Formula One is returning to certain fundamentals that underpinned the sport for the first half a century. The regulations were regularly changed every few years to increase safety in part but to prevent one team becoming dominant with either its engine or chassis design. Around the turn of the millennium global auto manufacturers were courted by Ecclestone believing they would bring stability to the grid, but they demanded their pound of flesh.
The big car companies have huge R&D budgets together with deep annual spending capabilities. To them repeated regulation changes would see these investments in their F1 technology erode too quickly and their competitive advantage eroded too quickly.
Ferrari were the first team to win more than 4 consecutive constructor titles in the previous half century of F1 racing. They totalled 6 between 1999 and 2005.
In 2006 the FIA regulated a change from the V10 engines to V8’s and surprisingly Ferrari were no longer top of the pile. Over the next four seasons as the engine manufacturers came to grip with the new regulations, 3 different teams and 3 different power units won F1 world titles.
Renault and Red Bull then mastered the V8 engine regulations and the combined package of the Red Bull chassis and the clever Renault engine package provided a 4 year winning streak for the team from Milton Keynes from 2010-2013.
New F1 power unit regulations now take years to agree and then years to design. During this process Formula Ones commercial rights owners are keen to entice new manufacturers into the sport to provide competitive choice together with more sponsorship.
Formula One deciding it needed to keep up its reputation for delivering ‘space age’ technology to racing cars, with the age old argument new technology would trickle down to road cars. So we ended up in 2014 with the behemoth V6 Hybrid Turbo power units which were super complicated and eye waveringly expensive.
Pressure was brought to bear on the FIA to allow these regulations to run for a decade even the investment required. Mercedes reportedly spent over $1 billion in R&D on the most thermal efficient engines on planet earth.
Eventually, there was agreement the V6 power units would run from 2014-2021. This was then extended to 2022.
However, the dithering amongst the current F1 power unit manufacturers and Formula One being desperate to entice new suppliers has seen the agreed replacement for the current hybrids delayed until 2026.
This will be the single longest period in Formula One that engine regulations have barely changed and the result? So far in 8 seasons, 8 winning championships for the team that spent over a billion dollars on developing their power unit.
What did change in 2022 was the biggest change in aerodynamic regulations for Formula One cars in living memory. The FIA regulations removed downforce from the top surface of the car returning to a previous philosophy called ‘ground effect’ where the cars create negative air pressure under the floor and are sucked down onto the track.
The reduced aero on top of the car results in less vortices of air interfering with the following cars, making it easier for them to follow more closely and overtake. This has been a huge success from the FIA as up to the summer break there have been around 50% more passing opportunities on track.
This in part is because pre-2022 where a car up to 2 seconds a lap quicker would struggle to overtake made track position vital. This in turn affected the F1 teams strategy which prioritised track position and defending it to the hilt when gained.
However, this season we are season much more aggressive strategies from the F1 teams because they know they can overtake, so pitting earlier and sacrificing track position is less punitive and in fact the offset between a car on fresh rubber behind a car on older rubber makes the overtake even easier.
So one stop strategies are less beneficial because track position gained by stopping only once is less advantageous.
It’s no surprise when the new engine Formula regulations for 2022 were pushed back that the FIA insisted on the car design regulations instead. Its because Ross Brawn is now at F1’s commercial rights owner as CEO and his input over regulation changes into the FIA is respected. From his dominant days in charge of technical matters at Ferrari, he knows how to rung the changes.
It’s also no surprise that given the biggest shake up ion F1 regulations that Mercedes are not dominating as they have done.
It may be fortuitous that the new F1 engine regulations were pushed back when examining the changes proposed.
The MGU-H was and is set to be scrapped. It recovers heat energy making the current V6 hybrids the most efficient in the world but its hugely expensive and weighty for the gains it brings.
A condition of Porche’s entry was that F1 adopt its Porsche 919 hybrid four wheel drive system. Clearly having expertise in that area the German brand felt it would have a competitive advantage. Yet Porsche dragged its feet and failed to sign any agreement leaving the sport in limbo over the new engine regulations beyond 2021.
Eventually the teams agreed to an engine freeze from 2022-2026 when hopefully the next generation of F1 power units can be agreed and implemented.
F1 cars are now around 900 kilograms, not long ago they were 600 kilograms. The cars dimensions are absurd, almost 2 metres wide.
The challenge for Brawn and the FIA is to reduce the size and complexity of the proposed power units to allow the teams to build smaller and more nimble cars, less dependent on technology and more so on driver ability.
Further the FIA must ensure power unit regulations have shorter sunset clauses to prevent the current 12 year period where the power units are essentially the sae design. Change in engines creates change in the pecking order.
So when we see Horner and Wolff battling it out week in week out over whether the car floor heights should be raised by 25mm for next season along with other downforce modifications, the reason is having the right set of regulations depends on who wins and for how long.
The fight being put up by Mercedes and Toto Wolff to get the new 2021 car design regulations has taken a new twist. In an effort get get the FIA to treat this as a safety matter and unilaterally change the 2022 car design rules.
Wolff now claims the bouncing of the Mercedes car is creating Brain damage. Frequencies of 1 to 1 hertz that last for a few minutes can cause brain damage. We have 6 to 7 hertz for several hours.”
Horner and others have responded it is the teams legal responsibility to provide a safe car for the driver, not the FIA’s. Further it is the design of the W13 that is causing greater problems for the Mercedes drivers than for others. Horner suggests the Brackley team simply raise the height of there suspension on their car.
The Red Bull boss also notes that since the extreme porpoising in Baku, the subsequent races have seen little or none of this effect.
Wolff’s response is, “That (argument) doesn’t count because Silverstone, Paul Ricard and Austria aren’t exactly tracks we bounce that much on anyway. I don’t want to come to Spa or some of the later races where the track isn’t as smooth as a conventional racetrack and we didn’t do anything about it. There is all this talk about lobbying in both directions, but what are we talking about here anyway?”
Mercedes having ensured there were no regulation changes for 8 season which locked their winning performance in, now realise the boot could be on the other foot. It is they who may suffer until 2026 unless they get the car design rules changed.
That is why the fights over new regulations are so bitter and vital.