I once read that airplanes are like people, they get bigger and bigger over time. And the same could be said of racing cars.
This year’s Formula 1 cars are the heaviest ever at 798kg, which is a big increase from when I raced in F1 12 years ago. At the time, the Virgin VR-01 weighed 620 kg with the pilot and even lighter before that. Now, several teams are still working to achieve this minimum weight limit. This trend has everything to do with the way technical regulations have been written by motorsport’s governing body.
MORE: The overlooked flaws of the 2022 F1 cars that Baku will exhibit
It’s not a natural route to go bigger and heavier like F1 has. If the choice was left to the F1 teams, I’m sure they would go for a lighter car with the most powerful engines available, unlike what they have now. The lighter the car, the better, for many reasons.
To explain this, first remember that weight and mass are not the same. While mass is the sum of the atoms that make up an entity, or its inertia, which remains the same regardless of the force acting on it, weight is the product of the gravitational force acting on a mass. Why is this important?
Common sense tends to think that a vehicle mass will act the most on the car in linear acceleration, the heavier the car, the slower it accelerates. But in fact, at high g, the turns are where the mass really kicks in: a high-speed 4G turn will have four times the inertia of its normal vertical force.
In a nutshell, the more g-force a race car can generate in a turn, the more mass has a negative effect. Of course, this is oversimplified because the center of gravity, weight distribution and other factors must also be taken into consideration.
Another extremely negative effect of a heavier car is an accident. The total energy of the car to be dissipated is a function of the mass and the square of the speed. The heavier the car, the more serious the accident.
Today’s F1 cars are easily the heaviest ever
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
The effect of weight is most clearly demonstrated by the difference in lap times between qualifying and the opening laps of a fully fueled race, when the same car is several seconds per lap slower. As soon as you have less weight, the car turns better, accelerates better and brakes better. He comes to life. The difference for the driver is very clear.
If you have understeer, it only increases with more weight. It’s the same with oversteer. When you add weight, it’s always a negative thing. This is why you want the car to be as light as possible and why teams design their cars to be under the minimum weight limit so they can position the ballast most strategically.
This principle does not only apply to F1, weight is important in all categories. I remember Alex Wurz and I put a lot of pressure on the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to incorporate driver weight into the minimum weight of an LMP1 car, so that from 2015, any team whose average weight was less than 80 kg had to carry ballast.
Base LMP1 weight at the time was 870kg without driver or fuel, and by having a driver 20kg lighter you could go a second faster per lap at Le Mans – sometimes much more than balance performance between the cars or the talent of the driver himself. Getting very light riders was a huge plus for any sports car race.
We would have to change the whole philosophy of F1 to have performance through lightness, because an important factor in the increase in weight of F1 is the complexity of the hybrid engines.
Design legend Adrian Newey said we should aim to get cars as light as possible and not the other way around, and I agree with him. I think F1 should be the pinnacle of the most capable vehicles on the planet. They must be extreme and the technical rules must facilitate certain advantages to seek optimal lightness.
In the past, without sophisticated simulation tools and production methods or even safety rules, F1 designers focusing on it often had parts reliability issues, which led to accidents. But technology has improved to such an extent that we can absolutely reconcile having light cars without compromising safety.
In the Colin Chapman days, they had to build the part, go to the track to see if it broke, then modify it and start over. We now have sophisticated modeling and testing tools so you can ensure it has equivalent strength properties and the required safety. This is also why the cars are more reliable and suspension failures are rarely seen, even if they are made from lightweight materials, because the technology has advanced so much.
We shouldn’t just accept that cars have to get heavier as technology evolves. We have a very prominent example of this in the new Formula E Gen3 car, where the FIA has done a fantastic job of making it smaller (70mm width, 160mm length) and 80kg lighter than the Gen1. It would have been easy to make the car heavier with more power as is the general trend with electric cars so I was positively surprised and happy with the decision to reverse that with Gen3 and push the durability in real and measurable terms.
The Formula E Gen3 car is smaller and lighter than its predecessors – showing that the trend of increased weight can be reversed
Photo by: NIO Formula E Team
It shows that changing course is possible, but you need to create the right environment and the right rules to make it work. The question with F1 is what would a lightweight formula look like and be achievable?
We would have to change the whole philosophy of F1 to have performance through lightness, because an important factor in the increase in weight of F1 is the complexity of the hybrid engines. And clearly, it wouldn’t be cheap to make these extreme materials, so F1 would have to decide where the most value falls within its cost cap. But going a light route would surely have a greater benefit for the whole world than the F1 hybrids used today.
There isn’t a single component today in an F1 car that you’ll see in a Toyota Corolla or similar, and it’s no surprise that the MGU-H has been dropped for the new 2026 regulations. was a flaw since the inception of the rules to have such a complex powertrain to pursue efficiency, as it would never have reached normal road cars with hybrid technologies.
MORE: Explaining key aspects of Porsche and Audi’s planned F1 entries
For example, the reason airplanes aren’t electric or even hybrid today is that the extra weight of batteries doesn’t make sense to fly a long flight for the energy benefit. And I believe that if an F1 car can go as fast or faster without the heavy hybrid than it would using the hybrid to harvest and deploy power, then the idea of having the hybrid has no sense.
It wouldn’t be popular with major stakeholders who have invested heavily in hybrid engines, but for me motorsport should have a very clear definition of the purpose of the best racing series so they don’t overlap. F1 should focus on maximum performance without compromise, Formula E should focus on efficiency and other series like the World Endurance Championship on road-related technologies.
It would be in my opinion much more dramatic and much more towards the right mentality of what F1 should be. Also, for real sustainability gains, having a lighter car and equipment would mean a lot less emissions from logistics, for example.
If there is no clearly marketed sustainability angle for F1, then it will be less attractive for sponsors and car manufacturers to be associated with it. Obviously, giving up durability to build the most exotic cars ever isn’t realistic. But there are arguments to argue that a renewed interest in lighter cars would meet sustainability criteria and would still be a test bed for use in road cars – if F1 was willing that it happen.
Reducing the weight would have additional advantages in logistics
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Using lighter cars means fewer parts produced and less energy used to make those parts. A lighter car would require less fuel and it is also much easier to ship it around the world. Even if the actual car doesn’t matter as much, it would send the right message.
With Europe banning the sale of combustion cars by 2035, there is clear pressure to focus on more efficient hybrid powertrains if F1 is to remain relevant in the automotive market. But this is not necessarily necessary, because it is already not at all relevant for commercial cars.
Perhaps F1 should focus on the extreme technology development path that may be relevant to aerospace, lightweight construction or just pure extreme vehicles that will use the best technology for that purpose. What the future brings will be very interesting.
Would the search for lightweight technology be more relevant for the road than today’s complex hybrid engines?
Photo by: Giorgio Piola