Something NOT about head injury!

No seriously, are you guys KIDDING?

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised about Jenson and Lewis’ “revelations” about drivers intentionally compromising their health and well-being to minimise their weight. This is a sport that requires total commitment, and pressure to do anything to shave a tenth or so off one’s lap time. Millions are spent on aero tweaks, on salaries for the best designers around, etc. Remember that in the 80s we had a spate of drivers passing out post-race, because they were all taking beta-blockers. These were felt to improve performance under stress. Not.

I’m shocked and very very concerned about this development. I’m almost equally apprehensive of the potential reaction of the FIA in an attempt to mitigate this insanity. Oh and I think we need to be grateful to Louis and Jenson for their forthrightness about this.

So let’s start with a stable of drivers who are collectively some of the fittest athletes around, whose fitness regimens, 120 km bike rides, triathlons, etc, are the stuff of tweets, newspaper articles and tv reports. Everyone understands that the price of success in Formula 1 requires total physical condition. Only that will allow one to handle the physical stress of driving the cars and to maintain concentration despite physical discomfort. Only NOW we get to watch these guys starve and dehydrate themselves in order to minimise their weight. These are the same guys who never went ANYWHERE without their drinks bottles. I’ve been next to drivers who were tooting away on their bottles WHILE THEY WERE PEEING. Presumably McLaren has issued their drivers carbon fibre “peristalsis reversal devices”. They look just like spoons, and reliably induce vomiting. Jeez. Hey guys – nicotine activates the brain somewhat reliably. Maybe you should all take up smoking?

This is insane, and most worrisome. Obviously the implications of an unwell driver at the helm of a terrestrial cruise missile are huge – for themselves, for their fellow drivers, and for others. And the message this sends to the public, and to every young driver from go karts to GP2 is obvious – train for the week after a race, then totally fuck yourselves up for a week before the next one. Yeah, that’s the message you should be sending. Brilliant.

I needn’t go into ANY detail about why this regimen of starvation and dehydration is ridiculous from a medical point of view.

This has got to stop. And it’s got to stop now. And given the competitive pressures of the sport, this will not be easy. And given the implications for the safety of the public, track workers, and other drivers, it won’t be sufficient to issue some lame statement encouraging the drivers not to act like 90s heroin-chic supermodels.

Problem is, I fear that given the lack of experience of the current medical leadership (I’ll give an example of the absurdity this can lead to in a subsequent post), the solution will be more ridiculous than the problem. Let me make it clear – it is folly to try to paternalistically control nutrition or hydration of mentally competent adults by regulation. Any solutions must be legally acceptable, enforceable, and actually serve to discourage the behaviour in question.

So what’s to be done?

I’ve spend a bit of time thinking about this and pending something better, I think:

1) a statement highlighting the FIA’s concerns about this behaviour should be released

2) it should be stated that the nature of the problem of any driver who is unwell enough at the end of the race to require medical assistance will be investigated. The points of any points-finisher requiring medical assistance after the race will be provisional to the results of this investigation. A driver found to be intentionally dehydrating or starving (go ahead, think of a better word – Jenson said some of them eat NO CARBS for a week pre race!!!!!) will have his points cancelled and will receive a grid penalty for the next race. A second violation will lead to suspension of his or her super license. Forever.

These guys want to win, and as we can see, they’re willing to do anything for that to happen. We can question their sanity, intelligence, and wisdom, but not their motivation. But this also has ethical implications for those around the drivers with a duty to care, notably team physicians and the physios. If they are allowing this to happen, and worse, encouraging this, they are violating the cardinal rule of ANY caring profession: PRIMUM NON NOCERE. First, do no harm.

40 thoughts on “Something NOT about head injury!

  1. Well, I see that Jean Todt has weighed in, and explained that there is no problem because “I don’t think you go to hospital because you are on a diet.” Sure is nice to have that cleared up by such an expert in medicine…

  2. Well, things are getting from serious to really bad here. According to his own words, JEV was forced to spend a few days between Melbourne and Malaysia in hospital due to dehydration and “a little bit of lack of everything.” This is very, very important issue, FIA should act NOW! I cannot understand how, in an era that mesmerizes itself with the word “safety”, this can be happening.

