While Lewis Hamilton grabbed the headlines in the Circuit of the Americas at Austin, Texas winning his sixth Drivers’ title, the weekend also saw the announcement of major changes to the regulations of the sport to take effect from the 2021 season.
The main aim of these wide plethora of changes is to even the playing field – both on and off the track with a series of technical and financial measures. ‘Raceability’ is the order of the day at the FIA as the new rules are designed to get cars to race closer together by trying to change the design of the cars as well as trying to keep the teams closer together financially.
The focus is on reducing the effect of “dirty air”. Dirty air is the term given to the wake of turbulent air left behind by a car as it passes through – and it is this turbulent flow that messes with the aerodynamics of the car behind reducing the latter’s downforce (the downward lift force of the car). This makes overtaking extremely hard for the car behind unless the engine power compensates for it. Under current conditions, a car following another loses 45% of potential maximum downforce on medium to high speed corners.
The new regulations will involve the use of Venturi tunnels to direct the dirty air upwards above the following car and the result is expected to be that a car that is following behind at a distance of one car length will only lose 14% of its downforce as opposed to 45%. As one engineer working within the F1 paddocks (who did not wish to be identified) told The Courier “The primary idea is to reduce downforce, and redirect the flow through the underbody. Hence the floor designs will be of extreme significance. However…The numbers thrown around are too early to discuss.”
The aerodynamics of the car, as a result, have in these regulations also become simpler in a cost-cutting bid. This has however, received mixed reactions from various teams. The engineer spoken to further went on to say about this “There are divided opinions. Most teams are unhappy with the aero structures since it’s very restrictive. Aerodynamics is one area where engineers produce results when given the freedom to experiment and the new regulations certainly don’t help that.”
One criticism, in addition to the lack of manoeuvrability from an engineering point of view, that the new regulations have come in for is that car designs will be extremely similar between teams as all of them converge upon an ideal design within the four to five years that will follow the introduction of these changes. That could place a potential emphasis on driver skill over the car itself. However, the view from the paddocks is not concurrent with that line of thought “Formula 1 is a 100% engineering sport. This doesn’t discount the importance of having a driver in any way because it’s a symbiotic relationship where the engineers work off the feedback from the drivers. But then again, the drivers in Formula 1 are the best of the best so in my opinion there won’t be a significant gain that any team makes with respect to the driver.”
Suspension systems have also been a big focus of the regulations with every car now required to have only a spring-damper system installed – something which affects Mercedes and a few other teams which have other systems in them. “Suspension designs and optimization contribute to atleast 1/3rd of the vehicle performance,” the source said, “All big teams have continuous and comprehensive evaluations of the existent and future suspension designs throughout the year.” But will it level the playing field again on track? He doesn’t reckon so.
One other big change that will come into Formula 1 comes with respect to the braking system where teams will be given one standardised brake system per race weekend – from Free Practice 1 all the way till the race itself – with grid penalties for changing it in between. Given the fact that soon after the announcement was made, Kevin Magnussen experienced a brake failure that forced him to retire from the United States Grand Prix on Sunday, questions have been asked about the safety of these new regulations. However, the engineering staff might disagree and see that as a test for the drivers “It challenges the driver to keep the wear and temperatures under check.”
There is also a new limit on wind tunnel testing with teams limited to 400 wind tunnel tests for aerodynamic components during the season (the number further goes down to 320 over the subsequent years). This will definitely impact teams as the number is quite restrictive in comparison to current standards. There may in fact be more focus put into aerodynamics over the winter testing period rather than during the season
Major changes are also going to be seen in the race weekend itself with a condensed race weekend – possibly with shorter practices. Parc Ferme – which is when the setup of the car cannot be changed at all – will be moved from the start of qualifying to the start of Free Practice 3. Press conferences will also be held on the Friday of the weekend instead of the Thursday prior
The other major talking point of these new regulations are the financial regulations – with a cost cap of $175 million dollars set for every team (from bigwigs like Mercedes and Ferrari to Williams and Alfa Romeo). There will be exceptions to the cap – most notably, off-track expenses such as marketing, taxes, heritage activities, hotel costs, licensing costs, fuel and oil costs among others. Any work done on the car even by subsidiary companies or sponsors of the team will need to count towards the cost cap with serious penalties (going all the way to exclusion) for flouting the rules. Formula One Managing Director Ross Brawn described the rules as having teeth to them. There will be a soft introduction in 2020 for teams to get used to it if they wish to with Cost Cap Administration and Adjudication panels to supervise the implementation. The aim of the cost cap is to do off-track what the Venturi tunnels do on-track – bring teams closer together in terms of ability and improve competition. But as one source put it “These caps are very lenient. $175 million is a very generous amount.” So will these actually make a difference? Nobody knows.
Moreover, the cost cap in Formula 1 has a lot of exceptions to it which means teams could engage in creative accounting and circumvent the rules if they wanted to. So there may well be a case of a team openly flouting the rules coming to light at some point. And what happens then will be a keen point of interest – especially if it is a team with a certain standing such as Ferrari or Mercedes or even Red Bull.
All in all, improving competition has been the aim of Formula One’s newest concoction of rules. Currently, the 2017 regulations – which are under force right now – help establish track records and faster lap times but the cars are not able to follow each other on the track and it makes for less exciting races with less overtaking opportunities. 2021 hopes to change that.
Last modified: 18th November 2019