I know, not even two weeks into the new year, well over a month before we’ll see the 2022 car on track and over two months before it is raced, and I’m asking a negative question. But there is a reason.
During the post-season test in Abu Dhabi, Pirelli’s head of car racing Mario Isola told me that the latest simulations and data from teams suggested the new generation of car is likely to start the season within half a second of the cars that ended 2021, and therefore could well be quicker by the final race.
Following that, Nico Hulkenberg decided to give his views on Formula 1’s revolution this week, using LinkedIn to post a blog about his experiences of the 2022 car in the Aston Martin simulator. And there was a certain section that stood out:
“They aimed to be a bit slower, more challenging to drive, to have more focus on drivers that can make a difference rather car performance and aerodynamics dominate,” Hulkenberg said.
“It’s difficult for me to imagine that following another car will be easy.”
“From my initial experience however, the new cars are pretty damn fast and not necessarily slower than the last generation. The driving experience hasn’t changed that much either, at least in the simulator.
“It will be very interesting to see whether these cars can really follow the car in front better. In the simulator, the cornering speeds are extremely high, so the risk of ‘dirty air’ is still given and it’s difficult for me to imagine that following another car comfortably at these speeds will be easy.”
To be fair to him, Hulkenberg goes onto say that we will get a much clearer picture of how the cars really behave when they hit the track for testing, but he does raise a valid point. A car performing at that level is still relying so heavily on its aerodynamics that it will almost certainly be hurt when following another car closely, even if they are generating downforce in very different ways than before.
But this is where I’ll defend F1 and the FIA in regards to the 2022 cars before anyone starts panicking, because they never said there wouldn’t be an impact when following. They simply tried to reduce that impact as much as possible while maintaining a high performance level.
And we definitely look like we’re going to get the high performance level, but I’d be surprised if we get everything that has been targeted, because the teams have been let loose on the rules.
Once the engineers and designers get to work, they’re not worrying about the spirit of the rules or solutions that might impact the car behind. In fact, a solution that does impact the car behind is seen as preferable, because it makes you harder to overtake in a race situation.
That means there is every chance the cars are still creating significant dirty air – to be going that quickly it’s as good as impossible not to – but hopefully markedly less than in the past. And the last part is the most important on this front, because it is crucial that there is a direct correlation between the work done in developing the new rules, the intentions F1 had, and what actually happens on track.
A big focus was on the amount of aerodynamic performance lost by the following car, through a combination of where it generates its performance from, and what the wake of the leading car looks like. While those percentages might not match with F1’s figures and predictions, if they do add up to an improvement of some form then the theory – and therefore overall direction for the future – will be correct.
But at the end of the day, even if the worst-case scenario comes to pass and the cars are no easier to follow than their predecessors, that is not only an important lesson learned to shape future changes, but it also shows there are very different ways of being able to produce cars that can deliver very similar lap times, so there’s more scope to experiment. These aren’t the last set of rules an F1 team will ever get, after all.
Hulkenberg’s blog only really covers the cars themselves and not a huge amount about the overall pecking order, but as 2021 showed if you have closely-matched cars you can get close racing. The problem is, new rules rarely lead to a tightly-bunched pack from the off.
Usually, a significant change in regulations results in at least one team finding itself with a clear advantage over the rest of the grid because it has got its overall philosophy right compared to its rivals. Then, over time, teams start to converge when they learn from each other and identify the best directions to take.
And that’s something that we can expect to see again this year. To have multiple teams fighting closely together at the front would be great, as would a midfield that was as tight as we’ve seen in recent seasons, but it would be unfair to expect it to be like that when the cars first hit the track.
Instead, with a budget cap and sliding scale of aerodynamic testing based on previous performance, a key test will be whether any major gaps that exist at the start of the new era do close more quickly, and once they do then we’ll see how successful the closer racing attempts have been.
There will be hints again during this season, of course. Even if the windows are brief, if a driver is able to maintain an attack by pushing for a number of laps and doesn’t need to drop back to protect their tyres, then progress has been made. Whether we get that on a regular basis is another matter, because the cars might be much better to race with but more spread out than in recent seasons and therefore not conducive to showing that step forward.
So, to answer the headline, no we shouldn’t be worried about the 2022 car, we should just be realistic about what it is likely to mean for F1 this year. It’s the signs for the future that are just as important.