F1’s hidden bias: small, rich kids need only apply

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As the reality of the 2014 regulation changes get closer and the teams are working in anger on their cars for next year, it is becoming pragmatically clear that the constraints with which the teams are working is having an impact on the sport.

Where teams are struggling to reduce costs and remain financially solvent, the new V6 turbo and Energy Recovery System (ERS) are costing a small fortune to adapt. Some suggest that the small teams will struggle with the simple task of paying for an engine supply for next year let alone fabricate a car, ERS, transmission and cover operational aspects of a possible 22-race calendar.

This strain on resources has laddered up the paying-driver gambit for many teams in order to fill gaps in cash resources by hiring drivers with significant financial backing. With Marussia experiencing a massive loss in their last fiscal year and Sauber clamoring for Russian investment and an 18-year-old driver with cash backing, the impact is tangible.

Then we come to the less tangible impacts of the regulations. Weight limits. As Mark Webber and Jenson Button called for an increase in weight limits for 2014 cars, they were perhaps slightly biased due to their height and weight. We spoke about the drivers weight and height here. Button said:

“Some teams might not want to change the weight because they have light drivers and know they can make a light car and engine package,” the 2009 World Champion said. “That might be us but we should all agree to be fair and raise the weights. I would love to be able to eat again.

“In the past three years, I have probably had four races where I have lost half-a-tenth or a tenth of a second because I have been overweight. It sounds small but in qualifying that could be a position or two and in the race it could be five or six seconds.

“It is a big deal and something that goes unnoticed.”

Arguably one of the best drivers in the field is Germany’s Nico Hulkenberg and for seemingly reasons unknown, the Sauber driver has not been able to secure a ride with a top team. Hulkenberg was considered by Ferrari to fill Felipe Massa’s seat for 014 but the team chose to re-visit their old employee, Kimi Raikkonen instead.

Lotus F1 are rumored to be speaking with Nico but nothing has been formally announced. But perhaps isn’t a case of not being convinced of Hulkenberg’s talent behind the wheel so much as it is his height.

McLaren, who are experiencing their worst year ever, have announced a one-year contract extension for Jenson Button (the same driver asking for increased weight limits to accommodate taller drivers) but the team has also intimated that they may be looking to replace Sergio Perez. While they made mention of being receptive to Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso coming back to the team, it’s understood that the Spaniard has a contract with Ferrari until 2016.

Today’s comments from team boss Martin Whitmarsh comes as a bit of a surprise as his current driver, Jenson Button, is on the taller side. When asked if Hulkenberg might be in the picture for McLaren, Whtimarsh said:

“We have to find a solution, but I doubt we will find one in the next few weeks or months,” Whitmarsh admitted to Sky Sports News. “But sadly, the way it has worked out means the heavier drivers will be less attractive. It has happened by accident. We have raised the minimum weight but the new powertrains are heavier than people expected and now have a situation where heavier drivers could be a disadvantage.”

It seems strange that teams such as Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes or Red Bull are not talking with Hulkenberg given his obvious skills and potential. IS it the height and weight issues as Whitmarsh alludes to or is the German just difficult to negotiate with? Does he have a lack of financial backing that teams like to take advantage of or is it something else entirely?

If a talented driver such as Hulkenberg can’t get a top ride due to his height and the restrictions that the 2014 regulations place on teams and their designs, I believe it is time for a tweak to the rules. Fans want the best drivers in the best cars and pay-drivers who are small are not always the answers.

If Hulkenberg’s career in Formula 1 is spoiled due to height, what chance to Paul di Resta, Geido van der Garde, Max Chilton or Esteban Gutierrez have? There is also the issue of health and anorexic lifestyles the taller drivers are leading that is perhaps a hidden issue in F1.

Mark Webber, who is 182cm tall and weighs approximately 75kg, tweeted:

“Haven’t eaten for last 5 years!” Webber wrote. “Min weight been to low since for ages. Perfect driver now weight 60/65kg.”

Former F1 driver David Coulthard admitted that he struggled with bulimia during his career and Jenson Button says he fasts before a race and never eats carbohydrates. Button reckons something has to be done and the drivers need to stand firm on the issue:

“The problem is that it will stop people looking at taller drivers in the future. You could have a very talented driver who could be missed for his height and weight even if he is the fittest and skinniest driver ever to be in a racing car. If he is over the weight by five kilos that is 0.2 secs-a-lap and it is the end of your career basically.”

Having sat in simulators that use real Formula 1 chassis, I can tell you that, at 6’ 3” tall, I would never have been a F1 driver. I’ve been unable to do some ride-along programs due to my height. I’m not complaining, as I understand that being 6’ 3” is on the taller side of things with the global average under 182cm or in old money, 6’.

Perhaps I am biased but I recall when Alex Wurz was able to race in F1 at 6’ 1” and we are all richer for it. Alex and drivers that are taller shouldn’t be reduced to life outside the F1 grid because the regulations don’t accommodate them. Teams also have to step up and consider the message they are sending by discounting drivers like Hulkenberg, Di Resta and others who have the talent, drive and passion but can’t find a top ride.

If a team can design a car around Sebastian Vettel and his driving style, surely a team can do the same for Hulkenberg? He is, after all, driving for Sauber as we speak. For top teams to discount tall drivers seems an acerbic commentary on Formula 1 as a whole. The question McLaren, and I am not picking on them in particular, should be asking isn’t whether Nico can beat Red Bull while driving their car that may have had to be elongated, but can he beat Sergio Perez and Jenson Button in the same car. If he can do that, he’ll pay for himself and more in championship point and earnings.

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