Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Imola, 2020

Will lap times keep falling in the last blast for F1’s fastest cars ever?

2021 F1 season

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The 2021 F1 season was supposed to be the beginning of a new era of technical regulations.

Formula 1 spent years devising new rules intends to reshape the cars and simplify their aerodynamics in the hope of producing better racing. This was also expected to make the cars significantly slower.

The pandemic meant those plans were put on hold for a year and the current generation of rules given a stay of execution. The present regulations, introduced in 2017, freed F1’s technical minds from previous restrictions to create much more aerodynamically sophisticated and faster cars.

When they were introduced, F1 set a target of cutting five seconds off their lap times at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain. This target was hit, and cars have continued to get quicker and quicker in the years since.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Red Bull Ring, 2020
We saw sub-63-second lap times in Austria last year
The present generation of Formula 1 cars are the quickest ever seen. The outright track record at every circuit on the calendar has been set within the last two years, aside from at Singapore, which was one of several venues F1 did not race at last year due to the pandemic.

Will we see even quicker lap times in 2021? As usual the engineers have had the off-season to further refine their aerodynamics and seek greater performance from their power units. But there are several reasons why this year’s cars may not be able to beat the benchmarks set in recent seasons.

F1 teams agreed a package of minor but significant aerodynamic changes to rein in the cars’ performance in the wake of the tyre failures seen at last year’s British Grand Prix. Reductions to the size of the rear floors and the diffusers are expected to add to lap times.

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Teams have also been tightly restricted in the amount of development they are allowed to do between seasons under a ‘tokens’ system introduced as a cost-saving measure. The new cars are likely to see far less development during the championship as well, as teams prioritise work on their new regulations for the 2021 F1 season.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Monza, 2020
Hamilton’s Monza pole was the fastest lap ever seen in F1
McLaren technical director James Key expects most teams to begin the season with less downforce than they had last year. “I’ve heard this from other teams as well during various meetings and so on, that the regulation changes were effective,” he said. “They did knock downforce back quite a bit.

“Most of it was rear-axle. There’s always some upstream implications as well. But that was really the aim of these regs and they did have quite a significant effect.

“We’ve been in the process of clawing it back. Our launch-spec car is some of that. The race one spec car, which is still in definition at the moment, will be a further chunk of it. I can’t give you a percentage at the moment in terms of where we’re actually going to be at race one. But it will be a percentage rather than ‘110%’, let’s say.”

However Key expects teams will return to the downforce levels they reached last year at some point during the upcoming 23-race campaign.

James Key, McLaren, 2020
Key expects teams to recover lost lap time
“Probably we’ll see, when we go into winter testing and the start of the season, some immature cars with some of this aero. There appears to be quite a bit of potential still there. It’s had the effect of halting the rapid progress that’s been going on now with these cars for a long time, and we kind of needed to do that for an extra year with these regs I think, with the lap times last year.

“But there’s still a lot of development potential around the rest of the car and to find in these changes as well. So my guess is that as we get into the season, most will have recovered everything. Whether it’s race one or not, it’s difficult to say. I don’t think probably 100% quite yet.”

Other factors besides car development will also influence whether we see more record-breaking lap times in 2021. Pirelli has revised its tyres for the upcoming season, and the cars have become slightly heavier again. But never underestimate the capacity of F1’s design wizards to conjure more lap time out of seemingly nowhere.

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Fastest lap times at 2021 F1 race venues

RoundTrackTrack recordYearNotes
1Bahrain International Circuit1’27.2642020
2Imola1’13.6092020
3Autodromo do Algarve1’16.4662020Not yet confirmed on calendar
4Circuit de Catalunya1’15.4062019New track layout for 2019
5Monaco1’10.1662019
6Baku City Circuit1’40.4952019
7Circuit Gilles Villeneuve1’10.2402019
8Paul Ricard1’28.3192019
9Red Bull Ring1’02.9392020
10Silverstone1’24.3032020
11Hungaroring1’13.4472020
12Spa-Francorchamps1’41.2522020
13ZandvoortNew track layout for 2021
14Monza1’18.8872020
15Sochi Autodrom1’31.3042020
16Singapore1’36.0152018
17Suzuka1’27.0642019
18Circuit of the Americas1’32.0292019
19Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez1’14.7582019
20Interlagos1’07.2812018
21Albert Park1’20.4862019New track layout for 2021
22Jeddah Street CircuitNew track for 2021
23Yas Marina1’34.7792019

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  • 35 comments on “Will lap times keep falling in the last blast for F1’s fastest cars ever?”

    1. I dont care about the fastest lap time, what i would like to see is much less difference between the actual race times and the qualification times, so they actually drive the cars fast as they are race cars. Today its hilarious how slow they are compared to qualy times, i hope that will get better in the future!

      1. They’ll need refuelling or a mandatory last 5 laps pit stop for tyres for that.

      2. The only way to accomplish that would be to qualify on a full gas tank, or allow refueling in the race. Even then, you would need the perfect condition of fresh tires and low fuel which logically would never happen unless a team was going for the fast lap in the last 3 laps of the race.

      3. @maisch I’m the opposite. I’ve never cared about race times being quite a lot slower than QLF times since refuelling got banned for the 2010 season. Lap times are less relevant in the races anyway.

      4. @maisch Its physics! The only way to slow them down is to make them slower in quali and why would you do that? It’s exciting to see the cars go around on empty with full power with a single (or 2) shot at it.

    2. Today its hilarious how slow they are compared to qualy times, i hope that will get better in the future!

      The only way that will happen is by re-introducing refuelling.

