Over the years, Formula 1 cars have come in many different shapes and sizes. F1 cars must always comply with the ever changing FIA regulations, which determine the dimensions that the car needs to be for any specific season, leading to F1 cars getting bigger over time.
Formula 1 cars have gotten much bigger and bulkier over the years. If you compare a modern-day Formula 1 car to a classic one from the 1990s or earlier, there is a massive difference between the two. Modern cars are not only bulkier, but they’re also longer and wider than previous generations.
While Formula 1 cars are much bigger than they were previously, the new generation of Formula 1 cars are actually getting smaller. The size of the car has a big impact on the racing, as well as how the cars are driven. So, let’s take a closer look to understand why F1 cars have gotten bigger.
How Big Are F1 Cars?
F1 cars are about 5.5 meters long and 2 meters wide. The size of an F1 car is very much dependent on the rules set out by the FIA. They determine the overall size and shape of the cars by setting out dimensions that must be adhered to. If a car exceeds the dimensions given, the team will be penalized.
Formula 1 cars’ sleek and aerodynamic design makes them appear much smaller than they actually are. An example of how this illusion can trick a lot of people is by comparing Formula 1 cars to WEC prototype cars. WEC prototypes are actually significantly smaller than a Formula 1 car, but due to their ‘bulkier’ design they look much larger than Formula 1 cars.
An Illusion Of Size
Compared to your average road car, a Formula 1 car is much shorter vertically and lower to the ground, so they may appear to be much smaller. However, in terms of the width and length, they can be longer and wider than your average Volkswagen Golf. Once again, it is the illusion created by the aerodynamic design of the cars.
Formula 1 cars can be no taller than 95 cm and no wider than 200 cm. Teams are allowed to build their cars within these specifications. But the length of the car isn’t subject to a direct maximum. However, dimension limits on other components put an indirect limit on the length of an F1 car, so let’s take a closer look at this in particular to understand how long an F1 car actually is.
How Long Is An F1 Car?
F1 cars are about 5.5 meters long. Mercedes’ 2021 Formula 1 car was said to be around 5.7 meters long. By comparison, a 2020 Chevrolet Suburban is 5699 mm long. This makes a Formula 1 car about the length of a mid-size SUV.
However, Formula 1 cars were not always this long. The very first formula 1 cars were much shorter, and they have grown longer over the years. Unlike the height and the width, the rules for the length of a Formula 1 car are less strict. Formula 1 teams have more room to play with when it comes to the overall length of the cars, and you can see this when comparing different teams’ cars.
However, there is a safety element that must be followed with regard to the length of a Formula 1 car. The front of the car needs to comply with a minimum length in order to protect the driver in the case of a frontal crash, and dimension limits on various other components ensure there is an indirect limit on the overall length of the car.
Front impacts are very common in Formula 1, and having a longer nose protects the driver’s legs in a crash. A driver’s legs reach far out ahead of them into the cockpit, and the pedals sit right behind the front nose cone (more or less where the nose cone driver number is between the two front wheels).
When Did F1 Cars Get Wider?
Over the years Formula 1 cars have gradually gotten wider as well as longer. It might not have been noticeable on TV if you have been watching for a few years. However, if you look at a modern Formula 1 car and an older one side by side you can clearly see a big difference between the two.
Even going back to the mid-2000s, when the cars with criticized for being ‘too big’, there is a noticeable difference in the width and general size of the car. Formula 1 cars seem to get bigger with each year that passes!
In 2017 the FIA increased the maximum width of Formula 1 cars to two meters, the widest they have ever been. The wider cars meant that they were producing more drag, resulting in slower straight-line speeds and higher cornering speeds.
Why Have F1 Cars Gotten So Big?
The main reason Formula 1 cars have gotten so much bigger is because of safety. Formula 1 is an extremely dangerous sport, and various safety measures regarding components like survival cells and fuel tanks have led to the cars becoming much larger in size.
This has been proven many times with several drivers being injured in the past, and back in the days when cars were much smaller and the driver was much more exposed, the sport also had a higher fatality rate.
In order to make the cars safer, the FIA introduced some basic rules to make the cars larger. This forces the teams to implement stronger parts and add larger crumple zones. This means that in the case of a severe crash, there is less chance of a driver being injured.
Robert Kubica’s Canada Crash
One of the best examples of when Formula 1 cars were “too small” in terms of their crumple zone is Robert Kubica’s terrifying crash at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. Kubica lost control of the car at high-speed going into a hairpin corner. The car flipped over multiple times and although the cars are designed to withstand this scenario, the front end of the car was ripped off.
In the footage of the crash, you can see Kubica’s feet exposed as the front wing including the pedals were completely torn off the car. Scenarios such as these can result in serious injury that could end a driver’s entire career.
