At the time of writing, Formula 1’s much-vaunted 2021 overhaul stands on the verge of collapse. Mercedes and Red Bull are lined up behind Ferrari’s veto to torpedo revolutionary aerodynamic proposals and the standardisation of costly key components.
The postponement of announcing the next rules package from June to October has not resulted in the consensus for which the FIA, Liberty and seven teams had hoped. The two sides of the argument remain as far opposed as ever they were. All that has been agreed so far is the $175m (£145m) cost cap (with non-inclusions, like driver salaries and marketing).
Throughout the whole process (which essentially began when Liberty bought F1’s commercial rights in 2017), consensus has been the key word for both Liberty’s Ross Brawn and FIA president Jean Todt. The hope has been to bring all the teams along in a joint vision to enhance the appeal of F1 and attend to its perceived weaknesses. The 2021 roll-out of a ‘clean-sheet F1’ to align with the new contract between teams, the FIA and Liberty was supposed to be the all-in-one fully researched and fully supported encapsulation of that aim.
But as crunch time approaches, that unity is not there – and the lines are drawn by the teams of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.
Whatever form F1 takes from 2021 has to be decided by October, because the current contract expires at the end of 2020. Delaying the new rules by a year, to give extra time to hammer out consensus, is not an option. Liberty must have a contract in place with the participants, otherwise it doesn’t own anything beyond 2020. The participants in turn must know a year in advance what the regulations for their 2021 cars are going to be.
Ordinarily the FIA, having valiantly tried but failed to get full agreement among the teams, might simply announce the new regulations and invite the teams to enter. But Ferrari has the power – written into the regulations since 1980 – to veto any rule change that it deems against its interests. Ferrari claims it would invoke the veto only with great reluctance and would prefer its views are reflected in the rules. The inference is clear: it will use the veto if the regulations are pushed through as they are currently proposed. Which is convenient for both Mercedes and Red Bull, who share broadly the same reservations as Ferrari.
So what exactly are the proposals and what are the big teams’ objections?
The joint Liberty/FIA aero proposal is the key part of the 2021 F1 revolution and has been four years in the planning. Liberty has employed a team of aerodynamicists and engineers, led by Pat Symonds (ex-Benetton, Renault and Williams, to name but three), to complete an unprecedented research programme into the physics of aerodynamic wake around an open-wheel single-seater. Former Ferrari and McLaren aerodynamicist Nicholas Tombazis was initially part of this group, but subsequently became the FIA’s head of single-seater technical matters. Helped by this link, the two bodies have been in full alignment and the proposed 2021 car that has arisen from the research is largely Tombazis’s creation.
A current car loses about 50 per cent of its downforce when running within two lengths of the car ahead. Hence it’s very difficult to get close enough through a corner to set up an overtaking move along the following straight, at least without the benefit of DRS. Furthermore, running close behind another car tends to overheat the front tyres from the extra sliding and the stalled, slow-moving airflow around them.
Based upon the research, the proposed 2021 car features vastly simplified over-body aerodynamics, with no barge boards, a simple front wing and prescribed sections that must be filled with bodywork (thereby precluding intricate vanes and appendages). A much greater proportion of total downforce is generated from the underbody, which features multiple tunnels running back from ahead of the sidepod. These act as vortex generators to feed a very big rear diffuser. Strips of bodywork above the front tyres direct a lot of the wheel wake to the centre of the car. These things combined generate a much cleaner wake – and the car behind is much less sensitive to the airflow.
Simulation suggests that this car would lose only 5-10 per cent of its downforce when running closely, a spectacular improvement and one that could make the much-criticised drag reduction system redundant.
Closing the performance gap
The notional box sections that must be filled with bodywork essentially make the aerodynamic format of the car much more prescriptive than it is now. Aerodynamic performance would be less of a differentiator than currently, simply because there’d be less performance to be found there.
“The idea,” says Ross Brawn, “is that if a big team can devote a lot more resource to it than a small team, it will still find a performance advantage. But rather than that being 2sec, it might be more like 0.2sec.
