Can F1 turn back from its heavyweight path?

OPINION: Current F1 cars are the heaviest yet, but is there another way forward that still satisfies key criteria? Autosport Engineering columnist Lucas di Grassi presents the case for an alternative, and explains the philosophical stumbling blocks that could hinder it

Can F1 turn back from its heavyweight path?

I once read that aeroplanes are like people, they get fatter and bigger with time. And you could say the same about racing cars.

This year’s Formula 1 cars are the heaviest ever at 798kg, which is a big increase on when I raced in F1 12 years ago. Back then, the Virgin VR-01 was 620kg including the driver and even lighter before that. Now, several teams are still working to get down to that minimum weight limit. This trend has everything to do with how the technical regulations have been written by the motorsport governing body.

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It’s not a natural route to go bigger and heavier as F1 has done. If it was left free for F1 teams to choose, I’m sure they would go for a lighter car with the most power dense engines available, contrary to what they have now. The lighter the car, the better, for many reasons.

To explain this, first remember that weight and mass aren’t the same. Whereas mass is the sum of atoms that make up an entity, or its inertia, which remains the same no matter what force is acting upon it, weight is the product of gravitational force acting upon a mass. Why does this matter?

General common sense tends to think that a vehicle mass will act most on the car in linear acceleration, the heavier the car the slower it accelerates. But actually, at high g, corners are where the mass is really felt: a 4G high-speed corner will have the inertia four times stronger than its normal vertical force.

In a nutshell, the more g-force a race car can generate in a corner, the more the mass has a negative effect. Of course, this is oversimplified as centre of gravity, weight distribution and other factors must also be taken into consideration.

Another hugely negative effect of a heavier car is in a crash. The total car energy to be dissipated is a function of the mass and the square of the speed. The heavier the car, the worse the crash.

Today's F1 cars are easily the heaviest-ever

Today's F1 cars are easily the heaviest-ever

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The effect weight has is most clearly demonstrated by the difference in lap time between qualifying and the opening laps of a race on full fuel, when the same car is several seconds per lap slower. As soon as you don’t have as much weight, the car corners better, accelerates better and brakes better. It comes alive. The difference for the driver is very clear.

If you have understeer, this only increases with more weight. It’s the same with oversteer. When you add weight, it’s always a negative thing. That’s why you want the car to be as light as possible and why teams design their cars with the aim of being under the minimum weight limit so they can position the ballast in the most strategic way.

This principle doesn’t only apply to F1, weight is important across all categories. I remember Alex Wurz and myself put a lot of pressure on the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to incorporate the driver weight into an LMP1 car’s minimum weight, so that from 2015 any line-up with an average weight under 80kg had to carry ballast.

The LMP1 base weight back then was 870kg without driver and fuel, and by having a driver that was 20kg lighter you could go a second faster per lap at Le Mans – sometimes way more than the balance of performance between the cars or the driver talent itself. Getting very light drivers was a huge advantage for any sportscar race.

You would have to change the complete philosophy of F1 to have performance by lightness, because a big factor in F1’s weight increase is the complex hybrid engines

Design legend Adrian Newey has said that we should be looking to get cars as light as possible and not the other way around, and I agree with him. I think F1 should be the pinnacle for the highest-performance vehicles on the planet. They should be extreme and the technical rules should facilitate some advantage for pursuing optimal lightness.

In the past, without simulation tools and sophisticated production methods or even safety rules, F1 designers who focused on this often had problems with the reliability of parts, which resulted in accidents. But technology has improved to a point that we can absolutely reconcile having lightweight cars without compromising safety.

In Colin Chapman’s day, they had to build the part, go to the track to see if it broke, then modify it and go again. Now we have the sophisticated modelling tools and tests so you can ensure it has equivalent strength properties and the safety that is required. That’s also why cars are more reliable and you rarely see suspension failures, even if it is produced from lightweight materials, because technology has evolved so much.

We shouldn’t just accept that cars have to become heavier as technology evolves. We have a very important example of this in the new Gen3 Formula E car, where the FIA did a fantastic job to make it smaller (70mm width, 160mm length) and 80kg lighter than Gen1. It would have been easy to make the car heavier with more power, as is the general trend with electric cars, so I was positively surprised and pleased with the decision to reverse that with Gen3 and push sustainability in real, measurable terms.

The Gen3 Formula E car is smaller, and lighter than its predecessors - which shows the trend of increasing weight can be reversed

The Gen3 Formula E car is smaller, and lighter than its predecessors - which shows the trend of increasing weight can be reversed

Photo by: NIO Formula E Team

This shows it’s possible to change course, but you have to create the right environment and rules for it to work. The question with F1 is, what would a lightweight formula look like and would it be feasible?

You would have to change the complete philosophy of F1 to have performance by lightness, because a big factor in F1’s weight increase is the complex hybrid engines. And clearly, it wouldn’t be cheap to make these extreme materials, so F1 would have to decide where the most value lies within its cost cap. But going down a lightweight path would surely have a greater benefit to the wider world than the F1 hybrids in use today.

There’s not a single component today in an F1 car that you will see in a road-going Toyota Corolla or similar, and it’s not a surprise that the MGU-H was dropped for the new 2026 regulations. It was a flaw since the inception of the rules to have such a complex powertrain to chase efficiency, as it would have never reached normal road cars with hybrid technologies.

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For example, the reason planes aren’t electric or even hybrid today is because the extra weight of the batteries makes no sense to carry on a long flight for the energy benefit. And I believe, if an F1 car can go as fast or faster without the weighty hybrid than it would by using the hybrid to harvest and to deploy power, then the idea of having the hybrid doesn’t make sense.

It wouldn’t be popular with key stakeholders who have invested heavily in the hybrid engines, but for me motorsport should have a very clearly distinguished definition of what purpose is served by the top racing series so they don’t overlap. F1 should focus on maximum performance without compromise, Formula E should focus on efficiency, and other series like the World Endurance Championship on road-relevant technologies.

That would be in my view much more dramatic and much more towards the right mentality of what F1 should be about. Also, for real gains in sustainability, having a lighter car and equipment would mean much less emissions from logistics, for example.

If there’s no clearly marketed sustainability angle to F1, then it will be less attractive for sponsors and automotive manufacturers to be associated with it. Clearly, abandoning sustainability to build the most exotic cars ever isn’t realistic. But there’s a case to argue that a renewed focus on lighter cars would satisfy sustainability criteria and still be a testbed for use in road cars – if F1 was willing for it to happen.

Reducing weight would have additional benefits in logistics

Reducing weight would have additional benefits in logistics

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Running lighter cars means fewer parts being produced and less energy used for making those parts. A lighter car would need less fuel and it’s also much easier to ship it around the world. Even if the actual car doesn’t account for so much, it would send the right message.

As Europe will ban the sale of combustion cars by 2035, there is a clear pressure to focus on more efficient hybrid powertrains if F1 needs to stay relevant to the car market. But it doesn’t necessarily need to, because it is already not relevant at all for commercial cars.

Maybe F1 should focus on the path of extreme technologies development that can be relevant to aerospace, lightweight construction or simply pure extreme vehicles that will use the best technology for this purpose. It will be very interesting what the future will bring.

Would pursuing lightweight technology have greater relevance to the road than today's complex hybrid engines?

Would pursuing lightweight technology have greater relevance to the road than today's complex hybrid engines?

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

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