F1's last big rule change turned grid upside down: it could happen again – MPH


Innovations from a minority completely shook up the F1 order during the last major rule changes – might more lateral thinking cause a similar situation in 2022?

Jenson Button leads 2009 Australian GP

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As we await the brave new era of Formula 1 and the radically different cars it’s as well to consider not only how well they may meet the aims of more overtaking and a closer more volatile grid, but also the competitive order between teams. It’s very easy to assume that it will look like it already did, with the same teams at the top, middle and bottom of the grid. But last time we had a regulation change anything like as major as this one – in 2009 – the grid was literally turned topsy-turvy.

McLaren entered that season having just won Lewis Hamilton his first championship and only narrowly having lost out to Ferrari in the constructors. The team from Brackley which had changed its name from Honda to Brawn entered having endured two seasons with awful cars at or near the back of the grid. The opening race in Australia confirmed what testing had suggested – Brawn had the fastest car, McLaren the slowest. Ferrari hadn’t got it quite as badly wrong as McLaren but was merely a mid-grid contender – and the closest Brawn had to a challenger was the former midfield team Red Bull. It was an entirely different competitive landscape, probably the most comprehensive shake-up ever seen from one season to the next.

Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 2009

Red Bull were transformed from midfield also-ran to title contender in 2009 by Adrian Newey’s airflow rethink

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With an entirely different new front wing, the severe cutting back of barge boards and the moving back of the diffuser and reduction of its ramp angle, the accumulated advantage of the top teams had effectively been wiped clean. Everyone was starting with a clean computer screen and – crucially – with no reference to what anyone else was doing, no idea of what was a competitive lift:drag number. They could only reference themselves. What did ‘spectacularly good’ or ‘spectacularly bad’ look like? No-one knew.

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That’s pretty much the situation they are in right now. Except the regulation change is even more extreme, with big changes to the front wing/nose, the abolition of barge boards, a venturi channelled floor in place of the flat floor/rear diffuser combination – and a radically different rear wing, plus all sort of mechanical changes to the suspension and a new size of wheel/tyre.

All the accumulated knowledge of how to control the vortices created in the gap between the nose and the wing elements – the absolute key to how good your car was – has been rendered irrelevant. With no way of knowing what solutions the other teams have come up with, no-one has any idea of what constitutes a good or bad aero number. Broadly, the top cars in 2021 were achieving a lift:drag coefficient in excess of 5, with a back of the grid car somewhere in the mid to high 4s. The ’22 concept car which FOM presented at Silverstone last year had a coefficient of around 4, but it’s expected that will be comfortably bettered by the teams’ own cars. But by how much and who will find the most?

2022 Formula 1 car

The 2022 concept offered by F1 had a lift:drag coefficient of 4 – but it’s expected teams will comfortably better this

Formula 1

Although these regulations are very prescriptive, with even fewer freedoms than before they do not preclude someone finding a different more responsive area of sensitivity in the car’s aero surfaces or a loophole no-one had thought of. Or one which most had spotted but one or two did not. Back in ’09 the double diffuser was the loophole and the feature which generated the headlines, but that alone was not defining. That much was obvious by the double diffuser Toyota and Williams being nowhere near Brawn’s pace – and the (initially single diffuser) Red Bull being Brawn’s main competition.

The rest of the car had to be sympathetic to how the air flowed through and over that new front wing – and it was in this that Adrian Newey’s Red Bull RB5 was so effective. Newey realised that the traditional square section chassis was a terrible mix with the vortices created through the centre of the new front wing and created a H-section shape instead. At the back, he understood how the conflicting pressures around the wheels and diffuser needed to be resolved, leading him to come up with a very tapered rear which then flared out above the diffuser, creating a fish-tail shape when seen in plain view. Both features would come to be ‘generic F1’ for the next decade and more. But it was the opportunity the new regs gave to such fresh thinking which transformed Red Bull from mid-grid minnows to title-contending giants in one move.

Back then, the new front wing ran to the full width of the car for the first time, making it extremely difficult to direct the air coming off it into the centre of the car, where it had always been directed before. Most teams realised that actually, it was now better to direct the flow from the wing’s outer ends around the front tyre and then seek to keep that flow away from the centre of the car as it travelled down its length. One team – McLaren – continued to in-wash the front wing flow. Which was why it was disastrously uncompetitive.

There’s no guarantee this regulation change will make such a sea change – but it’s not something we should dismiss either.

Lewis Hamilton McLaren 2009

McLaren pursued the dead-end in-wash the front wing flow in ’09, much to its detriment

Grand Prix Photo

McLaren pursued the dead-end in-wash the front wing flow in ’09, much to its detriment