“That means that if a smaller team has a really strong young driver or a great strategy team, it can still be a factor, still has a chance of doing something.”
A further 40 per cent reduction in permitted wind tunnel testing time is among the other proposals. Other performance differentiators have been identified and limited accordingly and are covered under the guise of financial sustainability. Standardised wheel rims, for example, would end one area of expense where the higher R&D spend of a bigger team currently buys it a performance advantage. Wheel rim design and how it is used, not just for aerodynamic performance but also to optimise control of tyre temperatures, is currently a major differentiator.
“Just standardising brakes would cut teams’ costs from $3 million per season down to $475,000”
In order to match the budget cap with a spend level that can allow even the smaller teams to be financially viable, an extensive programme of standardisation is proposed.
This is set to include fuel systems, radiators, braking systems, pit equipment, wheel rims, hubs and nuts. The braking system, for example, would cut costs from the current $3 million per team annually to about $475,000.
There was an initial proposal for a standardised gearbox to be adopted, and tenders went out, but the concept was withdrawn and in its place is a suggested five-year spec freeze instead.
Hydraulic suspension (the most sophisticated of which currently mimic traits of active suspension) would be banned, as would certain components, such as inerters (which do improve performance, but are actually also performance-neutral, mostly because everybody has them).
Ferrari’s objections are essentially those of Mercedes and Red Bull. The position of all three top teams can almost be taken as one – all lined up behind the power of Ferrari’s veto.
They have agreed in principle to sign off on the $175m cost cap, but they do not agree with the aero regs or the standardisation.
The lack of feasible differentiation between cars with the proposed aero regs is a problem for them. They want to retain a greater ability to innovate than these regulations would permit. The prescriptive boxes are a particular point of issue.
They contend that never in the history of the sport has it tried to make so many major changes all in one sweep – financial, aerodynamic, tyres (which are set to go from 13-inch to 18-inch low profile), standardisation and possible changes to the format of race weekends. The potential for an unclear outcome is too great.
The objective of improving the racing by aerodynamic means is too uncertain, they claim. Just a small, unforeseen innovation could fundamentally change a car’s aerodynamic behaviour in a way that would completely fail to meet the objective. The current regs have been honed over three decades and these start from scratch in a way that has not been done before. The likelihood of unintended consequences is therefore high. Furthermore, new regs inevitably increase the field spread, they say. Which thereby would be in direct opposition of the ‘close up the field’ objective.
A better way of improving the racing, they contend, would be by improving the tyres, which currently tend to overheat when running close behind another car and which can be very difficult to get into the ideal operating window. More robust tyre performance would achieve the better racing objective, they maintain, with much more certainty than an aero change.
The three also believe standardisation of major components would not meet the objective of increasing financial viability. In justifying this position, they claim that the current standardised parts supplied by external contractors cost more in quality control and x-raying to achieve the necessary levels of reliability, than it would cost to make themselves.
The reduction of aero as a performance differentiator and the standardisation of parts strike at the heart of how the top teams use their greater budgets to be quite so good.
Together with the largely agreed changes in income distribution between the teams (which would result in slightly lower bonuses being paid to the top teams, with the saving spread out to those lower down the order), acceptance of the technical proposals would mean voluntarily risking their pre-eminence. It would be turkeys voting for Christmas.
Their belief is that the proposals might prove too effective in reducing the inbuilt advantages of the top teams. Hence the other seven are happy with what’s on the table.
“The time for talking is over and the bosses at F1 and the FIA need to act,” says McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl. “We have all downloaded our input. We’ve done this for two years, all the teams. The FIA and F1 have a clear idea of what they want to put in place. We simply want to see action now and we can move on.”
It’s a view backed up by Claire Williams. “We had some foundation principles in place and Williams fundamentally agreed with those. I’d like to see them adhered to as best as possible,” she adds.