Formula 1 cars have also gotten bigger due to rule changes. The first rule change that affected the size of the cars was the refueling ban in the at the start of the 2010 season. Refueling was banned from the sport as it posed a danger to the pit crew and drivers.
There were several incidents where a pit stop would be rushed, and a car would drive out of the pits with a fuel hose still attached to the car. In the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, Felipe Massa pulled out of his pit box with the fuel hose still attached, pulling several crew members with him into the path of oncoming Formula 1 cars. Luckily no one was severely injured in this incident.
In the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix, McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen was released from his pit box prematurely and ripped the fuel hose out of the fuel delivery system. Whilst dragging the fuel hose down the pit lane with him, some of the fuel had made its way on the Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari behind him, resulting in a flash fire setting the Ferrari alight for a couple of seconds.
Luckily, Raikkonen was able to escape major injury and was left with sore eyes from the fumes and fuel that sprayed onto his car.
Ultimately the FIA decided to ban refueling from the sport altogether and instructed teams that they had to design cars that were able to complete the full race distance without putting extra fuel into the car during pit stops.
The result was Formula 1 cars that had to be larger than previous versions as they had to accommodate a bigger fuel tank than before. The results were fuel tanks that could hold 55 gallons of fuel instead of 20 gallons, almost triple the size.
This caused a lot of headaches for many teams. In a sport where you need to save as much weight as possible to maximize your performance, most teams struggled to make their cars complete a full race distance without saving fuel in some way throughout the race.
Nowadays, Formula 1 cars have a 30 gallon fuel tank. This shows how much the technology has developed over the years, and how much more efficient the engines are. The modern Formula 1 engine has become so efficient that they are able to complete the same distance with about half the amount of fuel they used before.
Larger Then Smaller
So, if the fuel tanks are now half the size as they were ten years ago, why are Formula 1 cars still so big? Modern Formula 1 cars have developed so many aerodynamic parts that it has added a lot of excess bulk to the cars. On top of that, the hybrid engines became more complicated too, adding more components that take up more space.
Is The F1 2022 Car Smaller Than 2021’s?
The 2022 Formula 1 cars are smaller than the 2021 cars. This change has mainly come down to the new aerodynamic rules. From 2022, cars are designed to produce cleaner air in their wake, which means fewer aerodynamic winglets and bargeboards. The cars are also slightly shorter in length.
Teams are now encouraged to generate downforce using the car’s floor rather than extra bodywork. This should prevent the cars from becoming overly bulky and complex, as they have in previous seasons. However, as with any Formula 1 season, we will always see upgraded parts and different teams pushing the boundaries and finding loopholes in the rules to make their cars faster.
Should F1 Cars Be Smaller?
Many fans and drivers have said that Formula 1 cars have become too big. While many people might disagree, it is difficult for fans to judge the size of the car without seeing it next to previous versions or by seeing it on a TV screen.
In 2017 the FIA increased the maximum width of the Formula 1 cars to two meters, and when Lewis Hamilton first saw his 2017 title contender, he stated that the car looked “like a boat”. As a driver who has driven in the 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s, it is clear that in his opinion the cars are too big.
Smaller cars are much easier to handle, and it makes for better racing. The smaller the cars are, the more space there is for the cars to maneuver around one another, and this allows for more overtaking opportunities. This is especially true when it comes to narrow tracks such as street circuits.
Did F1 Cars Used To Be Faster?
F1 cars have never been faster than they were in 2020 and 2021. Modern Formula 1 cars are fast mainly because of the amount of aerodynamic downforce they are able to produce. This allows the cars to corner at much higher speeds without losing grip, resulting in faster lap times.
The fastest Formula 1 cars were built in 2020 and 2021. These cars smashed multiple track records, many of which had stood the test of time since the early 2000s Schumacher era. One record illustrating the speed of the cars in 2020 was Lewis Hamilton setting the fastest ever lap, at Monza during qualifying, at an average speed of 164 mph.
2022 And Beyond
2022 F1 cars are heavier than they have ever been. The 18-inch rims introduced in 2022 play a part in this, as they are heavier than the previously used 13-inch rims. There are also various safety-related changes, mainly concerning the chassis, which makes the 2022 cars heavier than before.
However, increased weight doesn’t necessarily mean slower cars. Lewis Hamilton’s 2020 Monza pole lap was an average of 1 mph faster than the previous record set by Kimi Räikkönen in 2018. However, he was driving a car that was around 12 kg heavier than Kimi was, proving that, at least when concerning relatively small differences, weight isn’t everything.
Formula 1 cars have gotten much bigger than previous generations. Formula 1 cars have gotten bigger as they have had to adapt to several regulation changes over the years, with the most important changes regarding the sizes of the fuel tanks, and various safety features.
I created and have been writing on this site since 2019, collaborating with drivers, coaches, engineers and manufacturers to provide you with the most reliable information about motorsport. Find out more about me here.