Is the drastic new rules package for the 2021 F1 season the beast compromise the sport could have struck with the teams?
As with race car set-ups, achieving the best regulatory balance is a process of juggling various compromises. However, compromises are only made once all relevant factors have been analysed – again, much like a car set-up.
Before that staged is reached, the regulators should ask themselves two crucial questions: “Does the sport at all need a new set of regulations?”; then, assuming it does: “What is F1 trying to achieve with its new regulations?”. At times in the not-so-distant past there have been changes simply for the sake of change (or some politicking or other), or so it seemed.
This time, there is no doubt that change is urgently required. A quick perusal of the victory roll since the current V6 hybrid turbo engine regulations were introduced in 2014 shows the subsequent 120 races have been won by three teams: Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull. Just 16 different drivers have finished in the 360 podium places available in that time – a number which stood at just 14 before Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz Jnr’s breakthroughs at the last round.
The reason is not hard to find: The ‘big three’ teams are paid enormous annual bonuses simply to turn up, so simply outspend the rest.
Thus the main imperative facing the regulators was one of levelling the financial playing field, to be achieved through the introduction of financial regulations (AKA a budget cap). But that the limit needed to be suitably generous so as not to alienate the big three who could, of course, choose to exit F1, and remain yet to formally commit to the sport. Don’t underestimate the impact their departure would have, particularly if the likes of Mercedes or Ferrari took their engine supplies with them.
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Equally, the spending level needs to be low enough to ensure the survival of the five independents teams – McLaren, Haas, Racing Point, Sauber and Williams – plus retain the ongoing commitment of manufacturer Renault and Red Bull junior squad Toro Rosso.
The vastly different business models of the current teams adds to the challenges faced in introducing the financial regulations. That explains the horse trading before a limit of $175 million per year (with exceptions) was agreed to by all.
The reduction in spending will be achieved partly through changes to the rules on the production of car parts. Today’s regulations provide for two parts categories – ‘listed parts’, which teams must hold design rights to, and ‘unlisted parts’ which may be sourced elsewhere.
The 2021 regulations increases the number of categories to five. They are Listed (as above), Standard (provided to all teams by a single supplier, which is chosen via tender), Prescribed Design (free supply to a single design specification) Transferable (may be shared between teams), and Open Source (teams must share their designs).
Reducing the financial imbalance between the teams was just one goal of the regulations. Another was to improve the quality of racing, but do so while maintaining the sport’s integrity as a car development championship and despite some teams’ budgets being cut by up to 50 per cent.
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The FIA and F1 identified reduced ‘following car distances’ (FCD) as being crucial to overtaking. For 2021 F1’s revamped aerodynamic regulations will reduce the ‘dirty air’ generated by the wake of the car ahead.
This was in itself a massive task, requiring untold (extremely expensive) wind tunnel studies, and, equally, complex computational fluid dynamics studies. I’m told the ‘FCD index’ should reduce by at least 50%, which will hopefully allow the cars of 2021 to race much more closely without the need for DRS to artificially close the gap.
Also under scrutiny were the sporting regulations, at this stage, though, little changed from what went before. True, weekend formats will likely change, but not so much that fans will notice a significant difference, aside that the Thursday pit lane ‘walkabouts’ may be affected. Further sporting changes are likely to be introduced at later dates once the effects of the revised technical changes is known.
I’m sure a number of clarifications and amendments will be issued both before 2021 and thereafter as the regulations bed in, and the acid test of whether (or not) the best possible compromises were achieved by the regulators can only be gauged after 2021. But of one thing I am absolutely certain: The FIA and F1 have, with the co-operation of the teams, given it their best shots.
That is the best that could be expected from them.