One of the intriguing aspects of Formula One is that unlike many motor racing series the cars are not identical or very similar as is the case in so called ‘spec series’. There typically the chassis, powertrains and brakes amongst most components are made by a single manufacturer or supplier.
Each year the ten teams build what is in effect a one off prototype design containing over 17,000 components and requiring the combined efforts of around 1,000 people.
F1 rulebook of yesteryear
Of course there isn’t free reign for the teams to create whatever they wish in fact the FIA technical rule book is a tome to be beholden and a far cry from the rule book for the inaugural season of F1 racing in 1950.
The opening four seasons of F1 ran under the following regulations.
Engines were set at no larger than 1500cc for this with a compressor ((supercharger or turbocharger) or 4500 cc for naturally aspirated engines.
In 1952 crash helmets became mandatory although they were a far cry from today’s technical masterpieces. They were made from dubious materials and looked like medium-sized dinner bowls.
FIA modern regs encyclopaedic
For 1954 the engine sizes were restricted to 750cc for those with a compressor and 2500cc for those which were naturally aspirated.
Finally, the final change made for the first decade of the sport was that alcohol based fuels were banned in 1958 and only petrol was allowable.
Today, the FIA regulations governing Formula One could be the subject of a number of graduate thesis and requires a group of individuals in each team to pour over their implications whenever changes are enforced.
Ever since Colin Chapman first bolted on an aerodynamic component to be called ‘a wing’ on the front of Graham Hill’s Lotus 49B at the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix, the FIA has sought to regulate this area of the cars’ bodywork.
Wings crucial to performance
Put simply wings increase the force pressing down on the car as they air travels above it. This improves cornering speed and grip preserving the life of the tyres too.
The flip side is that the car experiences more drag when travelling in a straight line which reduces its top speed.
If a team could create a wing that pops up when in the corners but lays flatter when travelling at speed, this would increase downforce without the full penalty of the drag.
At present Formula One bans the use of moving aerodynamic components although the FIA technical working party currently composing the new 2026 regulations has suggested they may include the use of moveable aerodynamic components so the cars can follow more closely without damaging their tyres.
F1 teams used to protest regularly
When the FIA regulations were less restrictive, the teams would almost annually come up with clever innovations which defied the intention of the regulatory body and pushed the limits of legality.
At the time the FIA’s technical team was limited in its knowledge and man power so the team personnel had a better understanding of whether a competitor was in breach of the rules.
This would then lead to a ‘protest’ to alert the FIA to the alleged regulation transgression. The accusers would provide prima facia evidence of the alleged crime to help the FIA officers understand the issue and then make a ruling.
Of course the world has now turned several thousand times and F1’s governing body has a number of ex-team experts working for the Paris based organisation. This has resulted in far less frequent team protests of a competitor’s car although the option is still available but now would be perceived as an accusation of cheating.
FIA rules circumvented
To test whether either a front or rear wing is legal, the FIA apply what is called a pull down test. Put simply a specified weight is attached to the component and a measurement is made of any movement observable.
Should the deflection exceed the FIA mandated parameters, this wing is illegal. When designing and producing their wings, the teams perform these tests in a self regulatory fashion, knowing they could be called at random to an FIA test during an F1 weekend.
Of course, if it were possible to design a wing that deflects more than the FIA deviation limit when on track but passes the stationary test applied, then a team is technically compliant with the rules whilst beating the intention of the restriction.
As the epic 2021 Formula One season moved towards its conclusion the battle was tight between Mercedes and Red Bull and tensions were growing by the day.
Mercedes ‘illegal’ rear wing
Red Bull believed Mercedes were running a ‘flexi’ wing in Brazil because despite his penalties and grid drops, Lewis Hamilton was able to drive through the field to win as though he was in a superior Formula event.
Brazil is a combination of twisty sections and a very long straight, the perfect track configuration for a wing that flexes.
“The straight-line speeds we’ve seen in Mexico and Brazil – I think everyone could see in Brazil was not a normal situation,” said Christian Horner.
“And yes, a new Mercedes engine comes with an increased performance, but when you have a 27 km/h closing speed and you see witness marks on rear wing endplates that have been marking up from wings that have been flexing, it’s very clear to us what has been going on.”
Red Bull about to protest
Red Bull threatened to protest Mercedes rear wing, but the FIA acted independently to resolve the matter.
It was crucial for Hamilton to deliver the win in Brazil, given he required victory at the final four events of the season if he were to claim his eight world title.
Earlier that year, Mercedes had threatened to protest Red Bull for running a flexi wing. The Milton Keynes based team had run a new wing in Spain just before the Azerbaijani Grand Prix.
