Are you sitting comfortably? For Formula 1 drivers getting the right F1 seating position is critical in making sure they’re comfortable and confident when in the car.
As F1 car design has evolved over the years, so has the seating position. What started out as a more conventional upright position has now become the weird fully reclined feet-up position we see today.
This article takes a deep-dive in to the F1 driving position. We look at how it’s evolved over the years and why Lewis Hamilton is blaming a bad driving position for his lack of pace in the 2023 F1 season.
importance of the right seating position
F1 races can be up to 2 hours long and it’s vitally important that the drivers remain as comfortable as possible throughout. Any aches or pains caused by an un-ergonomic F1 driving position can have a major impact on the driver’s ability to remain at peak performance and stay concentrated.
Each driver has a seat insert molded specifically to their body shape. The insert uses high-density foam to ensure their whole body is supported in all the right places when they’re sat in the car. As does the headrest that keep the driver’s helmet in place.
control and performance
Think about how long you spend adjusting the seat position in your road car to get it feeling just right and in perfect reach of all of the controls. If someone else drives the car and moves the seat slightly, when you get back in it your body and brain will tell you something’s not quite right. You’ll feel awkward, uncomfortable and not in full control of the car until you move the seat back to where it should be.
F1 drivers are no different. Their 1000bhp high-downforce F1 cars require incredible skill to extract maximum performance from them. If the seating position isn’t quite right the driver might lack some confidence in the car.
The other aspect to consider is exactly where in the car the driver sits. F1 teams have some freedom in their car design to move the cockpit, and the driver’s position, forwards and backwards. The extract below from the 2023 F1 technical regulations shows that there’s a 75mm longitudinal window for the position of the driver in the car.
If the driver isn’t happy with where they sit in the car it can reduce their ability to intuitively feel the way the car is moving around them. They’ll be out of tune with it and are likely to perform below their best until it’s fixed.
The final and most important aspect of getting the seating position right in an F1 car is safety. The seat makes up an integral part of an F1 car’s survival cell and there are strict rules for F1 car designers to stick to.
Even the way the seat is fixed to the chassis of the car is controlled, ensuring it can be easily removed by rescue crews in the event of an emergency.
evolution of the F1 seating position
In the early years of F1 the driver’s seating position was much more conventional and upright. With no seatbelts or restraints and just a small chair to sit on the drivers would have to brace themselves against the wheel to stay in the car. Comfort and ergonomics came as an afterthought!
Look how high and upright Alberto Ascari is sitting in the Ferrari 125 in the image below, taken in 1950. The 125, Ferrari’s first ever Formula 1 car, had a big V12 engine up front taking up most of the room ahead of the driver. There was no space for their legs to be stretched out any further.
These cars were much higher off the ground than in the years that followed, so the driving position needed to be higher up to allow the drivers to place the car accurately.
Over the next decade Formula 1 cars began to look lower and sleeker. Engineers more clearly understood the benefit of a lower centre of gravity in their car’s handling, so made drastic changes to car and engine designs to help reduce the car’s height above the ground.
The 1960 Ferrari Dino 256 F1, seen at the bottom right of the image below, used a 6 cylinder engine which took up less space than the older V12. The driver’s torso in the 256 was still fairly upright but the lower car meant their feet were now a little further out in front of them.
As the 60s progressed F1 cars became much smaller and lower to the ground. The Lotus 49 was a prime example of this. The small 3 litre Ford Cosworth V8 engine was mounted directly behind the driver meaning the rest of the bodywork could be downsized, giving the cars a ‘cigarette’ shape.
This saw the most drastic change yet to the F1 driving position. The driver’s torso was slightly reclined and their legs were very stretched out in front of them in a fully laid-back position.
In the 70s F1 cars begin to sprout wings and spoilers to embrace the power of aerodynamics and downforce. Engines also began to get physically larger, so the cars needed to grow as well. Bigger cars meant the seating positions got a little higher and less reclined.
The Brabham BT44 below shows the driver sitting higher up compared to the cigarette cars of the 60s. Their torso was still reclined slightly but their legs were slightly less stretched out in front of them.
Fuel starvation would be pretty catastrophic for our upside-down driver. No fuel means no power and without it the car would begin to slow down. Dropping below the speed needed to maintain enough downforce would again result in a dramatic fall from grace.
