By Ian Kabui
This year, the biggest aerodynamic regulations overhaul in 20 years will be witnessed in Formula 1, which made the launch of this season’s cars the most anticipated launch yet. With all the cars launching at the end of last month, the races officially start on the 26th March (this month) in Melbourne, Australia.
The changes are supposed to make the vehicles look more aggressive and without wasting more ink, let’s get technical. The tyres are about 25% wider than they were in 2016 with the front width increasing from 245mm to 305mm. The rear tyres also increase from a 325mm wide thread to 405mm wide thread. The intended effect is to increase the contact patch meaning there is more grip and higher speeds while going through corners by being able to increase down-force. Therefore, it is expected that the tyres alone will lead to a lap-time reduction of about two seconds.
Changes have not been restricted to the tyres but also extend to the body of the car as well. These can be seen in the front wing where the span has seen an increase of 150mm from 1650mm to 1800mm giving the cars almost a similar look as during the 2009-2013 seasons. The rear wing has seen changes in both its height and width. Whereas the width has seen a 200mm increase from 750mm to 950mm, the height has seen a 150mm reduction from 950mm to 800mm giving the car a sleeker look.
However, the diffuser is more powerful thanks to an increased height of 175mm and width of 1050mm. They have also been changes to the side-pods albeit only for aesthetics. The increase in the bodywork is only 200mm from 1400mm to 1600mm. With all these there has also been another change regarding the fuel allowance for each race which has increased by 5kg to 105kg per race. With all these changes, the 2017 season might as well be known as “The year of Aerodynamics.”
Power Unit Changes
A rule change has been made to prevent drivers stockpiling spare power unit elements. According to the F1 website, in any single event, if a driver introduces more than one power unit element, it is subject to a grid penalty, only the last element fitted may be used at subsequent events without further penalty.
A raft of measures have also been put in place in order to reduce the cost of power units and guaranteeing supply for customer teams thereby closing the performance gaps between engines. These changes include; the power unit price for customer teams has been reduced by €1 million per season compared to 2016. There is inclusion of an obligation to supply in the homologation procedure which will be activated in the event that a team faces lack of the power units. Any outfit that cannot agree on a power unit deal must be supplied by the manufacturer which supplies the least amount of teams, which is currently Honda, at a stipulated rate. Though, the chances of this happening in the 2017 season are marginal since all teams have confirmed their engine supplies.
We shall also see the introduction of a boost pressure constraint and the scrapping off of the engine token system as measures taken to increase competition on the track.
New Safety Rules for the Season
When it comes to wet-weather standing starts, if a safety car is believed to be required for the beginning of a race due to wet weather, unlike in previous occasions where a normal standing start occurred once the track was deemed safe to race. The process will see the safety car return to the pit lane and the cars assemble on the grid for the start. The drivers have also been required to use the same helmet design at all races for easy recognition of the driver in the car with the exception of using a special livery at one event of his choosing. In the instance that a driver changes teams during the season then the driver will also be allowed to change his helmet.
The question therefore that lingers is; what benefit do these changes bring to the track?
There are two aspects to the changes in tyres for 2017 which may influence the racing in a positive way. The high-degradation tyres used in recent seasons were more prone to losing performance when following another car closely.
Pirelli has been specifically charged with addressing this in 2017. However, as they have not been able to accurately simulate the projected downforce gains it remains to be seen whether they will be successful. Then there’s the physical size of the tyres. It’s always been the case that the four large lumps at each corner of an F1 car have been its least aerodynamically efficient components. The rules prevent designers from shrouding them for better performance. Drivers therefore stand to gain more from the slipstream of another car in a straight line from the increased amount of air displaced by these huge tyres when driving flat-out.
When it comes to overtaking there is no clear answer. This can only be revealed once the season starts. However, there have been those who have argued that it is going to make it difficult to overtake because the more downforce a car has, the more it is going to be affected by the aero wake of another car. Lewis Hamilton for instance argues that to improve overtaking they should have more mechanical grip and less aero wake coming off the back of the cars so they can get closer and overtake. He argues that although they might be doing faster lap times, the aero wake will cause delays in overtaking.
The team principal at McLaren, Eric Boullier, holds a different opinion to that of Hamilton. In a recent interview with SkySports, he argues that “the car will generate more downforce from the tyres, mechanically, which should not hurt the overtaking numbers. Additionally, the influence of the front wing will be lower, since the floor and the diffuser will generate more downforce, allowing more overtaking. All this makes the car allow more overtaking manoeuvres, maybe by 5 per cent, as all current overtaking manoeuvres are driven by DRS and tyre regulations.”
Effects of the New Changes on the Drivers
The drivers inescapably experience greater strain as a result of faster cornering speeds. The move away from ‘high-degradation’ tyres will also make life much more physically demanding. We may, therefore, see fatigue playing a greater role in races this season. With fatigue kicking in, drivers are more likely to make more mistakes under pressure from a rival leading to the creation of overtaking opportunities for opponents. The simple fact that drivers will have to push flat-out for longer in a race will add to this. It’s easier to avoid a mistake when lapping at 95% of your potential than when going flat-out.
New owners Liberty media have an uphill task to re-popularise the sport. The changes may help the cars look better and faster but the overall effect will only be determined once the season is complete and the statistics are out. They also need to make the sport more accessible to its audiences around the world in order to make it more profitable since teams like Ferrari are already saying they will not invest more money in a sport with a dwindling audience and lack of information of the sport post 2020 when their commercial agreements expire.
Competition will be tough this season with Nico Rosberg having retired from racing after being crowned the world champion in the 2016 season. All eyes are on Mercedes who have dominated the last three seasons in a manner which no team before them has been able to achieve. Out of the last 59 races they’ve won a staggering 51. Sustaining that level of performance for a fourth consecutive season will be a tall order. They have also lost their top technical chief, Paddy Lowe. This comes at a time when the teams are responding to a major change in the aerodynamic regulations. During the off-season the FIA has also issued new guidance on the suspension regulations which is believed to address a grey area where Mercedes were finding an advantage. These changes could slightly weaken Mercedes in a number of areas. But their key strength – that superb power unit – is likely to remain unaffected, and could be what keeps them ahead.
As fans our biggest concern is do faster cars mean better racing? How much faster will the cars be this season? Will the tyres do the job? And to what extent will the lifting of engine restrictions affect the performance of the cars and F1 in general? A majority of fans are also praying for better ticket prices and with the new owner coming in, a change in that would be long overdue.
When all is said and done, all we can do as fans and pundits is sit back and enjoy the ride because 2017 will be by all means a season to remember.