"Im not a great fan of modern F1 cars...

...They are so bloody boring."

Formula One in 1998

Gordon Murray, designer of the most successful Grand Prix car ever built, tells Adam Cooper that current F1 rules have stifled innovation, and even this season's much hyped changes are little more than cosmetic tinkering

For some time it's been hard to tell a new Grand Prix car from its immediate predecessor, or indeed from any other team's new car. Designers have grown accustomed to making only detailed changes to their packages between seasons, and it's been almost impossible for laymen to spot the differences. just recall the variation of nose shapes in the 1970s...

It's not that modem designers are lazy, or that the exponential increase in the size of the F1 teams' R&D staffs has had an inverse effect on original thinking. It's just that the rules have become increasingly restrictive, and now there is virtually no scope to exploit loopholes or try something different. Not only that, but the regulations have generally changed only in detail each winter, so there's been nothing to force teams to experiment. Even after the tragic spring of 1994, they were easily able to cope with the FIA's urgent introduction of speed-cutting measures.

This year is a little different. Instead of making the usual subtle tweaks, designers have had to do some serious re-thinking. And they face the prospect of getting it just right, or spectacularly wrong.

The switch to grooved tyres - which represents an 18 per cent reduction in the size of the rubber `footprint' - would have been significant on its own, but the FIA has combined it with a 20cm reduction in the width of the cars. In a world where adjustments of a few millimetres here and there can make a huge difference to performance, this represents a massive change.

It's not just a question of redesigning the suspension; moving the wheels inboard has had significant knock-on effects on aerodynamics and weight distribution. In addition, more stringent crash testing regs have called for the front of the chassis to be wider, and forced teams to develop extra structures in the sidepod area.

It's been a long time since the technical boffins found themselves aiming at such a moving target, and many insiders think the 1998 rules represent the biggest single-year change since 1983, when flat bottoms were introduced and a huge chunk of ground effect disappeared overnight. But are we getting a bit overexcited about all this? Have designers simply been spoiled in recent years? Yes, according to the man who got his sums right back in '83.

Brabham's Gordon Murray oversaw Nelson Piquet's charge to the title that season. Out of F1 since the late '80s, when his McLaren MP4/4 won 15 of 16 races in the hands of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, he has a less than enthusiastic view about the challenge designers now face.

"This is probably the biggest change they've had in the last few years," Gordon agrees. "But still, it's not that big a change. It's really just more of the same."

In Murray's day, the rulebook was slimmer and much less specific than it is now, and Gordon and his colleagues had the freedom to experiment. When the FIA woke up to what was going on, clampdowns on new developments would occasionally send everyone back to the drawing board. Not so recently. Sure, the FIA continues to ban 'go faster' extras - the forbidding of electronic driver aids at the end of 1992 was a prime example - but in fundamental terms, the cars themselves have progressed relatively slowly. The rules are now so detailed that they almost guarantee that everyone follows the same route.

"For the past decade both the regulations - and the reaction to the regulations - has been just scratching," says Murray. "Which is why the cars are so bloody boring, and they've all looked the same. There hasn't been any fundamental change since '83, and worse than that, there's been a gradual squeeze on the designer, for placement on the car not only of major masses, but also minor masses, and for aerodynamic development as well.

It's very difficult to be innovative these days. In fact I would say it's almost impossible. It's ridiculous; somebody does a slightly different shape sidepod, and people reckon it's innovation. It's so much baloney, really. People spend much more time and money trying to get another three or four per cent on the lift over-drag ratio than we did to try and get two seconds a lap." Gordon agrees that the death of pukka ground effect cars at the end of 1982 was the biggest challenge he had to face.

"That was pretty massive, ifyou think of the downforce we were generating in the last year of skirts. The upheaval, realising that you just don't have that downforce any more, and how you cope with the traction problems that you'd get was enough of a worry.

"But to compound it I made it doubly worse for us, by going to a pit-stop car in the same year, which meant a small fuel tank, new strategy, a new package for the team, tyre warmers for the first time, all sorts of things. We really made it worse ourselves!

"Meanwhile with the increase in torque and power from the turbos, you couldn't keep up with the size of gearbox shafts, bearings, driveshafts and so on. That was another massive variable.

"The biggest change before that was due to the safety regulations in '73, with hid tanks and crushable structures and all that stuff. Before that, people had fuel all over the place, in 18 gauge wide, single-skin aluminium tanks. Suddenly you had to have the tanks in these rubber bags, and inside the structure of the car, and you couldn't have then over the drivers' legs any more, and so on. That forced a massive rethink. I think we were the first people to push the driver forward and put a bigger seat tank behind him. So that was quite a big change... it forced people to rethink major mass locations and so on."

While Murray agrees that the new rules represent the biggest shake-up since '83, he's still not impressed, even if this year's new cars are no longer clones of each other.

"They're slightly less similar, but if you painted them all white, they'd still look the same, wouldn't they? And they'd still all look ugly with those noses. I'm not a great fan of modem F1 cars..."

Patrick Head, formerly Murray's chief rival, agrees that the changes have been exaggerated by some.

"It's caused the guys in the wind tunnel to do a lot of work," says Patrick, "but I wouldn't say the rest of it is that major. It has changed the aerodynamic flow around the car quite a lot. Most of the air that flows over the car goes between the two front wheels. One's narrowed that gap by quite a big percentage, both by pulling the wheels in and making the monocoque wider. The wake from the rear wheels affects the rear wing quite heavily. Also, a very large amount of work has been done on the forward roll-hoop test, because that's very severe, and the side impact structure test."

