What is the first characteristic that springs to mind when you think of a Formula 1 car? Is it fast? Is it nimble? Is it loud? Pretty? Brutal? Any of these would be common answers, but ‘heavy’, ‘chunky’, ‘clunky’ or ‘fat’ probably would not be. Even now, as the weight of F1 cars has increased over time – steadily or rapidly depending on the era – it would not be the first thing most would associate with the 20 cars that race around 22 tracks around the world.
The elephant in the room is that the weight of the cars has been a topic of concern for many – fans and drivers alike – now for a number of years. This is especially true in the turbo-hybrid era with complex technology coming at the cost of both money and weight.
And the weight will increase still for 2021, up to 768 kilograms at its minimum. That’s 15 more than what the current brutes weigh. That number will alarm those advocating for lighter cars. 30 years ago, the minimum weight was 268kg lighter than that. 20 years ago, it was 168kg.
On paper, it’s mortifying to read. That’s an increase of more than 50% over the past 30 years, and it doesn’t seem to end. F1 cars now weigh more than an Indy car and are rapidly approaching those of Le Mans and Daytona Prototype cars.
Has it gone too far? It sounds it. But, the reasons for the majority of the weight increase goes beyond complicated power units and so forth. The increase in strength and safety of the cars has increased drastically since the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in 1994. The consequence of that – of course – is weight.
The cars being made longer and wider in 2017 has also made them heavier. The most recent major safety innovation – the Halo device – increased the weight once more. The sides of the cars are the main focus for 2021 in terms of safety, and therefore the weight has increased further through that – despite the more simplified aerodynamics on the car and thus the loss of the little pieces of scaffolding on the cars.
Irrespective of the opinion of whether the cars are getting too heavy or not, it would be very difficult to argue or scientifically explain how that they should be made lighter while retaining the same levels of strength for the safety of the competitors. Without decreasing the strength of the cars – something that should not be advocated for – it’s difficult to see where this weight loss is going to come from.
There is a case to implement less complex engine technology – something the ‘better back then’ brigade would certainly advocate for – and that would definitely result in a decrease in weight. The idea behind it is fine but thinking about the consequences of that highlights quickly why that won’t work. To start, some of that weight loss would be offset immediately by the increased fuel required to complete a grand prix. Also, which engine manufacturers exactly would join the series and how many would leave as a direct result? Sure, having no engines on the grid at all would reduce the weight, but there won’t be much racing if that happens.
Now, unfortunately, I cannot claim to be one of the lucky few to have driven a F1 car. So, it is impossible to comment on how the cars feel to drive with all that additional weight. However, it’s still an interesting topic to debate. Even with the ballast, the current cars are still stunning to observe. They will likely be a bit slower in 2021 with the loss of downforce, but certainly still will be phenomenal.
Even though the cars are heavy, they do not look particularly clunky. Despite the massive weight difference, the cars we have now generally look considerably sleeker than those from the late-1980s, and especially those from the start of that decade with focus on turbochargers and aerodynamic skirts. Lots of cooling was required just to keep those machines operating, and the result often was cars that looked bulky. Of course, there were a few exceptions to that rule.
Arguably the smallest and lightest-looking cars came in the 2000s. They were shorter, narrower, had slim, grooved tyres and were incredibly edgy and skittish. That changed somewhat in for 2009 when the narrow rear wings and snow plough-like front wings came into the series. Compared to the aggressive, angry, wider 2017 cars, that generation looked anaemic.
As the level of technology has increased in the series, and the coke bottle-style shape of the car has become all the more important, the cars look smaller now than they did when they weighed 50% less. The size of the sidepods have become remarkably small and the amount of space between the neck of the coke bottle and the edge of the floor is now immense.
So, does the weight even matter? To the fans, it arguably should not. It’s impossible to really see the weight in play (unless comparing an onboard between the different decades in fine detail), and the cars now are tightly packaged now to near perfection. Some lighter cars did look sleeker than now – the Brabham BT53 and the McLaren MP4-19 for two examples – but what we have now are some of the smoothest F1 cars in history. So what if they weigh a few extra kilos more than their ancestors?