  3. Gary, please write something about the lastest news regarding Michael Schuhmacher, Bild newspaper says he shows signs of consciousness!

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  5. It filters down to motorsport at lower levels as well. In David Coulthard’s autobiography he wrote about inducing vomiting before go kart races to reduce weight. My brother and I quit go kart racing for the same reason. We are average size, but even with varying weight divisions couldn’t get down to a competitive weight, leaving us uncompetitive despite all the money we had invested.
    For the F1 issue, how hard would it be to increase the weight limit? Answer is not hard at all, it could be implemented in 5 minutes.

  6. I don’t really see hat the solution needs to be especially complicated. Make the driver’s seat part of the driver weight equation. You could have, say an 80kg minimum weight for the driver plus seat, with specific ballast points on the seat which must all be filled equally (two behind the shoulder blades, two under the butt) so as to maintain an even weight distribution. Skinny drivers get more ballast, but with the ballast being equally distributed there’s no advantage either way.

    I totally agree though, it’s a ridiculous situation to have otherwise extremely fit atheletes deliberately starving and dehydrating themselves because of the performance advantage it would bring. I would say that this could genuinely fall under the category of a serious safety issue which would mean that the FIA are empowered to take action without it having to be ratified by a majority vote with the WMSC. Of course, the FIA have a consistent history of being reactive on safety issues rather than proactive, so I doubt any action will be taken until an accident or emergency does take place.

    Let’s face it, people are far more concerned with more important issues at the moment, like moaning about exhaust noises…

    • the jockey + saddle weights work because the jockey has to carry it around to get weighed and its demonstrably the saddle theyve used, in F1 though the seat is removable and supposed to be removable with the driver in place, though Gary has written before how since the FIA didnt specifically test for that criteria regularly enough some teams were pushing the limits on driver extraction in situ. youd need to provide some guarantee the seats you were weighing were the seats used in the race and the ballast wasnt being misused somehow, I mean we are in the realms of would you trust any of the teams not to find a less than in the spirit of the rules interpretation these days.

      the worrying aspect is how far are some of these drivers willing to push this Alonso reported he lost 2.8kilos during the Malaysian race, which doesnt quite tally with the didnt need a drink bottle statement, and if Sutils water bottle weighs half a kilo empty, thats a big bottle of water and lot of fluid to forgoe for a race. though surprised some of the teams havent introduced Indy/WEC style bottles on a pole at pitstops, though that would no doubt ruin all those mega quick “ultra safe” pit stops.

      and where does it end, thats a big pandoras box that no conflab between the bigwigs moaning about engine noise is going anywhere near addressing.

  7. A minimum body mass index should be enforced by FIA. Teams will still be looking for lighter drivers, but at least they’d not be underweight.

  8. I suppose a staggered start to accomodate weight variations of the wouldn’t work, would it?
    FATTIES first … little tiddlers at the end!
    Just think … Max Chilton on a sort of Pole position!! Now that would be hilarious.

  9. As others have noted, the way to fix this is with a minimum driver weight which is at or above the weight of a healthy person of average Formula One driver stature.

    However, what’s missing from this is that any underweight condition must be rectified with weights on the car in a safe but *undesirable* (to the team) position. Not as low as possible on the car, but *above* the center of gravity it would have with a driver of sufficient weight in the seat. And to avoid cheating, the drivers should not only be weighed with their gear, but also be weighed privately *without* gear immediately prior to the start and after the end of each session, and again any time they leave their car (for example, to visit the restroom.)

    As soon as it becomes a sporting problem for the teams because having an underweight driver will result in a worse center of gravity, they will self-regulate. Until that happens, they will find a way to flout the regulations.

    Sadly, this will never happen. F1’s rulemakers have proven time and again that they’re only interested in paying lip-service to safety, and that they actually *prefer* rules that are ambiguous and easily circumvented.