At the end of the ‘70s and in the early ‘80s the F1 seating position crept further and further forwards. With enough freedom in the technical regulations, car designers could use the drivers as ballast to trim the car’s centre of gravity. Their seating position in the car was dictated entirely by performance rather than safety.
This saw some designs where the driver was incredibly close to the front of the car. The Ferrari 312T4 was a prime example of this. The image below shows Giles Villeneuve’s feet no more than a couple of inches behind the end of chassis structure, low down at the front of the car.
Of course this led to a number of injuries and even deaths. Later on in the 1980s a rule was implemented that said driver’s feet had to be behind the line of the front axle.
The turning point in F1 driver seating position came with the 1986 Brabham BT55 designed by the legend Gordon Murray. His ambitious design focused on an ultra-aerodynamic, low drag and low centre of gravity car. To achieve this he put the driver incredibly low in the car in a very reclined position, similar to those seen in the cars of the ‘60s.
The seat base and driver’s feet were both on the floor of the car. There was a bend in the driver’s knees, but this design would be the one to influence the future of all F1 driving position designs.
Just before the turn of the millennium the benefits of higher noses and underbody aerodynamics at the front of the car became more apparent. To reap the downforce rewaeds the seating positions had to undergo one more drastic change.
Instead of the drivers having their feet on the floor of the car they were raised up to just above the level of their hips. This gave the designers room to implement some fancy aero at the front of floor and lift the nose of the car off the ground.
To accommodate the higher feet position the driver’s torsos had to be angled further back, close to 40 degrees. The image of a driver in the Toyota below shows this clearly.
Below is a young Kimi at the start of his Formula 1 career demonstrating the seating position in a mock-up of his McLaren Mercedes.
No drastic changes, just a great example of how his feet are higher than his hips. You can also see some of the aero at the front of the floor, below his feet.
Since the last revolutionary change in the ‘90s putting the driver’s feet higher up the F1 driving position hasn’t undergone any more major transformations.
F1 drivers sit with their backs reclined by around 30 to 40 degrees, their legs out in front of them, their feet higher than their hips and their backsides as low down in the car as possible.
Drivers are as low as possible to reduce the centre of gravity and avoid any unnecessary drag from their helmets being too high in the air flow.
Aerodynamics have become even more important as downforce levels are now so high that an F1 car could drive upside down. So designers try and make as much space as possible beneath the driver’s feet to accomodate underfloor aero. Although there’s only so high the feet can go, and so far back the torso can recline, before the driver loses the ability to clearly see out of the car or over the steering wheel.
Sauber built an entire cross-section of one of the Formula 1 cars. This is a great way to see the design of the cockpit, the inclination of the seat back and the high position of the pedal box and driver’s feet.
The pink line in the image below is the outline of the seat back and bottom of the feet tunnel.
why is Lewis unhappy with his driving position?
Lewis Hamilton been fairly off the pace so far in 2023, as he was the year before. Recently he did an interview saying he wasn’t comfortable in the car due to the position of his seat. More precisely, the position of the cockpit.
After explaining that the design of their car puts the driver too far forwards and too close to the front wheels, Lewis said:
“[sitting that far forward] changes the attitude of the car and how you perceive its movement, and it makes it harder to predict compared to when you’re sitting back, more in the centre…”
The image below compares the seating positions of the 2023 Mercedes (top), Red Bull, Aston Martin and Ferrari F1 cars.
The image does show that the Mercedes F1 drivers are a little further forwards in the car than all of the other top teams, but not by much.
Interestingly Hamilton’s team mate George Russell has had no issue with the driving position, and he’s been quicker than Lewis most of the year.
Below is a video from happier times when Lewis was explaining the seating position in his Merc F1 car.
F1 cars have driver’s seat angles reclined between 35 and 40 degrees. The cross-section Sauber in the image above has a seat angle of 38 degrees whereas the Toyota in the section above that has a seat angle of 40 degrees.
how high off the ground does an F1 driver sit?
Ride heights of an F1 car change dramatically throughout the course of a lap. Downforce, cornering forces and fuel loads will all have an affect on how high an F1 car sits off the ground.
There’s no minimum ride height limit for F1 cars. When they’re stationary, the skidplate on the underside of an F1 car sits around 50mm above the ground.
Looking at the cross section image of the Sauber above, the material thickness between the underside of the car and the bottom of the driver’s seat is minimum. Probably around 20mm. So an F1 driver sits around 70mm off the ground, even lower when the car’s subjected to downforce at high speed.