Column: Addressing the weight issue
5 April 2014 – Height is an important yet frequently disregarded aspect of a sportsperson. In football, taller players tend to be goalkeepers due to the greater height and reach, thus being able to protect more of the goal. Up front, attackers must play to their strength. The likes of Lionel Messi [5ft 7in/169cm] can weave in and out of defenders due to his agility, while others such as Zlatan Ibrahimović [6ft 5in/195cm] have more strength and visibility.
Both have pulled off the sublime and the ridiculous; Messi's goal against Arsenal in the Champions League in 2011, or his solo effort against Real Madrid in the same competition show his brilliance. For Ibrahimović, witness his goal for Sweden against England for sheer wonderment. Would Ibrahimović have been able to do what Messi did, or vice versa? Possibly, but unlikely. They played to their strengths and did so in captivating fashion.
So what relevance does this have in the world of Formula 1?
Well, talent comes in all shapes and sizes yet in Formula 1 this season the tallest drivers are supremely disadvantaged. Lighter drivers are at an advantage in terms of ballast; those with additional height simply cannot be as light as their shorter rivals. Sauber's Adrian Sutil has been most vocal about the subject.
"There is a danger," said Sutil. "You are driving more than 300 kilometres per hour on the straights and we need to be in good shape, in our bodies and our mind. It's not so easy any more, and you can't guarantee every driver is 100 per cent from a physical point of view. And I can feel it. I lost three or four kilos compared to last year.
"All the tall drivers, not just me, have to lose so much weight. There's not so much you can lose anyway. You can't even train because you want to lose the muscles you have. It's a difficult situation at the moment and I don't think it's fair. Small drivers can eat whatever they want, get a belly, yet because we are naturally heavier we get a penalty, something like half a second per lap or more. That's not because they are better drivers, just because they are lighter. This is not as it should be in Formula One because I still see it as a sport."
It would be naïve to suggest that Sutil could suddenly become a top competitor if the weight issue is resolved, for some of his issues are caused by Sauber's heavy car, but he has a point. Mark Webber revealed last year on social media that the minimum weight has been too low for "ages", and says 60/65kg is the target for drivers.
The minimum weight limit for 2014 is 691kg, up from 642kg in 2013, but the majority of that has been taken up by the new, heavier power units. Every driver has been slimming beyond belief across the winter to hit the minimum limit, with a couple now looking absurdly skinny. The figure banded about for an extra 10kg is in the region of 0.3s/lap, with heavier drivers also penalised in terms of the distribution of ballast. So why has Formula 1 once again found itself in a predicament?
"The lightest drivers have a problem with it, they block it," said Sutil of possible rule changes. "I think it's unfair. I wouldn't like to win against a driver who is 20kg heavier. If I win by a tenth in qualifying, this is not the truth."
"We want to have a good sport and us drivers could do a bit more if we hold together. Everyone should think about what we do and why we are in this situation. Is there any reason for it? No. The sport would be the same or better if we had a normal weight limit. We could eat properly, be happy at the circuit and not have this discussion.
Of course, as ever in Formula 1 it is about gaining a competitive advantage. Felipe Massa, one of the shortest drivers on the grid and therefore least affected by the weight issue, takes a different viewpoint.
"I think this is a problem with his team," said Massa. "If a team has a heavier engine or a heavier car, it's up to them to do a better job. I am light, and I am happy to be light, but if I was 10kg heavier I wouldn't have any problems. My team did a better job and I don't think it's fair for a team that did a better job on the rules to be put on that level. It's like if somebody finds something better with the engine or aerodynamics. These are the rules."
Massa has an advantage that neither he nor Williams will want to give up in a sport dominated by politics and money, the latter of which is of vital importance to any team. However, Massa misses the point. Sauber can undoubtedly improve their car and make it lighter, but no amount of tweaks to a front wing or changes to a bargeboard will alter the fact that Sutil will never be able to be as slim as Massa. It is a physical impossibility that leaves him at a disadvantage. This is not just a Sutil versus Massa battle, as it affects drivers up and down the grid but it is an issue that needs resolving in the interests of the sport. Just last week Lewis Hamilton, a driver towards the shorter end of the height spectrum, tweeted a picture of himself looking forlornly at a jar of cookies, captioned 'if only'. No-one would be foolish enough to suggest that drivers are only winning because of their height, but it is absurd when Nico Hülkenberg is praised for a strong race and pundits have to add "considering his height".
For next season, the minimum weight limit will be raised by 10kg to 2015, which will ultimately be seen as aiding the plight of the taller drivers. The move was voted on by the F1 Strategy Group to come into force for 2014, but one team objected. Yet designers will always design a car to be as quick as possible, irrespective of the driver, who is just seen as a fleshy inconvenience. Teams will still require drivers to be as slim as possible, and so the problem will remain. A fairer method in the Machiavellian world of Formula 1 would be to introduce a minimum limit for the combination of a driver plus his seat. In theory, that would result in a level playing field.
This might not happen, but something has to be done to avoid taller drivers putting themselves in danger. Formula 1 should be able to appreciate both the Messis and Ibrahimovićs of the racing world.