Jordan designer Gary Anderson, always one to keep his feet firmly on the ground, has not let himself be carried away by the rule changes. Sure, it's a new challenge, but like Murray, he admits that freedom is still severely restricted.

"The narrow track has changed the way of looking at things," says Anderson. "The cars are a bit different, but nothing spectacular, because basically the regulations still dictate everything. Nothing's ever 100% new, it's an evolution of what we know, based around the change of regulations. But this Jordan is as good a product as we've ever built. We've achieved as many goals as we have with any other one. Whether or not that's enough, when we've seen the other cars perform, I don't know. With the change of regs, it's difficult to know where your baseline is."

However you quantify the changes, for the guys at the sharp end the build-up to this season has been fraught. To make matters more interesting, the four top contenders have reshuffled design teams. Most of the personnel changes were made last season, but in each case the first real elfects will be seen on the 1998 cars.

Thus we have the first McLaren overseen by former Williams aerodynamic ace Adrian Newey, and the first Ferrari from the Rory Byrne/Ross Brawn team which worked so well at Benetton - bringing back-to-back world titles for Michael Schumacher. And meanwhile we have the first Williams and Benetton in more than half a decade which have not been influenced by the aforementioned star names, the teams having replaced them by promoting from within. And let's not forget that ex-Ferrari man John Barnard has taken the technical helm of Arrows, while at Prost, aerodynamicist Loic Bigois is in charge of the whole car for the first time both men having inherited their responsibilities from the same Frank Dernie!

There's never been an across-the-board shake-up of this magnitude in one season, and we'll probably never see the like of it again. But are we overstating its significance? It's been a long time since one man drew a complete car - Murray's preferred method of working. But it's impossible to put a value on the inspiration provided by a top-notch technical director and/or chief designer.

And it's not just a question of the design they come up with; this year will be about that elusive combination of the perfect setup, and a driver who can make the best of it. With McLaren and Benetton swapping from Goodyear to Bridgestone, the tyre war will escalate, and both companies will be pushing the limits. To win in 1998, you will have to keep your grooved tyres in good shape for a whole race stint. Make two stops to the next guy's three, and you have a priceless advantage.

"The tyres aren't adequate really," says Anderson. "It's down 100 per cent to the guy who can look after them for the longest time. No way you can drive like a hooligan. You've got to be smooth, recognise whenever the car's doing something, and be able to drive within its limits, Experience and feel will be the biggest thing. The hooligans who throw the car around are going to suffer. If you lock a wheel you just flat-spot a tyre instantly."

"The tyres are quite delicate," agrees Head, "and the driver has to look after them very carefully. Although they're quite hard compounds and you can be quite spectacular, any driver that tries to do that in a race will be in trouble. His tyres will go away very quickly. I don't think it's the right direction to make the motor racing more interesting.

"We'd like to persuade Alain Prost to make a comeback with Williams! He was very sensitive on knowing the state of the tyres, and also making them last well. Jacques has got a good reputation in that area. I think it's quite likely that drivers with a delicate touch will do well in the races, and maybe drivers with a more forceful touch might look good in the testing. You can go out on a new set of tyres and throw the car around on these hard compounds and get a good lap time out of them, but you won't hold that lap time over a long period."

So what do the drivers think? We've heard lots of stories about drivers not enjoying the lack of grip provided by the new cars, but Damon Hill says at the end of the day, it doesn't matter.

"I think any time you lose performance from the car, you tend to be a little bit disillusioned, but I honestly think that when you get into a race the amount of grip you have is almost irrelevant. It's where you are in the race that matters, and how you're able to improve your position, or whether you can get a slightly better exit out of a corner:

"There were some places last year when it was absolutely flat chat. Everything had so much grip, it was quite easy to drive. That makes it more difficult to race. If the cars slide more, it's harder to drive, but oddly enough it's easier to race, because it should be easier for people to make mistakes. The people who make fewer mistakes should be able to catch up, or overtake, or stay in front."

And will it suit his driving style?

"I'm happy with whatever they come up with. That's the situation, and you have to deal with it. My talent is as much that I'm technical and I'm good at setting up cars, and it's understanding how to get the best out of a difficult situation, so I'm hoping that it will benefit me more."

The most intriguing, unpredictable F1 season is always the one we're about to have, but in this case there's some justification for the hype. Consider the combined effect of rule changes, the designer musical chairs, the extra uncertainty provided by the tyre war. And then there's the possibility - already expressed by Frank Williams - that Renault's Mecachrome subsidiary won't develop its engines as aggressively as the Regie did.

Whereas in the recent past one could assume that Williams would carry on leading the way, this time the 1997 formbook provides little guidance. Nobody expects Minardi or Tyrrell to suddenly come storming to the front, but among the established big four Williams, McLaren, Ferrari and Benetton there could well be a shake-up. Others will be ready to challenge.

One team could dominate as McLaren did in 1988 or we could have a repeat of 1982, when victories werv spread among the leading contenders, and Keke Rosberg took the title through consistent scoring. You pays your money...

The view of team boss Alain Prost is typical: "I'm excited, and I'm a little bit anxious. We know what we have done, and we know more or less what we are going to have by the time the season starts. But you never know if somebody else finds something special. These rules are so different. It didn't look so at the time, but especially on the aerodynamic side, it opens different doors. You never know what will happen...'