Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

F1 driver Lewis Hamilton, left, is all of 5-foot-seven. He is shown here with race engineer Phil Prew at the Canadian F1 Grand Prix in Montreal in 2008. (Jim Young/Reuters)
F1 driver Lewis Hamilton, left, is all of 5-foot-seven. He is shown here with race engineer Phil Prew at the Canadian F1 Grand Prix in Montreal in 2008. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Road Rush

This sport makes getting into the NHL look easy Add to ...

Like many of you, I was forced to learn Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection through crushingly dull lectures about the Galapagos Islands and giant tortoises that had a top speed of one sixth of a mile per hour.

If only my professors had taken me to a Formula One race instead. Here you can see Darwin's principles played out first hand - and you won't be bored.

More related to this story

Down in the rarefied world of pit row at the Canadian Grand Prix, I realized that 98 per cent of drivers fit an archetype: fluent in multiple languages, exceptionally good looking, and blessed with luxuriant, flowing hair. And above all, they're small - almost every last driver was six inches shorter than I am, with the lean build of a professional horse jockey.

Darwin had chosen. But how?

In a meeting with Williams Formula One boss Alex Burns, I began to understand. "A small driver is a big advantage," he explained. "We spend millions to take a few ounces out of a part. The driver can save you 50 pounds."

But there was far more to it than weight. Modern F1 cars are handcrafted, limited-production creations. Williams builds only four cars a year. The heart of the machine is a carbon-fibre tub that encloses the driver and serves as an attachment point for everything else, including the engine, suspension and the aerodynamic wings that push the tires down against the track.

The tub is made in only size - small. No one over five-foot-nine and about 150 pounds has any hope of fitting inside the Williams FW33. Like me, Burns is six feet tall - as a result, he has never sat in one of his own F1 cars. (The closest he's come is driving the Williams simulator.)

Small drivers are the result of a process similar to the one that shaped creatures like the shark and the Galapagos tortoise, except that it happened much more quickly. By the 1960s, it was clear that smaller drivers were an advantage, and that advantage has only increased as racing becomes more specialized and competitive. The designer of a modern F1 machine may spend the price of a family home to reduce the frontal area of the machine by a few fractions of an inch - and a six-and-a-half-foot driver throws these careful packaging efforts out the window.

As a result, race drivers have increasingly conformed to a set of rarefied requirements imposed by their unique sport. It starts with the minimum weight limits imposed by F1 rule makers, which are designed to make the cars safe - each car must the tip scales at a minimum of 640 kilograms, including the driver. If your driver lets you weigh in below the limit, you can add ballast where you want it (as low and centrally located as possible).

But there's more to F1's Darwinian selection than height and weight. Inside the Williams pits, I realized that a modern F1 driver is the final, human link in a vastly complicated process. The Williams F33 car is equipped with sensors that provide constant measurement of everything from engine speed to the pressure of each tire to how many degrees the driver turns the steering wheel.

The inner sanctum of the Williams garage looked like the Johnson Space Center in Houston, with banks of computer screens manned by teams of technicians and engineers who were watching 140 different parameters of data as it streamed back from the cars. And there were more engineers and more screens back at Williams headquarters in England - the data from each car was being sent there in real time as the cars lapped the Montreal track. (It made sense that AT&T was the team's major partner - a single weekend of racing with two cars produces 31 gigabytes of data.)

Inside the cockpit, drivers Rubens Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado played a unique role. Just like the drivers of the 1960s, they had to be supremely gifted at the seat-of-the-pants act of driving a racing car. But they also had to deal with a steady flow of instructions through their helmet-mounted speakers, provide feedback to the engineers, and control dozens of adjustable functions on the car (there are 21 buttons and switches on the tiny rectangular steering wheel that can change everything from the brake balance to the angle of the rear wing).

After speaking with a few drivers, I came away impressed with their intelligence and adaptability (as witness, their seamless shift between multiple languages). Formula One is an ecosystem that rewards people who can multitask while driving in heavy traffic at 320 km/h. And in the pits, you meet the drivers who have been selected as the winners of a long, Darwinian purge. Most started racing go-karts when they were younger than eight years old. This was the beginning of a ruthless culling process that would ultimately leave just a handful still in contention as they approached Formula One, the final, nearly unreachable rung of racing's ladder.

The process makes getting into the NHL look easy - hockey's top league has about 700 players, but there are only 24 driving positions in the sport of Formula One (there are 12 teams, and each has two principal drivers.) So with all that in mind, the unusual makeup of the driver's contingent makes sense. The entire sport is built around a set of specialized requirements, so you get specialized people. But there are a couple of aberrations - Vodafone Mercedes driver Jenson Button is about my height (six feet). So is Red Bull's Mark Webber. I asked Burns (the Williams F1 CEO) why these drivers could defy the standard physical mould, since they would both need a bigger car than the other drivers.

"If you're good enough, we'll make a car for you," Burns replied. "But you have to be REALLY good."

So was there an upper limit? What if seven-foot Dallas Mavericks basketball star Dirk Nowitzki turned out to be a brilliant driver? Would Williams build a car for him?

"No," Burns replied. "Wouldn't work."

I could see that. And Michael Schumacher will never make the NBA, either. Darwin has spoken.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories