The cars are faster, the tyres are wider, the World Champion’s retired and everyone’s excited. Ahead of the opening race in Melbourne, Curtis Moldrich has the lowdown on what to expect from Formula One 2017.
The 2017 Formula One season is about to begin, but the cars racing around Albert Park this year will look very different to the ones that raced in 2016. That’s because the FIA has introduced new regulations for 2017 to make the cars faster and more demanding to drive. To find out more about the reasons behind the rule changes, how F1 teams are preparing for them, and what to expect from this season, Mobil 1 The Grid spoke to Dan Fallows, Chief Aero Engineer with Red Bull Racing.
The new rules
For the last few years, both drivers and fans have complained that F1 has become a mire of unattractive cars, fuel-saving and efficiency – and not about the best drivers in the world handling the fastest cars. The new 2017 rules are the FIA’s attempt to reverse that trend.
“The idea is to try to make the car look more aggressive, a lot more purposeful, and it does look aesthetically more pleasing,” Fallows says. “[The cars] will be harder to drive; the loads on the driver himself will be harder, [and] it will be a more difficult car to drive.”
To make F1 more in line with what many think it should be, this year’s cars are 200 mm wider than last year, and their tyres have also grown in width; from 245mm to 305mm at the front, and 325mm to 405mm at the rear. As a result, cars will have more tyre in contact with the road at any one time, giving more drivers more mechanical grip in slow corners, and more confidence in fast ones, too.
The new regulations have also had a dramatic effect on aerodynamics. Teams are now allowed to make the rear wing of the car 150mm lower and 200mm wider, generating much more downforce than before – and the diffuser is also allowed to be 50mm larger than it was last year. In addition, the size of the front wing has been increased to 1800mm, and it’s now swept back on each side.
“[We have] more mechanical grip and then we have more area or more space to do aerodynamic work so that we can produce more downforce on the car as well,” says Fallows.
Overall, these changes have made the cars around 3-5 seconds per lap faster – an eternity in Formula One. And it’s not just the drivers that have had to prepare for the new rules, teams have been working flat out to prepare for the new season, with each design team hoping they’ve done a slightly better job than their competitors.
Like every off-season, the last few months at Red Bull have been an methodical process of creativity and resource management. “We work on the things that we think are going to make the biggest difference to the car performance,” says Fallows. “And then we try to accommodate each other’s major projects in what we’re doing.
“And certainly as an ‘aero’ department we feel very well supported by the rest of the company, and trying to sort of make the things that we want to happen, actually happen on the car.”
Shuffling the pack
Rule changes are often viewed by teams as a reset button, in that they allow their design teams to – at least to an extent – start from scratch again. And sometimes when that happens, the grid order changes dramatically. In 1998, the Adrian Newey designed McLaren MP4-13 was dominant after a rule change, while the Brawn team did the same thing in 2009. And of course, 2014’s rule changes ushered in three years of Mercedes domination.
The Red Bull Racing team is looking forward to the new regulations, and so they should be. It hasn’t been long since the team won four championships in a row. And with Adrian Newey – one of F1’s most successful designers and aerodynamicists – at the helm, and new rules that focus on aero, there’s an expectation for Red Bull to do well.
“[The rules] give us some more freedom, so it’s very very good from our point of view,” Fallows adds. “There are some key areas on the car which we’ve been working on for the last few years which are now significantly different.
“The floor, the front wing, the rear wing as well – I think these are all areas where we can make significant gains. And mechanically, as well. I think, with a new tyre, it’s important we get an understanding of how they work both aerodynamically and from a kind of mechanical point of view. Making the best of those, I think, is going to be hugely important.”
Simulations and data is part of the development process, but drivers are also a key factor, and Fallows seems happy with the feedback drivers Daniel Riccardo and Max Verstappen have given about the car so far.
“They’ve been fairly complimentary about the performance of the car, but they have also identified areas that we need to work on, which is great from our point of view.
“We see the same kind of issues, or the same kind of limitations, in the data so we know exactly what we need to focus on, and that’s what we’re working on now.”
In testing alone, we’ve seen several different interpretations of the new rules, from Red Bull’s snout-like nose, to Ferrari’s tea-tray and sculpted sidepods – but we’ve also seen the return of another aerodynamic device: the shark fin.
After appearing in 2008, shark fins were banned from the sport in 2011, but the new regulations seem to have, intentionally or otherwise, let them back in. A shark fin essentially works like a rudder, and it helps to reduce turbulence the air flowing over the rear wing especially when the car is turning. This in turn helps to make the downforce levels generated more consistent – but not everyone likes how they look.
“We have a slightly lower rear wing this year, which is susceptible to some of the air flow disturbances that you get from the front of the car,” Fallows explains. ”So, from our point of view, we put a shark fin on it. It protects the rear wing in some circumstances.”
“I think it’s probably fair to say that it divides opinion in terms of its aesthetics. I quite like it myself, but some people think it spoils the look of the car a little bit. So it remains to be seen whether we’ll still see them on there at the end of the year or next year.”
Although testing is over, and the season is about to start, the development doesn’t stop after the first race. In-season development is crucial in F1, and the potential gains to be had are even larger during the first year of new regulations. Teams will constantly create new solutions – copy one another’s ideas and play with setups, so the pecking order can change from race to race. Being on top in Australia could mean relatively little this year.
“In any new set of regulations, inevitably the cars that hit the track are going to be relatively immature, particularly compared to the ones that you’ll see in a couple of years’ time,” explains Fallows. “So it is very much a development race from here. And we believe that we’re very well-placed to do that.
“We know what we’re going to work on and we believe we can react very quickly to issues or performance differentiators that we find. It’s just a question of how we develop the car from here on in, and what we can get done by the end of the season.
“We’ve given ourselves a good basis; we’re certainly at a good place. I’m very confident and I think we have a very good starting point, and a team that’s very fired up and motivated. So I’m fairly sure we’ll get there.”
With so many new rules and driver line ups, it’s fair to say Formula One is about to enter its most unpredictable period in years. At Albert Park this weekend, some of the world’s best drivers will race against each other in the quickest F1 cars ever made, and it’s going to mark an exciting new chapter of motorsport.