    There are a million examples of intentionally bad and downright dangerous rules, with the most obvious example being the requirement that we spend lap after lap pootling around and losing temperatures behind the safety car while the least experienced drivers in the worst cars go faster and unlap themselves on a track that’s known to be partially blocked by some dangerous obstacle, instead of simply requiring each car that’s about to be lapped to drop back behind the lapping car *behind* the safety car.

    The latter would get backmarkers out of the way and provide a safe restart, would not adversely affect any cars’ on-track battles for position, would reduce the time spent losing temperatures and tire pressure, would ensure nobody had to drive faster than the safety car on a known-dangerous track, and would have… precisely no downsides.

    And so we don’t do it. And nor shall we do anything meaningful about drivers intentionally harming their health in the quest for a lower weight.

  10. I have been thinking about this subject for a while since I have been racing go karts for a few years. I am 187cm tall (around 6 feet) and weigh about 75kg. When racing against adults the weight is not a problem (I might actually be one of the lightest), but when I’m competing with quick and talented youngsters who may weigh from 50-65kg it is hard to compete. We have estimated that at the track where we are racing 20kg can have a difference between 0.5 and 0.75 seconds. And in the few F1 articles where weight impacting lap time has been mentioned it seemed that in F1 the impact is larger.
    Assuming that the minimum weight for car+driver is large enough that every team can build a car light enough that heavier drivers are not over the limit will mean lighter drivers will need ballast. The lighter the driver, the more ballast is used. Ballast has (to my knowledge, at least) two advantages:
    1. It allows you to change the cars weight distribution. Because the technical regulations limit at least in some capacity what the distribution can be it is not that big of an advantage but still might be. F1 cars are rear wheel drive and with tyres specifically designed to degrade You want the rear to slide as little as possible, because most tracks are rear limited. If you can hit the upper weigh limit the tech regs allow on the rear axle and other teams can’t, that will be an advantage.
    2. By placing ballast as low as possible it also allows to have the lowest possible center of gravity and that is a big advantage.
    It’s bad enough that the taller driver is usually heavier but also has a higher cog (I can’t remember any short but heavy drivers in recent F1 history). When drivers sit in the cockpit the taller one’s head is higher and that already leads to a somewhat higher cog. Then the lighter driver gets lead weights attached to the bottom of his/ her car (not to the plank obviously, but close enough. You know what I mean). The result? Quite a bit better cog, which leads to a lap time advantage. Now that i think about it, it might also lead to less tyre wear.
    The solution? Well, I have one, but it is somewhat complicated, because it will take time and money to implement, make the teams do more work and those teams which have lighter drivers will probably try to block it.
    What I propose is to weight the cars and drivers separately. Once the cars are weighed, ballast is added to each one so they are at the minimum weigh limit (without the driver). That’s the easy part. Then drivers are weighed. But you also record each drivers center of gravity when they are in the cockpit. After that the difference to the heaviest driver is added to the cars of lighter drivers in the form of driver ballast, but it is not placed close to the floor, but as high as necessary to compensate for the difference in center of gravity and weight. The end result of this should be that the cars of lighter drivers would have exactly the same weight and center of gravity (car + driver) as if the heaviest/ tallest driver was sitting in them.
    As expensive, complicated and time consuming as this would be for the FIA and the teams to implement, it would in theory allow a 2m tall driver weighing 100kg to compete with someone much shorter and lighter.
    Sorry that this comment is so long, but like I mentioned previously, I have been thinking about this for quite a while and I’m not going to deny that I’m passionate about the subject or racing in general :)

  11. So a Grand Prix can be won or lost on what the driver ate for dinner. How absurd.
    I seem to remember a notorious “Grid walk’ interview with the ghastly Kimi Raikkonen in which he mumbled something to Martin Brundle about “Going for a ***t”
    It now all makes sense!!
    The last of the men of Formula 1 have gone. One lying tragically in a coma, the other driving sturdy sports cars at Le Mans.
    What we have left is boys trying to do a man’s job … and failing miserably.
    I’m off to watch Valentino Rossi!

