That’s why Formula 1 cars are so long
It’s that time of year again. You know, the part where we take the Formula 1 circus through the streets of Monaco and pray for an entertaining race despite the cars being about as long as the yachts parked in the harbor. And, of course, that means this is the time of year when we ask the same question over and over again: why the hell are F1 cars that long?
It seems that cars are getting bigger and bigger every year. Where cars used to be bullets, they are now essentially long swords on wheels. And a lot of people have had ideas on how to shrink cars, like reintroducing refueling (which would create a smaller fuel tank) or using narrower tires. But there are legitimate reasons cars have grown longer – and why that won’t change anytime soon.
Basically, F1 cars have been developing for decades. A deeper understanding of aerodynamics during the 1970s made many team owners realize that a longer, thinner car provided better air distribution. You want something thin that can pierce the air, which means you need to redistribute the weight sideways, not vertically. Security saw the drivers sitting lower in the cockpit to keep their heads under a roll bar, to the point where they were almost lying on their backs. And the evolution of regulations has resulted in the inclusion of very specific measures in the rule books, so there is not as much room for maneuver as before.
But the cars started to become visibly longer in the recent era for several reasons. First, the introduction of hybrid power added a ton of additional electrical components as opposed to a single combustion engine, forcing teams to use more space. The elimination of refueling saw the introduction of larger gasoline tanks. There are extra wires and electrical bits and bobs to power things like radios, onboard cameras, telemetry, and data projected onto the steering wheel. Once you start adding all that extra 21st century tech, you’re going to start running out of space unless you make the car bigger.
The FIA will usually take all of these changes into account when proposing a new set of rules, meaning they are proposing mandatory weight and height limits to ensure that teams include everything without skimping but also without adding too much. more nonsense.
And, of course, aerodynamics always play a role. You do not want large car. You want something more arrow-shaped, that tapers to a sharp tip, and keeps sidepods thinner and sculpted to redirect air more efficiently. So if you keep adding more crap to your car, you’re going to have to put it somewhere, and nobody wants to clutter up the sides of the car. Which means you get F1 cars as long as yachts.
If you are not convinced, consider this: for 2019, the FIA added five kilograms of allowable fuel capacity so that teams don’t have to dispose of and save fuel during the race. But even this relatively meager addition required extending the lengths of the cars because there was simply no room to cram all that extra fuel. It was already the preferable route, anyway; Mercedes opted for a longer wheelbase in 2018, which saw its extra body surfaces generate more downforce in the corners, which outweighed the fact that the extra length made a car heavier. And you don’t need me to tell you that Mercedes was absurdly dominant in 2018.
There are, of course, other downsides to the longer car. It is more difficult for the cars to pass each other because it takes more space on the track to do so. On thinner or more twisty tracks you aren’t going to see as many overtaking as the sheer length of the car serves as an inherent lock-up.
But we probably won’t see many differences. Back in 2020, F1 technical consultant Rob Smedley said Motorsport magazine that “there is no silver bullet” to solve the length problem. You can’t just reintroduce refueling or demand shorter cars when you end up compromising on safety or speed. The rulebook would have to be roughly rewritten to create shorter cars – and that probably won’t happen these days. You can go ahead and assume the longer cars are here to stay.