Monday, 7 October 2013

Drivers Facing The Contract Weighting Game

The Korean Grand Prix hosted many fierce topics of discussion throughout this weekend, with more details unravelling surrounding the 2014 Championship, the Grand Prix Drivers Association meeting on Thursday night and such an incident packed race on Sunday. With the remainder of the 2013 Championship looking like a Vettel / Red Bull victory parade, most attention has moved onto next year, the extended calendar, the vast rule changes and the driver lineups as well.

The last point in particular took centre stage in Korea with certain drivers racing to save their Formula 1 careers, however there is a rising concern that drivers will be overlooked due to the minimum weight regulation imposed on the car and driver combination. Currently driver and car combined must weigh a minimum of 642kg, but the new 2014 engines will be heavier units. The minimum weight will be increased to 690kg to compensate for this, but indications are that the weight difference between engines will be greater than expected when that increase was set. The belief is that if the rules stay as they are and the engines are heavier than anticipated, some of the current F1 drivers will be close to, or exceed, the 690kg limit once in the car.

The problem then becomes about how the weight is distributed around the car. The driver is approximately 10% of the total weight so has a large affect on the overall handling of the car. For this reason they are placed as low down within the chassis as possible, as shown below.

You can see that all of the cars vital components are packaged as low down in the chassis as possible. With the exception of aerodynamic devices and the engines overhead air intake, the highest weight in the car is the drivers head. Most of the drivers body weight is above the centreline of the tyres, and this unfortunately for the designers of Formula 1 cars is a logistical necessity. So once again looking at the weight limit, if car and driver combined are exactly on that limit, there is no change possible that will not result in that weight limit being breached. On an average circuit, 1kg of extra weight will cost 0.035 seconds of performance per lap.

Even if the combined weight is on that very limit, performance is lost to those driver and car combinations that fall below the limit. For the lighter drivers to ensure that the minimum weight is met, they will have lead weight ballast placed within the chassis to increase the weight. There are a number of positions that this can be placed, all of which will be as low down as possible to reduce the cars centre of gravity, but will also have an affect on the balance of the car as well. This is another setup tool available to those lighter drivers, who can shift the ballast to change the way in which their car handles around that particular circuit.

It has been known for teams to direct their drivers to lose weight. McLaren asked Sergio Perez to do just that when he joined from Sauber. Likewise drivers can take it upon themselves to decide, seen with Lewis Hamilton having left McLaren and joining Mercedes. Since the move he has gained muscle weight and has stated that he would like to bulk up some more as well. But in a lot of cases, the option to trim the weight down just isn't there simply due to the height of the driver. This is of course something that cannot be changed, but it is something that the likes of Jenson Button, Mark Webber, Paul Di Resta, Adrian Sutil and Nico Hulkenberg have all got to deal with. The graph below shows all of the drivers weights plotted along with their height.
The graph shows how all of the tallest drivers within Formula 1 currently have to meet a specific minimum weight that is achievable whilst still being fit enough to drive an F1 car for hours at a time. Below this height, there is less correlation between the height of a driver and his weight, as they can choose to bulk up or trim down whilst maintaining a certain level of advantage over those heavier or taller than themselves. The real anomaly is Felipe Massa, who is a long way shorter than the rest of the grid. Fernando Alonso is the second shortest on the grid, which will allow the Ferrari team that extra design option to have the pedals further forward, drivers head lower in the car and place the ballast around the chassis where necessary. There are also the quartet of Sebastian Vettel, Charles Pic, Esteban Gutierrez, and Max Chilton who have a lower than average weight to height ratio.

The futures of both Mark Webber and Jenson Button have been secured for at least 2014, but Sutil, Di Resta and Hulkenberg are all still looking for a drive within Formula 1 in 2014. Sutil has impressed on his return to Force India this year, but has had a number of blips along the way also. Di Resta is in a terrible run of form lately, but will be hoping the relevant bosses remember the form he enjoyed back at the start of this current season and the skill he has currently unfulfilled within a Force India team that he feels he is pulling behind him. Nico Hulkenberg however has been forever at the top of most teams lists and definitely on the driver market radar as hot property, and that was before a stunning drive to 4th in Korea yesterday.

He has already missed out on a Ferrari drive that he was tipped for, and McLaren have ruled him out to replace Perez also (even stating that it is Hulkenberg's weight that is the issue). Mercedes have got their 2 drivers for next year, and so crucially it is Lotus who are Hulkenbergs greatest option for 2014. His form and performances would suggest that he is the perfect replacement to their loss of Kimi Raikkonen to Ferrari, but they have a number of options available for the role. Lotus will not have overlooked Hulkenberg, and so I'm sure they will bide their time and see whether the weight limit is increased soon. Don't expect rash decisions from the Fia, but when the first engine is ratified and the weight is a known value there will then be expected talks about the issue. Hulkenberg will be hoping it is increased soon as he will be aware that the far lighter Felipe Massa is available, and although his race performances haven't recently matched those of Hulkenbergs, he would still be a great asset to the Enstone based team.

The state of the driver market right now is appalling when teams can claim a driver to be of the right calibre for their team, but due to genetics and being taller than the competitors mean that they cannot be considered. There is already the issue of young talent having the funds to make it into the top series where the Formula 1 teams can assess their skills, but we now have drivers who have spent millions over the years to reach the top and find out something they have known their whole adult life - how tall they are.