THIS F1 LIFE
Pat Symonds on F1’s new regs
The 2017 regulation changes have been hailed as one of the biggest shake-ups for many years, but the motivation behind them is somewhat strange. Some while ago, the Strategy Group, strongly influenced by Bernie Ecclestone, decided that the current cars were both too slow and too easy to drive. The fact that an 18-year-old Max Verstappen could immediately perform at the forefront of grand prix racing was taken by them as proof that there was something wrong with Formula 1, and that a universal panacea might be to make the cars faster, the thinking being that this would make the cars more spectacular and more difficult to drive. The notional target was to make the cars five seconds a lap faster, but while there were suggestions as to how this should be done, the detail was left to the teams’ technical departments.
Over the 40 years that I have been involved in racing, major rule changes have always been centred around reining in performance as the ever-increasing development compromised the safety of the sport. So this is the first time the teams have actually been asked to consider rules that increased performance. That may sound somewhat anomalous, but bear in mind that the machines of 2016 were still considerably slower than those of ten years ago – particularly in the high-speed corners.
One of the various reasons why Formula 1 cars are much slower these days is that they are significantly heavier. It is an inescapable fact that hybrid cars will always be heavier than conventional cars and, on an average circuit, 10kg of increased weight pushes lap times up by about 0.3 seconds. In 2006, the racing weight of the cars was 600kg. This had risen to 702kg by 2016 with a consequential increase in lap time of around three seconds.
Because of this, the starting point that the teams discussed was how to reduce the car mass and, as a result, some small savings have been made, for example by having a shorter, pocketed, skid block. Although, ironically, the increased dimensions of the 2017 cars have ultimately added 20kg to the minimum weight.
The focus was to produce more downforce through relaxed bodywork regulations and increase mechanical grip by expanding car width and widening the tyres. Consequently, the overall width of the cars has been boosted from 1,800mm to 2,000mm, and the tyre widths have increased by a nominal 60mm at the front and 80mm at the rear.
Regarding the bodywork, the front wing width has been increased, as has the rear wing, although its lower position negates some of the increase in downforce that may have been obtained. The diffuser is also larger and the area for the ‘barge-boards’ in front of the sidepods has been opened to a significant relaxation in the rules, which should allow better control of the front-wheel wake and hence increased downforce.
There are other areas that are affected. The ‘monkey wing’, the name given to the small 100mm-wide wing that sits above the rear crash structure, is now of greater significance, since rear downforce is more enhanced by exhaust flow than was the case in 2016. This can provide a significant performance boost, although some of the tricks used to increase exhaust flow on the old normally aspirated engines are much more difficult to achieve on a turbocharged engine.
The tyres are also changing for 2017. You might think that the increase in grip should simply be proportional to the increase in width, but this is an oversimplification because although the contact patch is wider, it will not be as long on the 2017 tyres. One of the reasons for this is that when the tyre-supply agreement was renegotiated last year, the teams and the FIA worked together to provide a statement of desired characteristics for the 2017 Pirelli rubber.
To be able to push the tyres harder, it was asked that they be made less thermally sensitive and better able to recover performance quickly if overheated for a short duration. A shorter contact patch can help the situation, as will the introduction of a new family of tyre compounds.
The complexity doesn’t end there, though, since the increased loads also require a much more robust tyre. One of the ways of achieving this, as we saw in 2016, is to increase tyre pressures. Unfortunately this also reduces ultimate grip and so the increase in downforce
follows a law of diminishing returns.
There will still be four compounds to choose from, with three of the four taken to any given race. For the first few events, Pirelli will make the choice until the teams have built up experience of the tyres. Degradation targets have been set so that the performance loss should equate to around two seconds a lap at 60 per cent, 30 per cent and 15 per cent race distance respectively for the hardest, medium and softest compounds at any event. There should also be a performance step of around one second in ultimate lap time between each of the compounds. Naturally, all these targets are averages across the year and can be expected to vary from circuit to circuit.
The big question is: will these changes improve the racing? They have every chance of upsetting the status quo and many will be delighted that a Mercedes victory is no longer a foregone conclusion. But if fans are seeking closer racing and more overtaking, they may be disappointed.
While no one has fully researched the effect of the aerodynamic wake on following cars, increased downforce produces increased wake and hence has a greater effect on a car behind. The new regulations will also increase the amount of time on full throttle and decrease braking distances, neither of which is conducive to overtaking.
All these changes will favour the bigger teams, since they are going to be in a better position to apply greater development resource than the small teams. I remember a time when regulations were far less prescriptive, which meant that change could favour the small teams. Early on in my career when I was working for Toleman, we interpreted new ‘flat bottom’ rules for 1983 in such a way that we went from being a team who often failed even to qualify for races, to becoming regular topten finishers. Unfortunately, this level of design creativity is no longer a part of our sport.
WILL THESE CHANGES IMPROVE THE RACING? IF FANS ARE SEEKING CLOSER RACING AND MORE OVERTAKING, THEY MAY BE DISAPPOINTED
For 2017, Pirelli have made tyres that are less thermally sensitive and better able to recover performance quickly if overheated, allowing drivers to push harder