There tends to be fashionable terms in Formula 1 at the start of a new season. In the past that has been things like ‘coanda exhaust’, ‘fuel flow’ or even ‘DAS’ last year.
This year, if there’s a word you’ve heard a lot of in the first few weeks, it has probably been ‘rake’.
Rake relates to the angle that the whole car is running at, so how much higher the rear is compared to the front. High-rake is when the rear is significantly raised compared to the front end, whereas low-rake means the floor looks more parallel to the track surface.
For many Motor Sport Magazine readers, that’s probably not a new term, but it is one that has been used a lot more frequently than perhaps you’re used to. And that’s because it appears to be central to the way the competitive order has changed more significantly than you’d perhaps expect in a year when many regulations were frozen.
Specifically, it is Mercedes and Aston Martin – two very similar design philosophies with low-rake – that have been hardest hit. And it has annoyed both teams.
“I’m sure it’s been designed to change the pecking order – but we know that” Toto Wolff
“I am sure it has been specifically designed to somehow change the pecking order,” Toto Wolff said. “But we know that. We knew that the low-rake concept is going to be a car that is going to be more penalized than the high-rake, but it’s still a big challenge for us. We like it, we embrace the competition. It’s just about doing the best possible job without complaining.”
Admittedly, that’s exactly what Mercedes did with Lewis Hamilton going on to win the opening race, but Hamilton himself hadn’t got the memo from his team boss.
“It’s no secret that that’s what the changes have… of course they’ve been done to peg us back,” Hamilton said. “We had the changes of course to our engine to do the same thing, but that’s OK, we love a challenge, we don’t look down on these things, we just work hard to do the best we can and that’s what we will do”
And it wasn’t just Hamilton who was unhappy, as Aston’s Otmar Szafnauer regularly criticised the regulation change. But we can sort of discard that in the sense of last year’s car being an attempt to copy the Mercedes philosophy so it was always likely to be hit in the same way.
So if we just focus on the defending champions, are the new regulations really designed to slow down Mercedes?
Well, new regulations are never going to be introduced with the intention of extending the advantage of the already dominant team… But that doesn’t mean they are then an active attempt to hurt one team more than another.
If ten teams have worked to a certain set of regulations that are then largely frozen, and you introduce one area that has to be changed, it’s going to impact somebody. That’s just a fact.
The change was introduced on safety grounds, with a concern that the Pirelli tyres – largely undeveloped as the 18-inch wheels and brand new cars were originally scheduled for this year – would struggle with increasingly faster cars.
When Pirelli designs a tyre, it has to take into account car development and the fact that over two seconds of performance can be found from the launch car to the one that races at the end of the year. If teams had then had another year of development (with no technical changes introduced at all) then the fear was the existing tyres – or even slightly modified ones – would not be able to cope.
“Both changes were decided during the first lockdown because we didn’t know what was going to happen and we decided to work in two directions,” Isola said. “But I believe that it was the right direction to develop a new construction in order to cope with the additional loads of the cars, because during the season this 4/5% that is still missing is going to be more, and we know that in one year they usually gain roughly 10% in downforce.
“So at the end of the year we will probably have cars with 5/6/7% more downforce than last year. I’m confident that with the new construction, obviously it was designed for these conditions and the additional loads.”
When you’re making a change that is likely to impact on the competitive order, you surely make the one that impacts the fewest teams you possible can. Mercedes and Aston have been the two most vocal pointing to the changes, but they’re also up against two power unit suppliers who have made significant changes too in the form of Ferrari and Honda.
When we look at the time lost by each team using their best qualifying laps in Bahrain in 2020 versus 2021, we get the following list:
That’s right, the top two teams are Ferrari-powered, the next two are Honda. Then one of the outliers – McLaren – switched from Renault to Mercedes, while the other – Haas – has already said it is doing very little in the way of development and is running two rookies.
It’s entirely plausible that a combination of the upgraded power units and the new regulations led to the turnaround, but even if it is all pinned on the downforce cuts – and therefore a coincidence that the three Mercedes-powered teams are clumped together near the bottom of the list after running at a power-sensitive track – it has hit multiple teams to varying degrees.
Mercedes and Aston are the most vocal, while Williams point to a high wind sensitivity and Alpine suggest they just need to do more floor development. But when just 20% of the grid are complaining about a change, I’d say the rule-makers have done a pretty good job of minimising the disruption.
At Imola, we’ll get the chance to see another comparison between a track used fairly late in 2020 and early in 2021, and some different data from all of the running we’ve had in Bahrain so far. The longer the season goes on, the better the picture that will start to emerge.
But even if it is rake philosophies that prove to be the main differentiator, it’s hardly a massive scandal. Rule changes impact everyone one way or another – sometimes enormously and other times it’s barely noticeable.
If it leads to a more competitive season with great drivers fighting it out on track in relatively equal machinery, and we’re not talking about tyre safety concerns, then it has been a very good change.