Doug Nye: When the lap-times are slower, are the drivers fatter?

05th October 2017
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

It’s a tough life in Formula 1. So what’s new? It’s meant to be. Nobody said it would be easy. And nobody said it would be fair. Spare a thought for hapless – though well-sponsored, and well-connected – Sauber team driver Marcus Ericsson who has been complaining this week that his personal 10kg weight disadvantage compared to physically smaller team-mate Pascal Wehrlein, has been harming his prospects for a drive with a more competitive team.


Sauber has apparently been running Ericsson's 2017 car some 4-8 kilograms overweight. But while Wehrlein has scored five World Championship points points for the team thus far – pre-Japanese GP – Ericsson is yet to score one. He has also been out-qualified – just – by Wehrlein 9-4 for starting grid places, which is a particularly depressing statistic for any young man on the driver market.

Part of the problem, the Swede claims, is simply his height compared to Wehrlein. Ten kilogrammes excess compared to his German team-mate could account for a lap-time deficit of three or four-tenths of a second. Well, the poor chap finds himself following in the wheel tracks of tall current Formula 1 challenger Nico Hulkenberg – who has generally been showing pretty well despite driving for Renault – and then spooling back through time I remember Ayrton Senna – none other – bewailing the fact that he was taller, naturally larger, naturally heavier, than his tiny, pestiferous team-mate – ‘Tadpole’ – Alain Prost.

One of the McLaren team engineers who worked with Senna once told me how they were sitting in a review meeting one day between races when the question of body weight was raised by Ayrton himself. Like so many modern-era top drivers he apparently couched his conversation in terms of the “unfairness” of the situation. It wasn’t fair that he was tall yet that Frog was a short-arse who weighed-in significantly lighter. “It’s not fair…” and the multiple World Champion Driver’s bleats apparently tailed away into dejected, reflective silence – until my engineer friend brightened up and suggested that maybe they should develop a one-pedal driver control system, and Ayrton could have a leg off – that would do the trick… “Ayrton being Ayrton – he at first didn’t react to that as if it was a joke, I swear you could see him seriously considering the option, analysing it, working through the ramifications… and only then – regretfully – turning it down…”.

The size racing drivers used to be - GiovannBattista Guidotti of Alfa Romeo (left) with Fangio (beret), Earl Howe of the RAC and BRDC, and Luigi Fagioli (sunglasses, right) - 1951 British Grand Prix.
Fangio in the Silverstone pits with Raymond Mays - smoking (right) - and the BRM V16 driven by Peter Walker, 1951 British GP

Years before that, Graham Hill fell into serious conversation with BRM team Chief Engineer Tony Rudd about how his tall, broad-shouldered frame affected his lap times relative to his phenomenally fast new young team-mate – shorter, lighter and even narrower Jackie Stewart.

It was 1965 and the 1 1/2-litre Formula 1 cars of the time depended very much upon punching the smallest possible hole through the air to seek any competitive advantage. The BRM P261 cars of the time were the absolute epitome of minimal frontal area, cigar-like land borne missile design. But team leader Graham Hill was simply a big bloke, while Jackie Stewart was smaller. It translated into Graham needing a taller, broader windscreen transparency on his car to fare him in against the airstream than wee Jackie with his shallower, narrower, sleeker screen. They actually tested the effect at Snetterton one mid-week, and sure enough it translated into a few fleeting tenths of a second – which modern-day engineers would put down as much to the respective drivers’ weights as to their physically airflow-disturbing frontal area…

For anyone who recalls the racing of Goodwood’s early years, that was plainly the period of the drivers being fat, and the tyres skinny. It was an era dominated by ‘big blokes’, many resuming a racing career commenced pre-war but now re-starting with them in their later 30s or shuffling into their 40s. Inevitably such new-era celebrity drivers as Alberto Ascari – he of the impressive man boobs – or at Goodwood Reg Parnell, the burly Derby haulier-cum-pig farmer, were racing against six-foot-plus bon viveur and gourmet Duncan Hamilton, and any number of other hefty sportsmen, mostly enjoying a darned good time racing worldwide without – for the first time in six years – anybody shooting at them.

