Analysis: What the new regulations could do for Formula 1
“It is true, the innovation is a key factor for a number of our fans,” said Ross Brawn, Formula 1’s managing director, Motorsports in an interview not too long ago and doesn’t fail to add, “What comes across is they don’t want it to be the dominant factor, but they want it to be a key factor.” That statement, I think, was the polestar of the new Formula 1 regulations that have just recently been announced. A press conference on the eve of the United States GP had the Formula 1 management including Ross Brawn and Chase Carey along with the FIA’s Nikolas Tombazis and President Jean Todd over video conference lay out the new financial, sporting and technical regulations that will be enforced from 2021.
Formula 1 has been under criticism for a while now. Boring, is what most fans call it and I’m going to have to agree. Mercedes-AMG Petronas’ domination since the dawn of V6, turbocharged hybrids has given fans the sense that competition is stifled and the right machinery is all you need to win. Mercedes has steamrolled the competition, admittedly not as easily as it has in the past, and sealed the constructors title with four races to go. And unless Valterri Bottas can pull a win out of his crash helmet, Hamilton will seal the driver’s championship at the US GP this weekend, before we even head to Brazil or Abu Dhabi.
The new Formula 1 management recognises this problem. It recognises the over-reliance on the machinery, and consequently the waning interest in the sport. The new regulations attempt to fix that. It couldn’t have been an easy task — the rules had to be designed such that Formula 1 remains a hotbed of innovation and at the cutting edge of technology, while bridging the gap between the top teams and the bottom. Better racing, is what they are after, even if it comes at the cost of outright lap times. There are a number of technical and financial regulations to this end, as well as a few new sporting regulations. Lets break things down to see how they could possibly pan out in 2021.
Formula 1, as well as a few teams, have released renders of what the 2021 cars could possibly look like. Cleaner designs, right from the front wings to the rear give the cars a rather sleek, and dare I say simple shape compared to today’s cars, without winglets and intricate aero details. The whole idea behind the aerodynamic design of the new cars is to allow better overtaking.
At the moment, a Formula 1 car derives a lot of its grip from downforce. To get the best possible downforce, a car needs to slice through ‘clean’ air, or non-turbulent air. The issue with the current-gen cars is a car out at the front has access to this clean air but it leaves a trail of turbulent, or ‘dirty’ air in its wake. The 2019 F1 car loses nearly 50 per cent of its downforce when it is one car length behind another, not to mention the issues it faces from the engine and brakes not being cooled as effectively. What the new aero design does is prevent the formation of that dirty air and should allow for cars to follow each other more closely. The recent race in Mexico was an exaggerated example of how bad it can be. With the race being held at over 2250m above sea level, the air was thin and the dirty air effect was amplified leading to a rather boring race.
According to the new design, the cars will lose about 14 per cent of downforce when one car length behind the other — though this number could increase slightly once the teams start innovating a little more. Significant changes have been made to the front wing, the floor and the rear wing, while bargeboards have been deleted entirely. Some parts will be prescribed, and cannot be changed like the wheel wakes — as innovation here could significantly change the quality of air behind the car. The whole design of the car creates less vortices and keeps the steady flow of air behind the car, while pushing turbulent air upwards. All of this should contribute to more overtaking, something fans and drivers, desperately want to see more of in the sport.
As for the drivetrain, the power units will remain the same as they currently are, though a few parts will be standardised to keep costs in check, and allow better policing by the FIA. For example, the fuel system with its pumps and piping, along with other internal components will be standard across teams. The transmission is another area where regulation attempts to cap costs. Transmissions are free to be developed by the team, but the configuration will be locked in for a period of five years. They are allowed, one major redesign in this five year period, though. Apparently teams spend a significant amount of money on transmission R&D for marginal gains, and this is an attempt to reduce those costs. Another new prescription is that suppliers have to give customer teams the exact same engine, and not ones that are a season old.
The suspension is one area where significant changes have been prescribed. Hydraulic suspension will be banned, the rationale being that they are unnecessarily complicated and have no relevance to road cars. Instead, the set up is much simpler to keep costs in check. Larger 18in wheels with lower profile tyres will be used, and brake rotors will be larger as well. The chassis’ front floor structure will be another control part, with it being prescribed by the FIA to stop teams gaining advantages using floors that adapt at speed.
As for safety, there are a few changes to make the cars safer on track, as they will be designed to create less debris in an accident. They will have increased frontal energy absorption courtesy the longer front end, better side strength and improved impact structure. The headrest will also be improved upon.
The sporting regulations have been given a few tweaks, though nothing too major. As a viewer from home, this will barely affect you save for the fact that you have to wait till Friday for the first press conference of the weekend. What it will affect it the guys on ground at the race weekend. All the stuff that happens on Thursday — scrutineering, and press cons and all that — will all be incorporated in to Friday, without compromised track time.
Also, new rules have been introduced that the cars that are scrutineered on Friday are the cars that will be raced on Sunday. Which means, that teams can experiment with new wings and other aero tweaks during practice, but they have to revert to the original spec for the race. This should stop the mad rush to make and fly in parts from halfway around the world, and negate the significant advantages it gives teams with the budgets to do so. Dyno testing and wind tunnel testing time will continue to be restricted, similar to how it is at the moment.
For the first time in Formula 1’s history, teams will have a cap on their budgets, enforced by the FIA. This is an attempt to level the playing field off the track with the total cost cap is set at $175 million. That figure is less than half of what some of the big teams spend but is still significantly more than what some of the smaller teams do. Let me give you some perspective: Ferrari is said to have spent $410 million on their 2018 season, while Mercedes-Benz spent $400 million. On the other hand, Racing Point had a season budget of just $120 million. This delta is what needs to be bridged off the track, to make racing closer on track.
There are a few exceptions to what is included in the cap, though. Driver salaries and salaries of the top three personnel are exempt, as are marketing costs and the entry fee for the FIA. It is mainly aimed at areas where spending big money can bring you competitive gains. So spends on R&D before and through the season, to keep the playing field level. How this plays out will be interesting to see. Teams do not have budget caps for the 2020 season, and this could mean they pump a certain amount of their 2020 budget in to the 2021 cars. But that would possibly compromise the 2020 season and leave them without sufficient prize money for when the new regs kick in. It is going to be a fine balancing act for teams going ahead, and there could be a lot more.
The new regulations prove one thing: Liberty Media, the Formula 1 management and the FIA aren’t afraid of shaking things up to improve the sport. I can’t help but imagine that regulations like the financial cap were met with strong opposition from the bigger teams, but they have been passed and they will be enforced. If things go according to plan, we could be seeing some very pretty cars racing very hard on tracks around the world. Sure, they will possibly be a couple of seconds slower than the machinery being run today but they will be closer in terms of performance, and should make for some great battles and great stories. Back to the glory days, then?