F1 frontline with Mark Hughes

Major car changes – yet the results aren’t what we expected

New Formula 1 cars, with bigger wings, more powerful diffusers and wider tyres front and rear. Most teams reckoned they had 35 per cent more downforce than last year. So the targeted 4.5-5sec reduction in lap times looked more than feasible. Into 2017’s first practice session and yes, Lewis Hamilton’s 1min 24.220sec was a whopping 5.5sec faster than last year’s fastest time in the same session. No comparison was available for P2, which was held in mixed wet conditions in 2016. But into Saturday and P3, Sebastian Vettel’s fastest time this year was a mere 3.2sec faster than that recorded by Hamilton on Saturday morning a year earlier. In qualifying Hamilton’s pole lap this year was just 1.65sec faster than he recorded last year with narrower tyres, smaller wings and vastly smaller diffuser.

The comparison was initially bewildering. But recall that the new tyres have been developed – with very little on-track testing, don’t forget – to deal with more downforce and greater weight than any in F1 history, as well as transmitting the huge torque of the hybrid engines. So not unnaturally, as well as much tougher constructions, Pirelli has also been more conservative with compounds. These are completely new for 2017 and, although the range carries the same ultra, super-soft, soft and medium labelling, in reality they are at least two steps harder than before.

A combination of a stiff construction with hard compounds means little of the rubber works its way into the surface of the track – and consequently the circuit evolution is vastly reduced. All quite logical, really. And all quite foreseeable in hindsight. Yes, the new cars look better, the drivers much prefer them and the tyres allow them to attack for longer. But it’s an oddness, is it not, that the sport has planned at great expense to create cars five seconds faster but which qualify probably no faster than they would have done if the regulations had remained unchanged. A 1.65sec reduction year-on-year would have been considered a perfectly normal development rate for cars in an unchanged formula. It all underlines Ross Brawn’s point, expressed in his interview later in the magazine, that any changes need to be planned rather than reactive, need to come from full research rather than knee-jerk opinion.   

There was another anomaly of the weekend – but its cause wasn’t quite so obvious. Three drivers were caught by surprise by spins, the most high-profile of which was Daniel Ricciardo’s in the final qualifying session. On Friday Jolyon Palmer destroyed his Renault when he went off at the final turn and Marcus Ericsson suffered a spin that left him somewhat mystified. Palmer said afterwards: “I was on a tidy lap and attacking the last corner. I did not think too much of it. I just turned it in, had a bit of understeer and then the car just completely let go in the rear. It caught me massively by surprise, really.” Examination of the telemetry did not reveal any technical failure and so the assumption was made that it had been just driver error – as it would be with Ricciardo.

Watching the replay of the Ricciardo incident it’s clear that once past a certain degree of yaw there was no way the rear of the car was coming back, regardless of what the driver did. Once the rear tyres reached a certain slip angle it was as if their grip very sharply fell away. Max Verstappen said that is exactly how the tyres feel when you really lean on them. It could be another manifestation of that much stiffer construction, perhaps. When F1 cars went from cross-plies to the vastly stiffer radials, the sideways action generally stopped. 

But Pat Symonds has another theory: “I don’t think it’s the tyres at all. I think it’s aerodynamic – the wake from the shark fin engine covers. Up to a certain slip angle – the sort of slip you’d normally be operating in – the shark fin helps you in the transition from straight ahead to turned, keeps the flow to the rear wing more stable because the centre of pressure is behind the centre of gravity. But once you get beyond a critical angle the wake of the fin begins to have more effect until it’s actually taking away more than it’s providing for the rear wing and it just stalls it. That’s my belief.”

The drivers didn’t seem too concerned. “We’re here to push the boundaries of what’s possible, what has been achieved before,” said Sebastian Vettel. “I think these are the fastest cars we’ve ever driven. In terms of mistakes – yeah, probably if you spin at high speed it’s more difficult to catch than before. Especially if it’s a snap from excess speed rather than a powerslide. You have to be quicker to react but I would still prefer it like this because it’s more fun.”

But even so, if the shark fins really are responsible it’s just another reason to be rid of them.

In addition to how bad they look.