New-look cars, KERS, no testing… and plenty of overtaking. That’s what F1 2009 is set to bring
By Adam Cooper
Grand Prix racing has gone through some major winter rule changes before now, but rarely have so many novelties arrived in one package. After years of relative stability helped to close up the field, this season is going to be fascinating and unpredictable.
“They are the most sweeping changes the sport has seen in 15 years,” says Ron Dennis. “They are challenging and they obviously provide an opportunity for one team to get a technical advantage.
“Some people are expecting to see a more even field, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case. The teams that have the depth, the research capabilities, and are able to apply science and technologies to the challenge, they will come out with an advantage. But I think it will be a good, exciting season, and the changes should deliver what they’re meant to.”
Lest we forget, the aim of many of these rule changes is to make overtaking easier. If they really work – and nobody knows for sure – the face of our sport could be transformed.
KERS: will it make a difference?
KERS will be one of the most talked about subjects this year. All the teams concede that they could do with more development time, and most have admitted their systems might not be signed off for race use by Australia in March. The lack of on-track testing thereafter means it won’t be easy to address any bugs. Fernando Alonso has even suggested that if Renault’s system isn’t ready for the first race, it will be too risky to introduce during the season.
There’s a game of chicken going on. As long as everyone holds back, it’s not a problem, but as soon as one or two leading teams race a well-tuned system, the others will have little choice but to respond.
There isn’t room here to explore KERS in detail, but in essence it provides a burst of 80bhp for up to 6.7 seconds a lap. How that extra power is used is up to the driver. Running on his own, he will press the button at a predetermined point on the track, which will invariably mean the start of the longest straight. The anticipated gain in lap time is around 0.3sec. Running behind someone, there will be more flexibility, for example if another straight offers a potential overtaking opportunity. Obviously if two drivers press their buttons at the same time it won’t make a lot of difference, so the challenge will be to use the boost creatively, perhaps by forcing the guy ahead into using his single burst as a defence mechanism while saving your own. In theory you can use your KERS burst at the end of one lap and at the start of the next.
The downside of KERS is the complex packaging it requires and specifically the extra weight – it raises the centre of gravity and compromises the ability to load ballast in the most effective places on the car. To help negate that teams have encouraged drivers to play their part by shedding a few kilos over the winter…
In the end it will come down to maths: “We’ll use KERS as soon as we’re convinced it brings a performance benefit,” says Toyota’s Pascal Vasselon.
It’s such a fine line that for circuits where KERS won’t be so effective – extremes like tight Monaco and flat-out Silverstone – a team may opt to prepare the car without the system fitted and thus with more optimal overall weight distribution. But that decision would have to be taken in advance, as it’s not a job for a Friday night.
Safety of KERS remains a concern, but the biggest issue will be reliability, especially as the season starts with a series of hot races. Ferrari, BMW and Toyota, which tested at Bahrain in February, may have an initial advantage.
Aerodynamics: will the new wings aid overtaking?
While much of the focus has been on KERS, aero changes have presented teams with an equally massive challenge.
It’s all about encouraging overtaking by allowing cars to run close together as they come onto a straight, whereas in the past the following car would lose downforce and have to drop back. Research by the FIA’s Overtaking Working Group has led to wide, low-slung front wings, which in theory will react more favourably to the wake produced by higher, narrower rear wings.
No one can deny that the 2009-spec cars look a trifle odd, and the front wings will be vulnerable to first-lap damage – and at some tracks normal impacts with kerbs could even dislodge them. On the plus side the rules have put an end to the ridiculous plague of winglets, chimneys and bargeboards that have ruined car lines in recent years. If you can divert your eyes from the wings, the cars look much sleeker, their largely uncluttered and curvaceous sidepods harking back to earlier times.
The overall aim of the OWG was to reduce downforce by 50 per cent. While teams have already clawed back some of that, it will be harder to make gains, simply because fewer bolt-on options are allowed. There’s a common view that less reliance on aerodynamic grip will improve the racing in general, but that wasn’t the specific aim of the OWG – the cut was just part of an attempt to control the wake. Reduced downforce will certainly make things more interesting when it rains, however, since the wet tyres are the same as last year but overall grip will be down.
The most intriguing aspect of the new rules is the option drivers now have to adjust their front wing twice a lap. This was introduced to further help a driver stick to the car in front. The basic idea is to maintain a stable balance by dialling up extra wing on entry to a corner, before taking it off again on exit before a straight. The adjustable wing provides an extra dimension the teams are still exploring. A change can also be made for balance or performance reasons, i.e. lowering the front wing for a sequence of fast corners, or raising it for the opposite. Any adjustment doesn’t have to be reversed on the same lap – so a permanent change can be made to a car’s balance as circumstances change through a race.
Vasselon admits there are many options: “It’s too early to know for which target we will change it. We may save the possibility to overtake, as initially planned, which may be very interesting. Or we may use it to compensate for a balance evolution, or to deal with tyre degradation. The drivers love to play with it!”