However, while the motives behind the position of the top teams might be transparent, some of the arguments they bring seem to have some validity. They may be making those points for reasons of self-interest, but they do hold up independently.
Prime among these is the tyre situation. The racing would self-evidently be improved if Pirelli could provide front tyres that did not overheat when close behind another car. But heat-degrading compounds have been a fundamental way of providing the differing performances that Pirelli was asked to conjure. “I think we have been asking totally the wrong things of Pirelli,” says Pat Symonds, as the F1 Group begins to recognise that a better understood and more precise model of tyre behaviour needs to be incorporated into the proposed changes.
The problem goes deeper than that, though. Pirelli’s preferred concept of racing tyre is the double belt, a traditional construction that in the days of the tyre wars was rendered obsolete by the more advanced single belt. To keep the stresses of the double belt within the safety parameters, it needs high minimum pressures, giving a tyre that’s prone to blistering, graining or very difficult to get into its operating window. Pirelli moved to this construction after the very public failures of its single-belt tyres in 2013, most notably at Silverstone. But the effect, with the high-downforce, heavy, super-torquey hybrid cars is a tyre that either needs to be driven seconds off the pace in races or which is difficult to manage (according to how deep the tread gauge is made).
There are real concerns about whether Pirelli’s preferred concept can be made compatible with the traits of the tyres F1 ideally needs. The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) has expressed these doubts strongly behind the scenes for years, but is becoming increasingly strident about the matter. Ferrari/Mercedes/Red Bull might just be seeing that criticism of the tyres as a convenient way of busting the aero proposals (as in, ‘What’s the point of changing aero when it’s the tyres that are the problem?’). The GPDA looks upon this sudden support of its tyre views with some scepticism. As well as pushing for better tyres, the GPDA also largely approves of the proposed aero changes. There is a sense that the three big teams are jumping on their bandwagon regarding tyre criticisms, just to achieve an altogether different objective.
Furthermore, “Pirelli provides up to $60 million annually to F1’s global budget,” says one of them. “Liberty is not going to surrender that and the teams are not prepared to…” Pirelli is staying, in other words. The big teams know this, but don’t mind criticising Pirelli in order to bust the aero regs down.
The retention of Pirelli – indeed of a single-supply tyre manufacturer – is one of two key points that the proposed 2021 regs are having to wind their way around. The other is the retention of hybrid power units, which is the main reason the cars are much heavier than ideal. “The cars are way too heavy,” says Lewis Hamilton. “With a lighter car we could fight harder. At the end of the race we can push more, we can race more without so much of a tyre drop-off and that’s because the car is lighter on fuel.” As such, refuelling has come back onto the radar for 2021. But with better tyres and/or lighter cars (if hybrids were abandoned), there would be no need for that. But the power of the automotive manufacturers who have invested in them holds sway.
“There are some things on which we can’t turn the clock back,” acknowledges Brawn. “This is a very impressive engine but it’s pretty complicated and pretty heavy with its batteries and energy recovery systems. We’d all love the cars to be lighter…
“There’s not been a serious look at where F1 should be, until now”
“Recently Jenson drove the Brawn GP car from 2009 and it was a delight, very light, very compact. He said it was a joy and asked whether we could go back to those days. But the confrontation to go back that far would be too damaging for F1. So we have to operate within some constraints. That’s the commercial reality.”
Between those two unhelpful hard points, the Brawn-led group has come up with an incredibly well-researched, funded and well-intentioned set of proposals for the future of F1. Quite how successful they would be in meeting the objectives can’t be known for certain. But even on this Brawn is open-minded. “These regulations would not be a one-stop shop,” he insists. “The group will carry on working as team solutions evolve. We’ll monitor and develop to make sure we achieve the objectives.
“Where we are today has been reached without an awful lot of structure – the cars we have now, the way we race now. Decisions and directions have evolved due to political pressures and there’s not been a serious look at where F1 should sit until now.”
Except that there are three powerful teams lined up behind a finger on the nuclear veto button…
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