  12. Don’t know if I have got this correctly as I have limted knowledge about F1, but I think I know, that athlets sometimes can go extremes when it comes to winning a big competition. I heard an interview with an athlet (don’t remember his name),who said he would take something, if it was possible, that would make him win the world championships, even if it made him die afterwards. I think such a way of thinking is wrong and unrespectful to oneself. But here, in the case of F1, many people’s safety, are at risk, if I understand it correctly.

  13. Further to TM’s comments: having a minimum weight for the cockpit isn’t enough, since having a lighter driver still enables the team to place ballast as low as possible,

    Here’s what they need to do; set a minimum weight for the car, without the driver. Then have a minimum weight for the driver – plus, stipulate a minimum height for any ballast needed to make up the driver weight. If you make that height about where a ‘normal’ driver’s centre of gravity is when driving, then there’s no advantage to be gained from running an anorexic driver of below average height.

    As for Gary’s comments about nicotine – well, jockeys were renowned for smoking cigars to suppress appetite. Perhaps Sid was onto something…

    Regards,
    Martin

    • I recall a 1980’s piece in Road and Track (maybe Car and Driver, but pretty sure it was R&T) that was a fictionalized piece on F1, where the ideal drivers were jockey-sized guys with iron kidneys that could withstand the down force config of the era. As I recall, one of the drivers “escaped” the track and took out on the local highways in some sort of escape? But at the very least, this idea of ideal driver size has been around for a long, long time.

  14. You’ve a very low threshold for disgust. Is the post about head injury? NO. Have the majority of my recent posts been about head injury? YES. Does this title inform a potential reader, perhaps sick of reading about TBI, that he can venture into this one without fearing content that he or she wants to avoid? YES.

    I would like you to CLEARLY indicate exactly WHAT is “disgusting” about the title, how exactly it shows a lack of respect (I don’t even know to whom you’re referring, although I can only assume you mean Michael Schumacher and/or his family), and just what exactly makes you the arbiter of what is and isn’t respectful.

    You know dude, if you’re trying to modify my behaviour, you’re not going about it very effectively. If you’re not, I have no idea what the fuck you ARE trying to do.

    Give yourself a break and just don’t even look at my blog. I didn’t ask you to. And at this point would much prefer you not. I’ve wasted 5 minutes replying to you, and missed a few bites of my fabulous salad while doing so. Not sure it was worth it.

    Oh and if you think this reply shows a lack of respect, you’re damned right.

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  17. Sadly it will take a serious accident with the diet etc as a factor before anything gets done. Hopefully nobody gets killed.

  18. I’ve thought about the ‘weight issue’. many of times. As a tall chap myself I have the same issues, albeit in a go kart and not a formula one car, although as I’m sure anyone reading this can appreciate, when you race, you always want to be the quickest. Go kart, shopping trolley or F1 car. So. This is my idea. As someone touched on earlier about minimum dimensions for the cockpit which was introduced a few years ago. Why not take this a step further and make a rule stating that the cockpit has to weigh a minimum weight. INCLUDING THE DRIVER. This means that the cockpit has to be ballasted up or down according to driver weight. This will also take a away any advantage the lighter guys have with regards to placing ballest around the car. Leading to another advantage etc etc etc.

    Thoughts????

    P. S. Yes I can imagine that it will be difficult to weight the cockpit post race without dismantling the car. But I’m sure these clever men in the world if F1 can come up with a reasonable solution.

    • DaMartya — Weigh the thing with or without driver, it wouldn’t address this issue.

      The driver’s mass goes where the driver sits. If he/she is top heavy instead of butt-heavy, that changes things, doesn’t it? But ballast / extra mass goes where the engineers put it, which makes the most out of a “bad” situation.

      I recall on sanctioning body had the drivers weigh in at the start of the season, and used that number to calculate minimum car-minus-driver weight. In that way, at least the diet only lasted until the day of the physical.

