F1 frontline: July 2018

As Formula 1 awaits its next big regulation change for 2021, interim tweaks are on the horizon. In theory, the sport is on the correct path

With a little bit of political horse-trading, the FIA has succeeded in getting through aerodynamic changes that are conceived to improve the wheel-to-wheel raceability in Formula 1 from next season. The cars of 2019 will have narrower front wings, a wider rear wing and a more powerful DRS. These regulations are based upon research made by Liberty as part of wider-ranging technical changes for 2021, but are only for the 2019 and ’20 seasons.

Since taking up his role with Liberty, Ross Brawn’s whole approach to F1 technical changes has been to have them properly researched, so as to avoid the knee-jerk changes of which F1 has been so guilty in the past. These have either not worked at all or else created unintended consequences that, in some cases, have been worse than the original problem. As such, Brawn last year put Pat Symonds in charge of an engineering team to research fully the problems of racing winged, open-wheeled cars in close proximity and to come up with a solution that would allow more overtaking.

This research is very much ongoing, but with a year of it already having proven some key points the FIA was keen to incorporate some of this research into the cars that will be raced before 2021. “Why spend two years with cars we know don’t work when we have enough knowledge at least to make them better?” was their position.

Nikolas Tombazis (formerly chief of aero at both Ferrari and McLaren) was previously part of that Liberty aero group, but has since been recruited by the FIA as its aerodynamics advisor. He was tasked with taking the research so far completed and incorporating it into the 2019/20 aero regs. The teams were largely against it – and Liberty was far from convinced that a part-completed research programme should be influencing the regulations ahead of a more fully considered change. But Liberty and the FIA will always tend to align in an agreed mutual position, such is the understanding reached between Brawn and FIA president Jean Todt. Only in that way can the chaos and anarchy of issue-based alliances be suppressed.

Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull – all of which sit on the F1 Commission that decided whether the FIA’s proposal be implemented – were initially against changing the regulations in the remaining two years of this formula. That was the case in Baku just a couple of days before the vote.

But lo and behold, Ferrari and Mercedes (together with two Mercedes-supplied teams) changed their minds and helped vote the changes through. Quite what deal was struck that induced this change of position is unclear. But the change enraged Red Bull’s Christian Horner, which suggests he feels it disadvantages Red Bull in some way (see Baku and Barcelona race analyses).

The idea of the regulation change is that the narrower front wing, with standardised endplates – so banishing the incredibly complex vortex generators of current set-ups – will force the aero teams to concentrate the flow off the wing inboard and towards the underfloor.

Since the introduction of the 2009 regulations, outwash has been the preferred aero choice, whereby as much flow from the outboard end of the wing as possible is directed around the front wheels and down the side, with vortices of air rising from the endplates and forming ahead of the sidepods, which then accelerate the flow in between them faster – as well as moving the airflow outwards, away from the separate flow feeding the radiators and underfloor.

In 2009 McLaren uniquely retained an inboard philosophy when everyone else had switched to outboard – and the car was a disaster, often leaving Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen in the Q1 part of the grid. From Hockenheim, an outwash front wing was fitted and the car was transformed, Hamilton winning in Hungary next time out. Since then, every car has used only the outwash philosophy – as it is much the quickest way under the current regs. But compared to an inboard car, a greater proportion of the total downforce is being created by the outer bodywork rather than the underfloor and it is therefore more sensitive to disturbed airflow from the car ahead. The narrower-span front wing of 2019/20 will make it unfeasible to direct the airflow that way, especially without the sophisticated vortex generators. With an increased proportion of total downforce therefore derived from the underbody, a car should be less sensitive to the wake of the car ahead.

The new rear wing will direct the wake higher and farther back. This is designed to do two things – more of the wake’s energy will dissipate before it descends to the level where it affects the following car and, in moving it farther back, there should be a relatively smooth area once the car behind has got past that turbulence, theoretically allowing it to follow closer through the corner.

The DRS is set to be 25-30 per cent more powerful. That does not mean that power will automatically be applied. Only those tracks with too short a straight for the current DRS to be effective will receive the benefit. At tracks where the current DRS is felt to work well enough, the zones will simply be shortened appropriately. While needing DRS at all is almost an admission of defeat, the good news is that it’s generally agreed that for 2021 the idea is to get the aero working well enough not to need DRS.

“I share the underlying discomfort with DRS,” says Tombazis. “But feel that it’s the right thing for the present state of things. But for ’21 we hope the cars will be much more able to follow each other closely and it will be a nice outcome if we can decrease DRS or even eliminate it. Until then it’s a necessary evil.”

Here’s hoping.

Since he began covering Grand Prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation