atleast 180kg) in pretty much every one of those cars is from the engine alone & that’s probaly a conservative number.

    1. You left out a lot of much lighter formulae like F Ford, Clubsport (caterham etc.) F Vee and so many more, many lighter than F1.

      1. Yeah but at the same time a lot of those are sort of glorified-overgrown go-karts more-so then proper cars (if that makes sense lol).

        For example a TQ Midget is only around 400kg with a 125ish HP inline 4cylinder engine giving it a monstrous power-to-weight ratio, yet they’re relatively small cars as well (about 9ft long & 4.5ft wide)

    2. For LMP cars, the ACO’s regulations state that the minimum weight is without the driver or fuel on board. That is supposed to drop to 850kg for the manufacturer teams in 2014, whilst the privateers will be allowed to run at 830kg if they are not using any energy recovery systems (which they won’t – Toyota has said that it currently can’t find any customers due to the cost of their systems whilst Audi are outright refusing to sell their system to anybody else).

  4. Jared H (@thejaredhuang)
    21st August 2013, 3:29

    They should have a system where the minimum weight is increased at the beginning of new regulations then decrease it each season as teams find ways to make their components lighter. For example at the start of 2009 with KERS the minimum weight was increased. For the next 4 seasons they should have decreased the minimum weight by 5-10 kg per season since the rules stayed relatively the same. By this season the minimum weight could have been at least 20-40 kg lighter. I’m sure its pretty reasonable from a cost perspective to be able to cut 5 kg out of the car each year.

    Perhaps they should have a rule where regulations must be stable for at least 5 seasons before they make a radical change such as V6 turbos. I think 2009-2014 is a perfect example.

    1. I get your idea, but I think that doing so would go against the targets of the FIA in cost (lighter morstly means more expensive materials and more complicated production methods) and safety (more rigid parts, etc. Although crash tests should prevent that)

  5. I enjoyed the article and thought it interesting about the BWM running KERS for one driver and not the other.

    I am not sure if this has been said before (probably) but isnt the weight include the driver as well. As lean a Webber is he is quite tall, 6ft or maybe 6ft 1 and Vettel is short and quite a slim build, about 10kg ligher. Could the ongoing KERS issue that Mark always seems to get that Seb rarely does (he has a bit yes, but Mark so much more frequent) be based around the weight of the KERS system?

    Assuming I am correct in the weight being net car and driver, not net weight PLUS driver Webber’s need’s to give somewhere!!??

  6. 2014 it is possible that formula Nippon is the fastest racing series of the world.

    1. I’m pretty sure they’re not gonna be faster then the NHRA anytime soon. Top Fuel car goes 0 to 515.92 km/h in 3.986 seconds.

  7. There’s a pretty obvious an solution that I’ve very surprised has not been looked at yet.

    Separate the car and driver weights.

    Have a minimum weight for the car that does not include the driver or seat. Cars are designed to that weight, full stop.

    Then have a separate minimum weight for the driver and seat combination – say, about 10kg heavier than the heaviest driver on the grid. Every driver and seat combo must be at least that weight at the start of the race. Then teams just add ballast to the seat to bring it up to the specified weight. Every driver/seat combo is then the same weight, with the weight distributed in roughly the same way (at least more homogeneous than it is now). No one gains an advantage by having a heavier or lighter driver, the car can stay the same between drivers, and just the seat ballast is modified.

    I emphasised the weight being taken at the start of the race because, as most of us know, drivers can lose a lot of water during a race. Take this as a given, measure the driver at the starting weight in, and then the FIA can prescribe the ballast to be added to the seat. Then, at the end, only the seat needs to be weighed.

    Yes, there will be variances in the amount of water lost. Also visits to the little boys room (or hopefully soon, little girls) will have an effect. Just suck these up and make them part of the variety of racing. If a particular driver is able to save his number 2 to occur just after the weigh in, all power to him – everyone else has the opportunity to do this too.

    What this would do would be to level the playing field for drivers of any weight, and still retain the minimum weight for the car.

    P.S. What about having the minimum weight exclude the wheels/tyres? This practice of weaving over the track to insure pick up is absurd – it’s basically an admission that the car is underweight.

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