Formula One is poised to introduce major changes to the technical rules in 2017 in a bid to make the sport more exciting.
But will shaking up the rules arrest the progress Mercedes’ rivals have made in catching up to them?
Mercedes’ team boss Toto Wolff argued against the proposed rules change last weekend. Many Formula One fans will invoke the famous Mandy Rice-Davies quote in response to that: “he would, wouldn’t he?”
It’s not hard to imagine why Wolff, whose team has won 35 of the last 41 races, might not be keen to see the rules changed any time soon. But let’s suspend our cynicism for a moment and put his reasoning to the test.
“The longer you keep the regulations stable the more the performance is going to converge between everybody, and this is what is happening now,” he argued.
If Wolff’s view is accurate then we would expect to find teams had been close together in 2013 (the last year of the V8 engine rules), drifted apart in 2014 (the first year of the V6 hybrid turbo rules) and have closed up since then.
The graph below uses the fastest lap time achieved by each car during an entire race weekend to work out its average performance deficit to the quickest car* in the field in each season. Obviously for 2016 we only have data for the first three races:
It’s clear to see Mercedes jumped into a substantial lead after 2013. Last year Ferrari made great gains but Red Bull dropped further behind – hence their furious criticism of Renault’s efforts.
The field as a whole is more competitive this year than it was 12 months ago. Last year there were 20 cars spread by 6.39% from the front of the field to the back, so far this year we have 22 cars covered by 4.89%.
But on the face of it none of Mercedes’ closest rivals have made serious gains so far this year. Does this disprove Wolff’s view that Mercedes are being caught? A closer look at the three races we have data for so far this year suggests the true picture is more encouraging than that:
This limited data does indicate that in terms of one-lap pace Mercedes’ closest rivals have made measurable progress in catching them. Reports that Ferrari have had their engine turned down for reliability reasons so far, and that Renault and Red Bull will benefit from a significant upgrade in Canada, bodes well for the rest of the season.
Have these gains also been made over a race stint? That is difficult to judge as Mercedes’ closest rivals have had compromised runs in the last two races. Ferrari’s flying start to the opening round at Melbourne indicated the red cars’ potential, but they haven’t realised it yet.
How will Red Bull catch up?
There is a desire among the rule makers to encourage a competitive field. But it’s not hard to see why they might feel impatient over how long it is taking to happen naturally over time by keeping the rules consistent.
Last week Christian Horner mentioned discussions had taken place on setting targets for “power convergence to within a relatively small bandwidth” between engine manufacturers. Will this be achieved by keeping the regulations stable to encourage convergence to occur ‘naturally’ over time, as Wolff has suggested?
There is an alternative, which occurred the last time F1 introduced a new engine formula. When the V8 engine specification was frozen in 2008 Renault found themselves at a performance disadvantage to their rivals. They were given a dispensation to regain some of that lost ground, and the following year the Renault-powered Red Bulls became a race-winning, championship-contending outfit.
Then as now perhaps Red Bull will use political power, rather than horsepower, to close the gap.
*Williams’ unrepresentative 2015 United States Grand Prix performance has been discarded
2016 F1 season
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- Are tickets too dear? Crowds fell at some tracks in 2016
- F1’s TV audience decline stopped in 2016
- Brawn among key F1 hires announced by Liberty
- Has F1 hit ‘peak penalties’? Fewer sanctions in 2016