Tech Draft: The Formula 1 weight problem and solution

Formula 1 in 2022, at the dawn of its new era of technical regulations, is grappling with a new problem, the ever increasing weight of the F1 cars. Tech Draft analyses.

Throughout the history of Formula 1 those racing machines have inspired the masses based on a simple yet romantic set of aspects: the speed, the noise, the beauty, and the nimbleness.

It evokes images such as that of the small, light, and nimble Lotus 49B in which Graham Hill won the 1968 World Drives Championship.

What is the size of an F1 car? How has it changed over the years?

At the start of my career in the earlier to mid-1990’s the F1 car was about 1800mm wide, 4500mm long and weighed 505kg including the driver and without fuel.

As for today, an F1 car is 2000mm wide, 5000mm long and weighs a whopping 795kg including the driver and without fuel. That’s a stark difference!

To make it a more simplified argument, in this piece I will put the increases in track and wheelbase aside and simply use mass as the measure for the size of an F1 car and explore the reasons why such an increase has occurred, what the impact on an F1 machine has been, and whether anything can be done about it.

It is incredible to think that over the period of 30 years that have passed since the early 1990’s when an F1 had a minimum weight of 505kg dry, that it has increased in mass by 290kg, which is nearly another 60% of its original mass to that of the 795kg it is today.

It is a true testament to the technical development of the sport that even though the mass has increased so significantly, the average lap time at a comparable circuit, such as Suzuka, has dropped by about 10 seconds.

What drove the mass of an F1 car up?

As a result of the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna early in the 1994 season, the FIA introduced a raft of changes to the F1 technical regulations, based on safety, progressively over the 1995, 1996, and 1997 seasons. These changes, such as side impact, higher cockpit side and greater frontal impact requirements all had significant impacts on the minimum mass of the chassis.

In the earlier 2000’s the use of ceramic and magnesium metal matrices in engine materials was banned based on cost, but once again there was a mass trade off.

By 2009 and the (optional for then) introduction of KERS, the minimum weight of an F1 had already reached 605kg, and in 2014 with the introduction of the turbo-hybrid era it had risen to 690kg. It is widely acknowledged that the addition of KERS alone was a 30-40kg penalty.

Over time, since the introduction of the turbo-hybrid units’, small adjustments have been made to the minimum weight requirement to compensate for changes in tyre size, the introduction of the HALO, as compensation for higher drag, and as compensation for an increase in the fuel limit.

Over the last season or two, additional minimum weight has been accounted for in the technical regulations through the introduction of an additional fuel flow meter, and now here we are in 2022 with significant aerodynamic regulations that result in even more weight, and larger sized wheels and tyres that are approximately 11-12kg heavier in total, and a new minimum weight of 795kg.

How does more mass impact an F1 car’s behaviour?

Quite simply, any increase in the mass of an F1 car has an undesirable affect from a technical perspective.

We all understand that if a car has the same amount of power available but an increased mass, it will not accelerate as well as when it did in the lighter condition.

Increased mass also loads the tyres more, especially laterally during cornering, and further adversely impacts the heating cycles and degradation curves of the tyre.

In a similar manner, the braking efficiency of the car is degraded as well, especially at a time when the new 2022 regulations have reduced the brake rotor ability to cool by increasing the minimum cooling hole size allowed.

Importantly, heavier cars use more energy to go fast, and the trade off is more heat that needs to be dissipated, which in all probability means larger cooling cores being required for the cooling, and that has additional mass and drag penalties associated.

Nevertheless, heavier cars also require different driving techniques to extract speed.

Drivers need to adjust the way the throttle and brake applications are modulated, braking is cadenced and trailed, and steering inputs often become gentler on corner entry and exit.

Finally, but by no means of any less importance is the fact that a heavier car will burn fuel at an increased rate, and so short shifting and lift and coasting into corners with the view to minimising the fuel burn during races will become even more prevalent, as the fuel limit has not been increased.

If F1 cars are so big and heavy, what can be done about it?

The truth of the matter is that unless some form of major technology advancement occurs in the hybrid technologies on an F1 car, there is not much that can be done because quite simply, the weight of the hybrid units is the biggest contributor to the modern weight increase of an F1.

Out of curiosity, research reveals that the minimum weight of the hybrid components are as follows: MGU-K is 7kg, MGU-H is 4kg, and the energy store is 20kg, whist the ICE has a minimum weight requirement of 145kg.

Quite frankly, insofar as the 2022 regulations are concerned, there is very little at all that teams can do to reduce weight, and at this point in time I am led to believe that there is only one, or possibly two teams that have been capable in getting down to minimum weight.

Recently, Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner made comment that maybe another compensation in minimum weight might be reviewed by the FIA because many teams are currently struggling to meet the 795kg minimum and that this is compounded by the operational cost cap that is now in place in this modern era.

It is important to note that the FIA has already set a precedent for this to happen as demonstrated in 2015 when it increased the minimum weight by 12kg to reduce the disadvantage to the less resourceful teams who had struggled to meet the previous minimum weight of 690kg.

For 2022, if the majority of the teams continue to struggle get down to 795kg as a minimum, the FIA may very well consider that precedent.

Finally, for those who are not familiar with the aforementioned Lotus 49B, here is a photo of it ripping around Monaco.