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Racing with restrictions: Weight limitations endanger Formula 1 drivers

Are weight restrictions in Formula 1 racing unnecessarily endangering the health of the racers?
Are weight restrictions in Formula 1 racing unnecessarily endangering the health of the racers?
Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images

In light of the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain yesterday, April 6, that highlighted just how drastically different this season will be with the new V6 turbo engines, there comes increasing concern over whether this change is also endangering the drivers' health. Today, April 7, the official Formula 1 website released information that Torro Rosso driver, Jean-Eric Vergne, had been hospitalized following the Australian Grand Prix due to malnourishment and dehydration as a result of dieting to fulfill the weight requirements.

The primary issue is that the new V6 turbo-powered cars are heavier than previous models and even though the minimum weight was raised with new policies, the maximum allowed weight was not. For those unfamiliar with Formula 1 racing, this weight requirement includes not only the car, but also the weight of the driver in their full gear.

Sauber driver, Adrian Sutil, had expressed concern over this issue during the Bahrain race weekend, as one of the tallest and heaviest F1 drivers currently. He told ESPN prior to the race that:

"You feel it before the race that you haven't got your ultimate power. The cars are a bit slower so you don't need to be in superb shape to finish it, but still it's like if you go for a run for one and half hours and you don't eat enough, you have a sugar hole. You are almost getting in an area where you don't work well up here [in the head]. This is the danger we are facing. The season is long and the longer we travel the more you are taking energy off you. The more substance you have, the longer you last."

Sutil is certainly feeling this pressure and has lost several pounds from last season and feels as if it is getting to a "critical point," but is still under pressure to lose weight to meet the requirements. These restrictions also encourage the drivers not to drink before or during the race in order to minimize weight fluctuations, which is a very dangerous idea, especially in notably hot or humid tracks like Australia or Bahrain.

This fluid limit most certainly was a contributing factor to Vergne's hospitalization; in his own words:

"I did a diet this winter but you get to certain limits that the body can no longer take. I was in hospital between the grands prix in Australia and Malaysia because of a lack of water and a little bit of lack of everything. I was very weak."

However, there is not concordance among the drivers about these regulations or what to do about them. Felipe Massa - who notably is one of the smallest drivers in the sport - disagrees with Sutil on the basis of the weight restrictions, stating that it is an issue with the heavier cars. Instead he puts the blame on other teams, stating that they need to make their cars lighter and that these regulations will serve to promote more efficient construction of the vehicles.

However, when a team cannot effectively lighten their cars, they should not turn as consequence to lightening their drivers. We seem to condone or turn a blind eye to weight restrictions if they are for the 'good' of a sport (wrestling, horse racing, and gymnastics come to mind immediately), but does the competition warrant the risk to health?

With Formula 1 racing, this weight restriction not only compromises the drivers' health, but could also endanger other drivers. Putting a dehydrated and malnourished driver into a vehicle that goes upwards of 200 mph with track temperatures over 100 degrees is just not a sensible idea. How far will we let this go before we begin to see the consequences of these regulations? Surely there is a more reasonable way to adjust for weight limitations without putting the drivers' health in jeopardy.

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