Formula 1 is up for some big changes next year, with the aim of making cars and thereby racing more competitive. Feel like you’ve heard it before? I agree, but if you look closer, what’s happening this time is not some new restrictions on tire width, nope, we’re talking about the largest changes to F1 that have ever happened. Had it not been for a certain pandemic they would actually have come into effect already this year, so those of us who enjoy F1 in its current form got another year to do so. That’s not to say that the planned changes won’t be positive – the proof will be in the pudding as always.
For this season there was a budget limit of USD 145m imposed on the teams with the same objective of reducing differences between teams and thereby improve racing, but it didn’t change much given firstly that this year’s cars were designed before the cost cap and secondly and perhaps even more importantly, the large teams have developed quite an infrastructure over the years that it will take smaller teams time to catch up with. That together with a few loopholes here and there meant that the cost limit didn’t have the desired effect, and the fact that races are generally less one-sided this year has more to do with the large teams not investing more in the current cars given next year’s changes. These changes are in turn not focused on further cost reductions but rather on the cars themselves in terms of mainly aerodynamics and tires, so let’s have a closer look at that.
Starting with the most visible aerodynamics changes, what we’re seeing is basically a return to the technology of the 70’s and 80’s before wings became the main tool to create downforce. What made F1 cars looked simpler before is that downforce was created by leading air through tunnels under the car, sucking it to the road, instead of pushing it downwards through wings. This form of downforce serves to reduce wake and also the upwash of air exiting takes a much higher trajectory, in both cases reducing turbulence behind the car and thus allowing followers to come closer and improve their chances of overtaking. Numbers show a following car to retain 86% of its downforce at a distance of one car length, compared to 55% today. It also means the front and rear wings will look different and much simpler than today.
The reason this technology was banned 40 years ago was that the teams back then went a bit over board, complementing the wind tunnels under the car with side skirts and hereby gluing the car to the road like an iron, thereby becoming too fast for their own – and the drivers’ – good. The skirts won’t be back, however we will see the introduction of wheel caps that aren’t necessarily pretty, but that also serve to reduce air turbulence.
There are differences to the suspension and tires as well and as goes for the tires, these are no less visible than the aerodynamic changes as we’ll be going from the current 13-inch tires to a whole 18-inch! The new larger, low-profile tires will be less temperature-sensitive while still degrading enough to keep the team tire-changing strategy interesting. That’s the theory, let’s see how it works out in real life and also how much they slow the cars down, which they most probably will. Changes to the suspension as essentially mean that hydraulic components have been outlawed and it’s all springs and dampers going forward.
As for the engines, there is actually not much to say since except for having to run on an E10 fuel mix they’ll stay the same. That might well be good since the full package they’ll have to push forward will be a very different one, and introducing changes to the engines could have been a bit too much at the same time. The same goes for planned changes to the race weekends, qualifying and possibly other aspects of the races that have been pushed one year forward to 2023.
There is no doubt that next year’s changes will fundamentally change the nature of races and, you have to believe, also make these more competitive, which would of course be welcome. It remains to be confirmed how well the different parts work out in the end and it will most probably not be a completely even playing field given again the resources and infrastructure of the larger teams (and the quality of their drivers!), but it’s clear that the room for manoeuvre has been heavily reduced, and that can only be a good thing!