It’s that time of year again. You know, the part where we take the Formula One circus to the streets of Monaco and pray for an entertaining race despite the fact that the cars are about as long as the yachts parked out in the harbour. And, of course, that means it’s the time of year where we ask the same question over and over: why the hell are F1 cars so damn long?
It seems like the cars get bigger and bigger every year. Where the cars used to be bullets, they are now essentially longswords on wheels. And plenty of folks have had ideas about how to shrink the cars, like reintroducing refuelling (which would create a smaller fuel tank) or using narrower tires. But there are legitimate reasons why the cars have grown longer — and why that won’t be changing any time soon.
Basically, F1 cars have been growing for decades. A deeper understanding of aerodynamics during the 1970s made a lot of team owners realise that a longer, thinner car provided a better distribution of air. You want something thin that can pierce the air, which means you need to redistribute weight laterally, not vertically. Safety saw drivers sitting lower in the cockpit to keep their heads tucked below a roll bar, to the point where they were almost laying on their backs. And changing regulations have resulted in very specific measurements being included in the rule books, so there’s not as much wiggle room as there used to be.
But cars started getting noticeably longer in the recent era for several reasons. First, the introduction of a hybrid power added a ton of more electrical components as opposed to a straight-up combustion engine, which requires teams to use extra space. The elimination of refuelling saw the introduction of larger gas tanks. There are extra wires and electrical bits and bobs to power things like radios, in-car cameras, telemetry, and the data projected on the steering wheel. Once you start adding all this extra 21st century technology, you’re going to start running out of space unless you expand the car.
The FIA will generally take all these changes into account when it proposes a new set of rules, which means it comes up with mandatory weight and size limits to ensure that teams include everything without skimping but also without adding too much extra nonsense.
And, of course, aerodynamics still play a role. You don’t want a wide car. You want something more arrow-like, that narrows to a sharp point and that keeps the sidepods slimmer and carved to redirect air more efficiently. So, if you keep adding more shit into your car, you’re going to need to put it somewhere, and no one wants to bulk up the sides of the car. Which means you get F1 cars that are as long as yachts.
If you’re not convinced, then consider this: for 2019, the FIA added five kilograms of allowable fuel capacity so teams wouldn’t have to scrimp and save fuel during the race. But even that relatively meager addition required an extension of the cars’ lengths because there just wasn’t space to cram all that extra fuel in. That was already the preferable route, anyway; Mercedes had opted for a longer wheelbase in 2018, which saw its extra body surfaces generate more downforce in corners that outweighed the fact that the extra length made for a heavier car. And you don’t need me to tell you that Mercedes was absurdly dominant in 2018.
There are, of course, other downsides to the longer car. It makes it more challenging for cars to pass each other, since it takes a greater amount of track space to do so. On thinner or twistier tracks, you’re not going to see as much overtaking because the sheer length of the car serves as an inherent blockade.
But we’re not likely to see many differences. Back in 2020, F1 technical consultant Rob Smedley told Motorsport Magazine that “there is no single magic bullet” to fix the length problem. You can’t just reintroduce refuelling or mandate shorter cars when you’d end up compromising on safety or speed. There would need to be a wholesale rewriting of the rulebook to create shorter cars — and it’s probably just not going to happen in this day and age. You can go ahead and assume the longer cars are here to stay.