Are Nico Hulkenberg's Height and Weight Hindering a Move to a Top F1 Team?
It is no secret that Formula One is potentially facing a short-term future without one its brightest talents.
Attentions turned to Lotus next, certainly a fitting destination for a driver of Hulkenberg's ability.
But question marks over its financial state, as well as the interest of the well-backed Felipe Massa, mean that the Hulkenberg saga is yet to reach a satisfactory conclusion.
Now there is an additional element: The impact a driver's height and weight could potentially have on a car's performance when next year's regulations upheaval comes into play.
Could that cost Hulkenberg a drive?
What's the Problem?
The introduction of the new turbo-charged V6 engines for 2014, combined with the evolution of the Energy Recovery Systems, means the weight of the car will increase next season.
In line with that, the regulations were altered at the start of the year to bring up the minimum weight limit for 2014, from 642kg to 692kg.
However, it is believed that the powertrain (and other accessories) will actually surpass the estimated 50kg increase (per The National), meaning teams face a dilemma: How do they keep weight as low as possible?
Each kilo is thought to be worth, on average, 0.035s a lap. Though that does not sound a great deal, it can be everything in F1, especially when drivers' weights vary by as much as 13kg.
Suddenly there is an intimated pace advantage of more than three-tenths of a second. That's the key concern here: Is it worth bringing in a driver worth 0.1s or 0.2s, when you could gain two or three times that amount with a lighter driver, and not restrict the potential of the car?
Who Is Affected?
Drivers in excess of 70kg, mostly.
That does not necessarily include the tallest drivers either, as Lewis Hamilton has bulked up in the past 12 months (increasing his weight from 68kg to 71kg) and Valtteri Bottas, despite only being 173cm tall, is a rather stocky driver and weighs 70kg.
Mark Webber, who is 1.85m tall and weighs 76kg, would be the most handicapped driver on the grid, but he is heading out the exit door at the end of 2013 to race sports cars for Porsche.
What does that mean for those who remain? The likelihood is that Hulkenberg will be one of three drivers hurt most by the new regulations.
Hulkenberg is estimated to be the heaviest driver on the grid at 75kg (outrageous, isn't it?), and also stands at 1.84m tall. That's bigger and lankier than Jenson Button (1.82m and 72kg), and also means he outweights the slightly taller Paul di Resta (1.85m) by a full kilo.
This is why the German faces a serious threat of missing out on a race seat. F1 is a sport in which fractions of a second make a big difference, and those three kilos he loses to Button can translate into two-tenths of a second if the team cannot shed the weight in other areas.
Even if teams can make adjustments to counter that weight, there is an immediate loss in how much you can alter the car thereafter. The positioning of the weight in the car also has an impact. As Button said in quotes picked up by James Allen:
You can set the car up around yourself but you lose a lot of tools to adjust the car. You can’t move the weight distribution because you’re so limited.
- All figures correct according to FORIX
Are Drivers Concerned?
Yes, and no.
To his credit, Hulkenberg is taking a philosophical approach to the issue. "I can't do anything about my height, so why complain?" is his attitude.
To quote him verbatim, in quotes picked up by James Allen, he says:
In terms of my weight and height, there’s no point in discussing it because it’s God-given, I can’t change it. If a team wants me, they’ll have to work around it.
Hulkenberg is unable to change his height, though some uninformed individuals will suggest he should lose weight. That is to the irritation of F1's other heavier drivers.
The Guardian quotes Button as saying:
It [the weight limit] needs to change now. To be fair, we should have pushed harder. I think the drivers would rather have a level playing field. It is not a safety issue and it should be an easy thing to change: just put [the minimum weight] up five or 10 kilos.
The newspaper also carries this comment from Mark Webber:
You have to be skinny, because you are fighting for every tenth of a second. There is no advantage to being as large as Nico [Rosberg] or me.
What Do Teams Think?
McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh is in favour of increasing the weight limit because of the restrictions it places on teams.
However, as he told The National when discussing the implications of the 2014 regulations, he is not optimistic it will happen swiftly:
The situation we’ve got is not good as there’s been an increase in the weight limit, but it isn’t enough. It's a disadvantage to some drivers and teams in terms of having to have the resources to design it down to the new weight, but it costs more money.
We need unanimity to change this, but I rather doubt we’ll get it. In time we will fix it, but will people now agree to increase the weight limit? I doubt, personally.
However, there is reason for cautious optimism for Hulkenberg. His desired employer for 2014, Lotus, is willing to put talent before technical flexibility next season.
Eric Boullier told Autosport that the German's height and weight would not stop him from driving for Lotus next year.
Boullier believes the team can work around his weight and trim kilos in other areas.
I prefer to have talent and let my engineers work on saving weight in the car. It is true that 10kg on paper is roughly three tenths of a second, but the target is to at least be on the weight limit. And then, you don't have this issue anymore.
Will It Cost Hulkenberg?
Disappointingly, there is a very real possibility it could. There is no way of ignoring that.
This is not America's Next Top Model, nor is it the search for the next superstar Grand National jockey.
But the implications of a taller, heavier athlete have always been exacerbated in Formula One where any restrictions on how a team can design its car and fiddle with weight transfer are concerned.
Refreshingly, Lotus itself has said that his weight is no barrier. That would intimate Hulkenberg's future is not at risk.
But Lotus is not the ultimate goal for Hulkenberg, because the financial doubts surrounding the team could well limit its ultimate potential to fight for the world championship.
Leaving the last word to Whitmarsh, who also spoke to Sky Sports News, could herald concerning consequences for Hulkenberg, and F1 in general:
Sadly, the way it has worked out means the heavier drivers will be less attractive. It has happened by accident.