• The Inside Line

Weighing in on fat drivers

Kate Walker October 11, 2013
Nico Hulkenberg's future has been the centre of speculation due to his weight © Sutton Images
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The first time I set foot in an F1 paddock, I was taken aback by the drivers' physical presence. Despite standing only 5'4" without my heels, and wearing a size 12, I felt like a giant and a heifer next to any of the race-suited lovelies you could care to mention.

While Mark Webber and Nico Hulkenberg are tallish, all of the men who look to be a normal size on television are virtual wraiths in real life. Even Michael Schumacher, who was known in his career for his physical strength and devotion to fitness, looked as though a strong breeze might see him float away.

That was in 2010, and all of those drivers still in the paddock are now shadows of their former selves, forced to lose weight as they gain muscle thanks to the inconvenience of being the fleshy non-aerodynamic component ruining the designers' dreams of the perfect race car.

Webber recently tweeted that he hadn't had a solid meal in five years. It's not as much of a joke as it appeared online - in the paddock, the Australian driver is more likely to be seen sucking down a protein-powered smoothie than he is tucking into a poached chicken breast with steamed veg. Mmm, delicious.

Last week in Korea the drivers were arguing for an increase in next year's weight limit. FIA rules mandate a maximum weight for car and driver together, and thanks to heavier-than-expected power units, lighter drivers will have the edge in 2014. But an increase in the weight limit would not help F1's 'porkers' even if it were agreed - with the car always king, designers would use the increased weight somewhere on the vehicle, and not give it to the fleshy inconvenience behind the wheel.

Several years ago I wrote for another outlet about the way in which Formula One had somehow managed to avoid the size zero debate that was, at the time, leading to negative media coverage of the worlds of fashion modelling and horse racing, where jockeys often struggle with eating disorders in order to remain competitive. It looks as though F1's size zero moment has come, and it is probable that a number of talented racers will fall by the wayside as a consequence.

F1's biggest problem isn't the FIA-mandated weight limits, nor is it the bulky power units. The problem in the paddock is the enduring attitude that car conquers all. And while driver weight is important, in that every additional kilo costs on lap time, the sense that the man behind the wheel is less important than the sleekness of the machine he pilots is a very unhealthy attitude.

Designers joke that driverless cars would be more aerodynamic, but in every joke there is a kernel of truth. By making light of the human component, by turning the driver into just another rulebook inconvenience that the designers need to accommodate, the drivers become dehumanised, an obstacle to be overcome.

By seeing the driver as a component, not a person, it is easy to blame his additional weight for poor performance, for slower-than-hoped for lap times. And that is very dangerous indeed - while you can shave a few grams off the weight of paint, or use lighter materials to construct a seat or steering wheel, there comes a point at which racing drivers simply can't get any lighter while staying strong enough - both mentally and physically - to safely control a car at high speed.

Before the FIA changes the rulebook, we must first change the attitude. Formula One should be about the fastest, most talented racers in the world. If someone is lean, mean, and quick at a scale-busting 70 kilos, there is no need to ask him to diet. Trim weight from the car before trimming it from the man.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'.
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Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'.