Clearly it will benefit the more technically inclined drivers. Perfectionists such as Jarno Trulli, who lose confidence when the car balance changes and they stray out of their comfort zone, will now have a way of staying within it.
Tyres: what impact will slicks have?
Few will be disappointed to see slick tyres back for the first time since 1997. In effect grooves became obsolete once the FIA mandated a sole supplier, and there was no longer a need to control grip by reducing the contact patch.
Although they don’t compare with ultra-sticky tyre war-era slicks, they provide more mechanical grip than last year’s grooved tyres. The OWG’s aim was that this went some way to cancelling out aero losses, thus helping to maintain overall lap times.
Slicks present a very different challenge and it will take time for teams to fully understand how to operate them effectively, especially with regard to temperatures. Experienced team personnel concede that their knowledge of how the old slicks behaved still has some value, and there will be a learning curve for younger engineers, many of whom have never worked with slicks. The only current drivers to have raced a Formula 1 car on slicks are Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli.
“The main thing is the balance shifts towards the front of the car,” says Sam Michael of Williams, “so you have a stronger front relative to the rear. You need to tune the weight distribution around that.”
Last year Kimi Räikkönen and Nick Heidfeld struggled in qualifying largely because they had problems with tyre warm-up. Some drivers could now face similar issues.
“The way they perform and the stability they bring is different to a grooved tyre. It’s not the same as just reducing grip,” adds Michael. “With a grooved tyre you have four little peaks of stress on the edge of each groove, whereas with a slick you have one big one. That changes the way the contact patch gets loaded in terms of warming up the tyre, etc.”
Testing: who will suffer most?
Testing has been gradually reduced since Michelin’s withdrawal at the end of 2006 halted the tyre war, but the change for this year is drastic. Not only has pre-season testing been restricted, with just one car per team in action at any time, but after Melbourne there will be no testing whatsoever.
This combined with the new rules makes life more complicated. Although Fridays are in effect test days and teams will be able to do experimental work, they are no substitute for dedicated testing away from the pressures of GPs. There’s also a question over Monza, where teams have traditionally tested one-off low-drag packages before the race.
The testing ban is a big problem for drivers. Anyone struggling to adapt to his ’09 package, or to slick tyres, will not be able to dedicate a day or two to getting to grips with the problem. It certainly won’t help younger drivers. The man who’ll suffer most is Toro Rosso’s Sébastien Buemi, this year’s sole rookie, but such as Nelson Piquet and Kazuki Nakajima still need all the miles they can get. On the other hand there’s greater job security because the third driver will get no running and won’t be out trying to prove his worth at Grands Prix.
The lack of testing puts more emphasis on work at the factory, and especially the use of simulators. McLaren’s facility is widely believed to be the best, allowing its drivers to hone every aspect of set-up before they arrive at a track – crucial when it comes to optimising the use of KERS and the front wing. In contrast, the likes of Renault don’t have such a simulator.
Engines: how will teams play the system?
Extending engine life from the previous requirement of two races was a quick and easy way of controlling costs. The system will work differently this year, however.
In 2008 a driver had to use an engine for two consecutive race weekends, which actually meant only Saturdays and Sundays, as Fridays were free. Now drivers have eight engines for the whole season – remember, there’s no testing – and Fridays are included. How teams use those engines is up to them, but typically they will use higher-mileage engines on Fridays, before switching for Saturday.
Drivers are still supposed to keep the same engine for Saturday and Sunday, but there is provision for a change after qualifying – without a grid penalty – if the team can prove the original unit is damaged.
The bottom line is that an engine doesn’t have to be used in consecutive races, so teams will juggle them around to suit the calendar, possibly leaving a part-used engine in the factory for months until it fits into the schedule. They are not obliged to use the same engine at high-stress events such as Spa and Monza. Similarly, an engine used in the wet will be less stressed and therefore more likely to be given extra racing miles.
A driver who follows Nick Heidfeld’s 2008 example and finishes every race will in effect use seven engines over two weekends, and one over three. Even with Fridays included it’s not a big stretch – especially as the rev limit has been dropped from 19,000 to 18,000rpm. Anyone requiring a ninth engine faces a one-off 10-place grid penalty.
Who will the changes benefit most?
Far from closing the gap between the great and the good, as many driver aids have done before now, this year’s new toys may emphasise it.
Consider this. As they come onto the pit straight drivers will potentially be pressing their KERS buttons and lowering their front wings in addition to regular tasks such as changing gear and talking on the radio. That sort of workload will play into the hands of those who can drive on the limit and yet still have plenty of mental capacity to focus on other things.
And while the new rules are designed to encourage cars to run closer together, it’s still going to be the boldest drivers who will make the best use of any opportunities. And some, of course, need only half an opportunity…
“I’m looking forward to the slick tyres, seeing how they behave and how you can treat them in a race,” says Lewis Hamilton. “And KERS will be exciting, having a boost button…”