David Yorke, team manager of Vanwall, with drivers Harry Schell and (right) Jose Froilan Gonzalez - 1956

David Yorke, team manager of Vanwall, with drivers Harry Schell and (right) Jose Froilan Gonzalez - 1956

And then from Argentina there arrived Juan Manuel Fangio, on the brink of 40, and his spherical protege Jose Froilan Gonzalez. Both could drive like the wind – and neither was in any way a svelte, athletic, slim-Jim midget. Fangio was of medium height, but husky, with a comfortable tummy. Yet despite having the physical form perhaps of a 9-to-5 comfortably-suburban bowler-hatted businessman, Fangio would prove himself to be made of spring steel.  Young whippet Stirling Moss appeared on the scene as perhaps the first of the modern-era super-fit driving athletes to make his mark at top International level. Yet in the Argentine Temporada series races with a track temperature

Young whippet Stirling Moss appeared on the scene as perhaps the first of the modern-era super-fit driving athletes to make his mark at top International level. Yet in the Argentine Temporada series races with a track temperature under the blazing sun exceeding 140-degrees F, and cockpit temperatures of 105-110-degrees F or more – heat exhaustion got to the likes of Moss and Mike Hawthorn and Castellotti and Musso more quickly – and more dramatically – than it ever did to the relatively portly Fangio.

We asked him about this once and he explained that, yes, he did pop pills initially recommended to combat thirst, but a side effect was that they seemed to help keep him going in such extreme conditions… The other factor, he claimed, was that what little fitness training he really pursued at the time was to join the local teenagers in playing football through the noonday sun on the beach at Mar del Plata.

Gonzalez - ‘The Pampas Bull’ indeed…

Gonzalez - ‘The Pampas Bull’ indeed…

And then there’s a the case of Gonzalez, rather shorter in stature than Fangio but bull-necked, with the broad shoulders of a meat porter, the impressive chest of an operatic tenor and the apparently roly-poly midriff of a pantomime fat man. He was indeed almost spherical in form but Grand Prix and Formula Libre cars of the day – like his factory Ferraris and the BRM V16s – offered plenty of comfortable cockpit space. Missile-like figure-hugging cigars such as the BRM P261s of a later decade, these were not…

But once apparently roly-poly Gonzalez – ‘The Pampas Bull’ as Fleet Street christened him – was seated in his Ferrari, or ‘ThinWall Special’ or BRM V16, he quickly proved he could drive the wheels off the thing. In-line, on-line, out-of-line, sideways, broadside, he could do it all. His car control was phenomenal and his evident sense of balance and ability to correct his car from sliding situations which vividly, obviously, courted disaster, made him one of the most entertaining of all contemporary racing drivers to watch in action. 

And I don’t recall having heard of anyone then agonising over whether or not an extra potato should have been omitted from lunch due to a tenth-second lost on track. Of course the truth in those days – before birdcage sweepings became top-feature on Niki Lauda’s regime menu – was that those drivers were never subjected to the kinds of G-load stresses which modern racing drivers have to train and condition themselves to resist and endure. In truth, the demands of contemporary motor racing were much less intense, and competition generally less close, largely due to the extreme diversity of the car designs – and preparation standards – which then prevailed.

Alberto ASscari (hands raised) - joking with tall and burly Mike Hawthorn (right) while Stirling Moss - first of the super-athletic racing whippet postwar stars - enjoys the moment between them - 1955 Monaco Grand Prix. Sadly, this is one of the last photos ever taken of the great Ascari.
Who needs fitness rules?  James Hunt in D-Type Jaguar at the Birmingham Superprix in the 1980s - going for a drag…

But I always remember one wonderful quote, related to me by my old editor on ‘Motor Racing’ magazine, Cyril Posthumus who had been covering the RAC TT sports car race at Dundrod, Ulster, I think in 1954. Poor Gonzalez had for once over-stepped the mark and had crashed heavily in practice and had been scooped up by Belfast’s St John Ambulance Brigade finest and taken off, bells ringing, lights flashing, to hospital, quite badly hurt.

Cyril arrived at the wreck site, and asked one of the marshals there how Gonzalez had seemed to be. “Beaten-up but not in danger”, was the answer, before the marshal gasped in evident astonishment “By Gor, he was heavy. D’ye know all dat flab? Well I can tell youse, it wasn’t flab. Dat feller is solid muscle…”.

Yes indeed – so don’t be too judgmental when considering the current travails of poor Marcus Ericsson, or when looking back on the days when the tyres were skinny, and the drivers looked fat…

Photofraphy courtesy of The GP Library

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