MARCH 13, 2000

The mad world of Formula 1 ballast

THE minimum weight limit in Formula 1 is 600 kilograms, complete with the driver.

THE minimum weight limit in Formula 1 is 600 kilograms, complete with the driver. This was designed to reduce the cost of Grand Prix racing by getting rid of the need for expensive exotic lightweight materials. That rule has clearly backfired because the designers soon realized that the rule gave them the opportunity to create movable ballast in the car which helped them alter the handling characteristics to match the different demands of qualifying and the race. This means that teams are still using lightweight carbonfiber composites and extremely light metals such as the aluminium-boron carbide metal matrix composite known as Boralyn.

Experience has shown that the more movable ballast available the better the results but ballast needs to be concentrated in very specific areas and so they have begun to look for heavy metals to concentrate the weight in a specific area. This has led them back into the world of exotic materials but now they bare looking for heavy metals in addition to the lightweight ones.

The heaviest safe metal in the world is depleted uranium - which is uranium which has used up its radioactivity. This is very difficult stuff to find and is therefore very expensive, costing around $2,700 a kilo. With some of the top F1 cars these days carrying as much as 80 kgs of ballast the cost for three cars is around $500,000. And that is making some F1 team bosses take a very deep breath.

Our sources tell us that access to depleted uranium is so limited these days that some of the F1 teams have had to go to Russia to find it...