Baku is another circuit where a flexi wing gives the biggest improvement in performance. With the longest straight on the calendar followed by its 90 degree street circuit turns through sector one, greater top line speed whilst better turning downforce is a massive advantage.
Red Bull force the FIA to act
Red Bull clearly had an ingenious solution and so the FIA issued a directive stating they would apply a new set of stationary tests for rear wing deflection from June.
Unlike in days of yore where a team would be instantly found guilty of breaching the rules following a protest and be branded as cheaters, the FIA now allow teams a short time to adjust their car design before enforcing any new tests.
motorsport.com claims Aston Martin may have used a ‘flexi’ wing in their car design for this season.
Fernando Alonso came out of the blocks in his AMR23 like an olympic sprinter and the team became the shock main challenger to Red Bull whilst Ferrari and Mercedes appeared stunned.
Aston start the season ‘flying’
An impressive six podiums in the first eight races and almost a win in Monaco made Aston Martin the talk of the paddock.
Yet since the Austrian Grand Prix, the wheels have somewhat fallen off the Aston Martin band waggon as Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren have been claiming the podiums.
The ‘loss of form’ for Aston Martin has been significant and Martin Brundle commented Sky TV he believed the team had not just been overtaken by the main rivals but in fact had fallen backwards from where their performance had been.
“It’s difficult to work out how and why Aston Martin have fallen from main challengers to Red Bull to ninth and 10th some 75 seconds behind the winner, and fifth fastest car,” said Brundle following the Hungarian Grand Prix.
AMR23 Canada upgrade blamed
A number of theories have been propounded as to why Aston Martin have floundered so badly. Fernando Alonso suggested it was the introduction of the new Pirelli compounds from Silverstone onwards that had adversely affected their car more than others.
Though team boss Mike Krack subsequently dismissed this explanation claiming it was in fact related to an upgrade package the team brought to the Canadian Grand Prix.
Although Alonso still made the podium in Montreal, Krack suggests the side effects seen since were masked in Montreal due to the low downforce characteristics of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
Motorsport.com claims rival teams believe there was a more sinister explanation for the change in Aston martin’s form.
Alonso’s front wing clearly flexed
“Onboard footage from Alonso’s car in the early races definitely seemed to point to Aston Martin being able to run very high wing angles and there being a notable flex in the wing as it hit top speed on the straights,” claims the report.
The FIA earlier this season is alleged to have “ramped up” its efforts to clamp down on various designs certain teams were using and in particular carried out extensive analysis of the construction of a number of front wings suspected of flexing more than they should.
As is now normative, the FIA then took preemptive action around the time of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix and quietly advised a number of teams they were required to make changes to their designs to avoid sanction.
Ferrari were believed to have suffered the same ‘quiet word’ back in 2019 when many of their rivals believed their power unit was in breach of the rules.
Ferrari forced to change their engine
The Scuderia’s power unit emerged as the class of the field in 2019, the red cars of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc displaying a power advantage over their rivals and enjoying impressive straight line speed.
Whilst their rivals had theories about how they were gaining that advantage – a formal protest against Ferrari was never launched.
That said the FIA issues a series of technical directives and mandated a new double fuel flow sensor and to fuel the growing disquiet in the paddock issued a statement.
“After thorough technical investigations, it [the FIA] has concluded its analysis of the operation of the Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 Power Unit and reached a settlement with the team,” read the statement. “The specifics of the agreement will remain between the parties.”
FIA now ‘lean on’ F1 teams
In today’s world the integrity of corporations is often part of the decision made by investors to buy their shares. So a Formula One team branded as “cheats” could suffer from the withdrawal of such sponsorship which is why teams are more compliant when the FIA comes calling.
Aston Martin have definitely altered the configuration of their car and as early as the Spanish Grand Prix there was a noticeable loss of performance in the low-speed and medium-speed corners.
The report concludes Aston Martin have neither “confirmed nor denied that it was one of several teams that had to make modifications to its front wing, but sources with good knowledge of the situation have revealed that Aston Martin was one of the teams that had to make changes.”
Aston Martin improved in Belgium
Fans of the iconic British marque may be relieved by the team’s performance at the final race before Formula One’s Sumer break.
In wet and dry conditions, Fernando Alonso was only capable of qualifying 9th for the Grand Prix with his team mate one grid slot further back.
Yet the performance of the Spaniard and his AMR23 in the long form race on Sunday was impressive as he held off the charging Mercedes of George Russell to come home fifth just over 5 seconds behind the second Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton.
— Formula 1 (@F1) August 4, 2023