The first two races of 2009 are in the books, giving us our first chance to see if the radical new regulations designed to increase overtaking have had the desired effect.
So far the signs are good – but will it last?
The Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix were quite unlike the kinds of F1 races we have grown used to over the years.
We’ve seen the return of wheel-to-wheel dices for position. At Melbourne, often an overtaking-free zone in recent years, we saw cars going past each other in places where we thought it wasn’t possible.
And at overtaking-friendly Sepang some drivers were passing and re-passing each other over and over again.
But with so many changes to the rules this year, how can we tell what has made the difference?
The restrictive new rules on the size and shape of wings has given us some very peculiar looking F1 cars.
But it has also achieved its goal of cutting downforce, allowing cars to follow each other more closely. That has an obviously beneficial effect on the race.
It has also made the cars visibly much more difficult to keep under control. As a result, we have seen more mistakes from drivers, opening up the opportunity for overtaking.
Hand in hand with the reduced downforce is the long-awaited return to slick tyres. Already it seems the howls of disapproval when grooved tyres were imposed by the FIA were justified.
Now the balance of the cars’ performance has been shifted away from aerodynamics and towards tyre grip – as a result, they are able to get closer to each other.
It turns out there was a good reason why no other racing championship besides F1 was using grooved tyres after all…
Option tyre rule
We’ve had the ‘option tyre rule’, which requires drivers to use each of the two different compounds of tyres during a Grand Prix, since 2007.
But for the first time this year Bridgestone has brought compounds that are two stages apart instead of one: soft and hard at Sepang instead of medium and hard, for example.
This had clear consequences for the race at Melbourne. Ferrari made brilliant use of their super-soft tyres to get in among the leaders at the start – but once their performance degraded the F60s were easy pickings for their rivals.
It may have had a desirable effect on the racing, but the ‘option tyre rule’ is still controversial. Should F1, supposedly the pinnacle of motor racing, have rules such as this which handicap teams in an artificial manner to improve racing?
The counter-argument is that it forces even the drivers who have the best cars to demonstrate their skill with a compromised setup. But I suspect that cuts no ice with the purists.
Over the winter there was a lot of discussion over whether the extra six seconds of 80bhp over a lap would allow KERS-equipped cars to overtake their rivals more easily.
That debate has now been answered conclusively – yes it does. Not only that, the KERS cars are also able to deploy their power boosts defensively to keep rivals behind.
It remains to be seen what will happen when all the cars on the grid have KERS. Will the improved racing it offers vanish? Or will we start to see drivers using KERS in different ways – at different parts of the circuit, or using their boost all at once to maximum effect?
It’s entirely possible that the new adjustable wings have had a greater impact on the quality of the racing than anything else.
But it’s doubtful, for in the first two races of their year we’ve hardly heard or seen any sign of them.
Will it stay this way?
Is that it, then? The overtaking problem is fixed, now we can move onto something else? Probably not, but I think the Overtaking Working Group who came up with many of the changes deserve a hearty pat on the back.
It will be especially fascinating to see what kind of racing we get at ‘overtaking-unfriendly- tracks like Catalunya, Monte-Carlo, Valencia and the Hungaroring.
The question now is, will have good racing again next year – and the year after that?
We are at the very beginning of a significant change in the rules which has produced a variety of different solutions. Inevitably the teams’ design philosophies will converge – with most teams probably taking their inspiration from the Brawn BGP001, perhaps with a thoughtful glance in the Red Bull RB5’s direction as well.
In the years to come as the cars become more similar, their lap times may become closer, but the varying strengths and weaknesses that has given us so much entertainment in the first few races of the season may disappear.
That will be the next measure of success for the radical new rules.