    • This is exactly same idea I thought of – which suggests to me it’s common sense.I guess that means the FIA won’t even consider it…

      My thought was that you could put ballast (a thin slab) behind the driver, in front of the full cell at about chest height. It could be inserted/screwed in when the engine cover and air-box are removed. They could then agree on a sensible weight for a driver, say 90kg. So little Vettel (58kg) would get 32kg of ballast behind him and big Nico Hulkenberg (74kg) would have 16kg. As well as stopping stupid diets, It would also allow the drivers to put on some muscle, which I’m sure they’d welcome.

    • I guess this may be a solution. I would like to throw in the idea of a weight belt, for the underweight drivers! A minimum weight of X (650 kg???) for the car + Y (80 kg) for the driver might do the job. Any driver under that weight limit could wear a belt or/and plates inside his suit? So it wouldn’t be possible to gain an advantage by adding weight at the lowest point of the car…

  19. This is not unique to F1. When I stand next to IndyCar drivers who, at over 6 feet (180 cm?) tall, are sporting a 28″ (70 cm) waist, I gotta figure he isn’t hanging out that the all you can eat buffet. Danica was built more like a 10 year old gymnast than an adult woman.

    And when we open up this can of worms, we then see that the ideal F1 driver — perhaps the ideal race driver — is indeed a 10 year old female gymnast?

    • Yes indeed. And given that a petite woman could easily weigh-in at 90 lbs or less – a figure few males could ever hope to reach (and still drive) – it is surprising that we don’t see more women drivers. I suspect some will be along shortly if the minimum weights of car+driver are not increased. And while I’d love to see more women drivers, it would be better if they were there for better, healthier, reasons.

  20. All of which could have been avoided had the FIA listened to the very sensible requests at the end of last season of increasing the minimum weight limits for the new, heavier hybrid cars. Still can’t work out why they wouldn’t go along with it. So dangerous.

    • Get the facts right – the FIA were in favor of the proposal, but because the rules had already been set for 2014, change was only possible if all the teams agreed. At least one team refused, presumably because they had smaller divers and thought that this would give them an advantage. That’s why the weight limit will go up 10kg for 2015, but has not been increased to the same level for 2014.

      • If dehydration and extreme weight loss is a safety, rather than performance issue, can’t the FIA enforce a regulation change? This is my understanding, but maybe I’m wrong. And how in god’s name is current regulations that lead directly to extreme dehydration NOT a safety issue? I know your post was not meant to be about head injury, but what effect does extreme dehydration have on high G brain injuries?
        Excellent blog, BTW, fascinating reading.

      • I agree absolutely that it is a safety issue, and its on those grounds that the good Dr is calling for immediate action. But the FIA need evidence to support this argument, so we’ve had to wait for a while, and may have to wait still longer – all the moreso because the current medical decision-makers are not medical professionals and may not see the significance.

  21. In this type of environment, it’s more about incentives than it is about penalties. A good comparison would be professional cycling, where all the incentives (grand tours becoming mountain-climbing contests, a complicit UCI) were in place for widespread doping. Any changes to the system that focus exclusively on penalties and ignore incentives are doomed to fail.

  22. Agreed. Is there any way tests can detect drivers who do this? Maybe records of driver’s weight/ hydration… can be formally recorded and analysed and drivers and teams make a written declaration they do not do this

      • Interesting idea but would it work? They would still want the drivers to be at the minimum weight so that weights could be used to lower the centre of gravity.

      • The better solution is to increase the minimum weight of car+driver to something sensible, so that the driver’s weight is much less of an issue – 700 Kg or more would be OK.

  23. Great post. The FIA has been complicit in this issue for years through the minimum weights in the technical regulations and has largely ignored the concerns expressed by the heavier drivers over the last several years that the minimum weight limits were both making them both uncompetitive and pushing them to unreasonable physical limits. It’s a completely inconsistent position with the other very positive steps the FIA has made on safety. The FIA can react and has done so in the past on safety grounds. The introduction of minimum cockpit dimensions was a direct reaction to the ridiculous situation that had developed in the last 80s where drivers had to be contortionists to fit in the cockpits.

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