Something Robert Kubica said at the BMW launch got my attention. He was talking about the disadvantages of being a taller, thus heavier driver at a time when the added 30-45 kilos of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) becomes a reality in Formula One.
"Last year," he said, "I tried to lose weight and in the first half of the season I was maybe too light, I'd say." Kubica had dropped around six kilos and the implication was that the weight loss may have impacted on things such as strength, endurance and concentration.
Robert Kubica © XPB
"With the KERS there is not a lot more I can do in comparison to the light drivers. It will become an even bigger disadvantage to be taller and heavier, but I can't change that."
For years, F1 cars have long been way under the weight limit and have been ballasted up to that limit. The lighter the driver, the more potential to play with the ballast, to put it where you want to optimise weight distribution and, therefore, handling.
Cars and drivers are weighed immediately following a grand prix and the awareness of weight is nothing new. Back in the mid-90's I was helping out a colleague who was doing some Camel PR work and had cause to be in the Benetton back office at the Brazil season-opener. Back then the drivers were weighed at the beginning of the season and again mid-season, with their respective figures added to the car weights for the GPs in the respective half seasons.
On the table at Interlagos was one of Michael Schumacher's helmets with a post-it note attached. It read: "Take this helmet to Brazil." Figuring that it might not be 'typical' let's say, I surreptitiously picked it up, one-handed, which was not easy... I had a quick peek in the lining and discovered well-shaped lead sheet, of the kind you might use for karting ballast.
I smiled to myself when the weights were published and I noted that the ripped, toned, disgustingly healthy-looking Schuey had weighed in at 77 kilos, or seven kilos more than he'd been at half term the previous year... They must have thought Charlie Whiting & Co were still wet behind the ears!
No doubt Michael had devoured five or six steaks as well, and drunk a few litres of water, but they were never going to get away with that. If memory serves, 70 kilos fully suited up, helmet in hand, was what was agreed upon. And today, of course, drivers step on the scales as soon as they step out of the car at every race.
It was only when watching a Ricky Hatton fight that I realised to what extremes you can play with body weight. Hatton was fighting at welterweight (10 stone 7lbs) which is what he'd weighed in at on the Friday. But come the fight, on Saturday night, the commentator reckoned he weighed 16lbs more!
Bloody hell, I thought, how's that possible? Doing a bit of research it's apparently perfectly normal, through dehydration, for a boxer to rapidly lose 5% of his body weight. So a boxer fighting at 10 stone can happily weigh 10 stone 7 very close to the fight and know that he is going to make weight, through running in a bin liner, skipping, going in the sauna, etc.
Studies have apparently been inconclusive as to whether rapid dehydration loss of 4-5% affects maximal strength (eg how much a man can bench press) but it is known that dehydration of more than 3-4% can affect muscular endurance and hence is not ideal for a repetitive action like punching. And for aerobic endurance (say running further than a couple of miles) relatively low levels of dehydration can reduce performance.
The other boxing-specific problem is that overwhelming medical evidence showed that the greatest risk of brain injury occurred when a fighter was dehydrated. And it takes a considerable time to rehydrate. If, for example, 4% of body weight has been lost through fluids, it takes up to five hours to regain performance potential because the body can only absorb one litre of fluid per hour.
Vladimir Klitschko © XPB
That's the reason the controlling bodies of boxing have, for years, implemented previous day weigh-ins for championship fights. But then, on the other hand, you had the controversial Arturo Gatti versus Joey Gamache fight at Madison Square Garden in 2000.
The fight was at 140lbs and Gamache weighed exactly that, while Gatti was initially 144lbs. It was expected that after an hour or so running/skipping he'd make the weight at the second attempt but, controversially, did not have to go through a second weight assessment.
When they fought the following day, Gatti had put on an astounding 19lbs since the weigh-in and was closer to 160lbs. Gamache, like his previous opponent was stretchered out after a brutal second round knockout. He never fought again and, citing permanent brain damage as a result of the knockout, brought a legal action against the New York State Athletic Commission. After several false starts, he is due to have a civil action heard in court this year.
Gatti is probably the best-known case but Chris Eubank was renowned for the same thing, fighting at middleweight but walking the streets a cruiserweight. Britain's former lightweight champion turned boxing pundit, Jim Watt, thinks that the dangers of fighting a man over a stone heavier outweigh those of dehydration and, better still, would like to see a two-tier weigh-in which precludes a boxer from fighting at more than 105% of his weigh-in figure.
Kubica's comment got me thinking about F1. Obviously, he had experienced weight loss to the point where it wasn't comfortable and, with KERS, I wonder how many other drivers will go the same route? And what the potential consequences might be?
This is what a fitness trainer at my local gym had to say: "That's an interesting one. The main difference between motor racing and boxing is that there's obviously nobody intent on knocking the guy's block off and potentially inflicting a brain injury. But fighters have a chance to rehydrate before they perform whereas in F1 if, as you say, the guys are weighed at the end of the race after they have performed, it means that if they are to realise the benefits of being lighter, they have to perform in the dehydrated state.
"That's where it gets interesting. If the activity is not aerobic, it's quite possible that you can endure significant dehydration without diminishing performance. In terms of cognitive ability, dehydration can cause losses in concentration and co-ordination but that only tends to occur at extreme levels.
Interestingly, one study showed that one main reason for reduced performance is psychological. People aren't familiar with the feeling of being dehydrated and if they feel that they aren't going to perform as well, they won't. If someone got used to competing in that state though, it may not be too detrimental so long as muscular endurance is not required.
"From what I've read though, those guys take significant neck and arm stress through g-loadings and I'd be very nervous about trying to train a guy to race a F1 car in a dehydrated state. It would be easy to get it wrong, particularly in high temperatures, and then the consequences don't really bear thinking about. You wouldn't want to take a bang on the head in those circumstances, as boxers know only too well."
But just as fighters like Gatti have proven, if the rules allow something, there's often someone willing to disregard health and push to the limit. Food for thought.