The powers that govern Formula One changed its minimum weight limit for drivers and cars this season, and that small change has already claimed its first victim. Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Jean-Éric Vergne was hospitalized a few weeks ago after attempting an extreme diet for just a few tenths of a second on the track.
The crux of the issue is that cars are weighed with the driver in the cockpit. If the minimum weight limit isn't high enough, than the combination of driver plus car must find weight to lose somewhere. And sometimes, it's easier to lose the weight in the driver than in the gearbox.
Vergne attempted to lose "several kilograms" over the winter, and ended up in a hospital bed between the Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix last month, according to Motorsport.com:
"The weight difference between myself and my teammate was making me lose four tenths (per lap)," Vergne, who was given a rare third consecutive season with the Red Bull junior team this year, told French media.
"I did a diet this winter but you get to certain limits that the body can no longer take.
"Actually, I was in hospital between the Grands Prix in Australia and Malaysia because of a lack of water and a little bit of lack of everything. I was very weak," the 23-year-old revealed.
I'm pretty fat, but the last time I was 134 pounds was probably in 9th grade.
I'm not a doctor, but Vergne's attempt at weight loss sounds very serious. Athletes are known to resort to extreme measures to be the best in their field, but putting yourself in the hospital is not the way to do it. Malnutrition and dehydration, which sounds a lot like what Vergne described his symptoms as, can result in bleeding gums, brittle bones (not too useful in the event of a crash), and, ultimately, death.
And it's not like Vergne isn't a skinny guy already. Here he is, supposedly fed and healthy at this weekend's race in Bahrain:
It's impressive that anybody is able to drive an F1 car, given the extreme reaction times and strength needed just to handle the G forces going around a corner. It's incredible that guys like Kvyat and Vergne, on the edge of starvation, manage it at all.
Amazingly, Vergne went on to say that some drivers don't want to increase the weight limits. Drivers like Felipe Massa (5'5"), Fernando Alonso (5'7"), and Lewis Hamilton (5'9") can find their smaller size an advantage when one tenth of a second could mean finishing on pole, and eventually, a win.
But I don't blame Vergne or the rest of the drivers at all for this unhealthy state of affairs. Their livelihoods and their passions rest on being the fastest person out there, and if they had the inner drive to make it all the way to the pinnacle of motorsport, then it doesn't surprise me when they'll potentially harm themselves to be at the peak of that highest level.
Much of the blame, in this case, can reside with the teams. With hundreds of millions of dollars being spent every year, a portion of that must be spent on doctors, nutritionists, and dietitians. All of whom are tasked with keeping Vergne in immaculate health.
And those people, that team, and the system, all failed him.
I'll be upfront with this one – I pooh-pooh'd the idea of the new rules being discriminatory, saying that F1 teams should try to find a way to make the weight limits another way, or find another driver.
I was wrong.
This is a bridge way too far, and if teams won't commit to the health and safety of their drivers, then the rules have to change. Because this is unlikely to be the first incident, and Vergne is lucky to have gotten away with no permanent damage. Or worse.
Photos via Getty