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Sunday, January 29, 2023

New Rules, New Cars: F1 Looks to Next Year

Formula 1 is improving aerodynamics for 2022 in an attempt to make racing more exciting. The change could upend the standings.

Following one of the most intense championship battles in Formula 1’s history this year, ending on Sunday with Max Verstappen of Red Bull winning the drivers’ championship, the sport will enter a new era in 2022 in an attempt to further improve the show.

The cars will look strikingly different after a major rule change governing aerodynamics to help one car follow another more closely and aid overtaking.

“There has long been this suspicion the cars were not very friendly when they were racing each other,” Ross Brawn, Formula 1’s managing director motorsports, said in an interview.

“The performance of the following car was affected very badly by being in the wake of the car in front. It starts to lose performance the closer it gets, and that doesn’t aid good racing.”

When Brawn — a former technical director at Ferrari and team principal at Mercedes who won the drivers’ and constructors’ titles with his own team, Brawn GP, in 2009 — joined the Formula 1 Group in 2017, he set up a research group “to chase raceability.”

The takeover of Formula 1 by Liberty Media Corporation in 2017 ensured that there was a budget to tackle the issue.

“There’d been no resource committed to this area,” Brawn said. “The rules had been developed by the teams who had all the knowledge, the expertise and the funding.

“The regulations evolve through proposals and suggestions from the teams. They never made it a priority to make the cars friendly to race each other. Suddenly there was resource made available.”

Giuseppe Cacace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The research group, working with the F.I.A., the sport’s governing body, set about trying to understand the reasons for the loss of aerodynamic performance and designing a car that would allow the drivers to race wheel to wheel on a more regular basis.

The group first constructed a computer model of one car following another to assess the problem. Once that was understood, models were built and tested in a wind tunnel.

The car, which was the creation of Formula 1’s interpretation of the rules, was unveiled at this year’s British Grand Prix. The 2022 cars will also have Pirelli’s new 18-inch tires after decades of the sport using 13-inch tires.

The 10 teams will then produce their own cars based on the Formula 1 design. They will take those cars to the track for the first time in preseason testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain from Feb. 23 to 25. The first race is in Bahrain on March 20.

“Our process won’t stop,” Brawn said. “Once we see the new cars race, we’ll see the solutions the teams have come up with, and we’ll evaluate them and make sure we’re not losing the momentum on this initiative to make the cars more raceable.”

Formula 1 has improved the way air flows around a car. Recent cars have pushed the flow out to the side, which means the air stays low and slows the following car.

Next year’s cars will channel the air underneath and through the car, leading to a very high flow over its rear.

“To give you an idea of some numbers, this year’s car, when it was two car lengths behind, it lost half of its performance,” Brawn said.

“The new car only loses 10 or 15 percent of its performance. It’s a massive difference.”

After winning eight consecutive constructors’ titles, Mercedes’ dominance of Formula 1 could end next year if a rival team has found better solutions in interpreting the rules.

When new regulations are introduced, engineers study them in the hope of discovering a silver bullet.

“It’s pretty much possible that teams who didn’t compete for the world championship this year, whether it’s Ferrari, McLaren, Aston Martin or Alpine, come up with intelligent concepts based on more runs than anybody else and just doing it very right,” said Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal.

“So I think we can expect closer fighting for the championships and in races than we have had before, and that’s exciting.”

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Red Bull fought with Mercedes for the constructors’ and drivers’ titles into the last race in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Although teams stopped the development of this season’s cars early in the year to focus their resources on the 2022 models, the intensity of the title fight between Mercedes and Red Bull may have had an impact.

“When Ferrari turn up with the fastest car and smash us out of the park at the first race then you’ll have to say that it probably did,” said Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal.

“We’ve all known that big regulation changes were coming for 2022, and we’ve applied our resource accordingly. I’m sure each team has done what they feel is right, but, of course, the battle with Mercedes put pressure on the organization.”

Horner said there had been “a monumental effort” from his team to focus on the championship challenge and the development of next year’s car.

“We will only see, when we come back in a couple of months’ time with completely new cars that will look different, feel different and drive differently, as to who’s got it right and who’s got it wrong,” he said.

Ferrari finished third in the constructors’ championship, 290 points behind Mercedes, a significant improvement after it was sixth in 2020.

Laurent Mekies, the Ferrari sporting director, said next season was “an important opportunity.”

“As much as we would like it to be a turning point for us, it is the case for anybody that has not fought for a win,” Mekies said. “They will think the same, so we are conscious of that side of the challenge.

“In terms of changing the order, this may happen. I am not saying [the standings] will be upside down, but a few times when we have had a big change in the regulations in the past, it has changed cycles.”

Haas finished last in this year’s championship and failed to score a point. The team made the decision before the season not to develop its car to concentrate solely on the 2022 car.

Günther Steiner, the team principal, is optimistic the decision will pay off.

“I’m cautiously confident we will be in a better position,” he said. “Hopefully in the midfield fighting for points next year.”

Pool photo by Kamran Jebreili

After five years with Mercedes, winning 10 Grands Prix, Valtteri Bottas moves to Alfa Romeo next year. The team scored only 13 points this season.

Bottas said “the beauty of the new regulations” meant “anything is possible,” but he is realistic.

“I don’t think we’re going to be consistently fighting for the wins next year, like with Mercedes,” Bottas said. “But consistently being in the points in the first year with the team, that is possible.

“There are so many variables and so many things that will eventually affect how it will be.”

Because of his history of innovation with Formula 1 teams and his technical knowledge, Brawn is eagerly anticipating the arrival of next year’s cars and seeing how the teams have deciphered the new rules.

“When the teams first saw the regulations, there were moans and groans about the fact we’d taken so much scope away from them,” Brawn said. “But as they explored them, they realized there was still plenty of potential.

“I always took the approach, when I was a technical director, that I had to work within the regulations that were there. Given they were the same regulations for everyone, whoever did the best job with them would be the one who would succeed.”

Brawn is happy with the solution Formula 1 has delivered, although it is only “a platform for the future.”

“There may be a little bit of disparity in performance when we start off because everyone’s going to come up with different solutions, but once we’ve settled down, this will be a much better platform for the cars to be designed around.”

The question is, will the racing improve? “Yes,” Brawn said. “We will have cars much closer in performance.”

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