    3. I think you mean ‘new track layout for 2021’ rather than 2019 regarding Circuit de Catalunya and Albert Park. The same note for Zandvoort is less relevant, while for Jeddah, of course, equally 2021 rather than 2019.
      Maybe on some tracks, and not on others. We shall wait and see.
      While the floor alterations for this year should initially cut DF by 10%, People, of course, should also remember that no one managed to beat the 2019 pole time in Spain (the changes at the beginning of S3 may impact lap average speed and thus overall time, though) nor Abu Dhabi and that most of this year’s scheduled circuits have the fastest 2019 (2018 for Singapore and Interlagos) QLF time as the reference for the outright record since F1 didn’t race on those last year, nor will they probably race in at least China (2018) this year either. Therefore, the most relevant comparisons are suitable for the tracks with the absolute record from last season. Other things than merely the cars or tyres can affect lap times too, such as track surface temperature, grip level, etc. Overall, I expect a fairly consistent season for lap times compared to last or the recent past seasons.

    4. @maisch There been a couple seconds difference between Qualifying and race lap times is nothing new though & a difference of 4-5+ seconds is the way it’s been for most of F1’s history because contrary to what some fans seem to think F1 has never been a flat out sprint & has always seen drivers having to drive at less than 100% to manage various elements of the car.

      For example going back 30 years to the first race of 1991 in Pheonix. Senna’s pole time was 1:21.434
      , The fastest race lap by Jean Alesi was 1:26.758 on lap 49.
      And picking a random race from the bore-fueling era the 2002 Hungarian Gp. Barrichello’s pole time was 1:13.333 & the fastest lap of the race set by Schumacher was 1:16.207 on lap 72.

      I think the only period where qualifying & race times were similar with race times sometimes been faster that qualifying pace was in the 2003-2009 period where they had to qualify on race fuel.

      1. @roger-ayles And of course there were the times of teams having specific specialty quali engines where internal components like pistons and rods etc were shaved down to add performance but that would never be able to last a race distance without destroying themselves. Swapped out for the more durable but slower race engines overnight.

        1. Not necessarily – in some cases, such as BMW, the differences between the race and qualifying engines was really just the oil seals on the pistons (finer seals used on the qualifying engines, which reduced friction at the cost of higher wear).

          In fact, they often did re-use reconditioned qualifying engines in races in that period – even the major manufacturers didn’t just bin every single engine, as often the components could be easily used again. Cosworth reckoned more than 90 percent of the components that were fitted to those engines would end up being used in a rebuilt engine – teams reused a lot more than they might have suggested that they did.

        2. @Robbie, your right ofcourse but @anon has also a point.

          But most races when i was young were very slow compared with the qualify and the times between teams were awefull huge like 1-2 seconds between fastest team and team second of that. And we shall not talk about the lesser teams those were 4-9 seconds slower. I find current cars much more honest but the aero is a bit over the top.

      2. Tommy Scragend
        1st March 2021, 14:55

        Indeed so. Drivers have pretty much always had to drive at less than full whack. These days it’s because of tyre management but in the past it has been for example in order to either save the car from breaking down or to avoid running out of fuel.

        Wasn’t it Fangio who said the art of motor racing was “to win at the slowest possible speed”?

    5. Turkey one of the lest few racetrack to keep its 2005 lap record. JPM.

      1. @jeff1s Indeed, but solely because of more or less gripless track surface + wet weather on QLF day. Otherwise, the 2005 record (which, coincidently, is both outright and official) wouldn’t have stood. Maybe, if something were to happen this year that gave Istanbul Park another chance, the lap times might (or would probably) be faster than they were last November.

    6. Well it’s going to be very interesting. Key is echoing exactly what Brawn predicted/intended would happen in that the removal of some floor area would reduce downforce by around 10% knowing the clever teams would claw much of that back, with the net effect being likely no more downforce than last year or at least not until some or much of the season goes along. All to not stress the tires too much.

      As to how much teams will put into clawing more and more downforce back as the season goes along I think much will depend on the standings. Taking Merc and RBR for example, if it looks like last year and Merc is miles ahead with RBR behind regularly but miles ahead of the rest, I can’t see them keeping seeking out downforce for the whole season. But if RBR are much closer to them perhaps they both will not have a choice but to keep that downforce seeking up.

      Sounds to me like lap records will less likely be broken or certainly if/when they are it won’t be by much. Oh…but presumably the pu(s) are now all a bit better, and the similar-to-last-year downforce will be more efficient downforce…lol this is why they run the races. We’ll know when we know, one race at a time.

      1. @robbie As I posted below, the effects are supposedly in the area were Mercedes made some extra aero gains last year (rear axle) so maybe they’ll be relatively more heavily effected. Or maybe not. As you say, time will tell… But we could well see closer races at the front.

        1. @david-br Good stuff. Going to be exciting to see.

    7. Considering the tyres are believed to be around 0.4 sec slower on average than last year (according to AMuS), plus the loss of downforce due to the changes on the floor, I doubt we’ll see many lap records being broken. Maybe on tracks which weren’t on last year’s revised calendar (Monaco, Baku, Mexico, etc.), but not on the other ones.

      1. @srga91 Out of the tracks shared by both last year’s revised calendar and this year’s (at-the-moment) scheduled one, Circuit de Catalunya and Yas Marina Circuit are the only ones where no one managed to beat the fastest 2019 lap time. As a result, the outright record isn’t from last season like for the rest. The former has faced changes to the T10-T11 area, though, so at least slightly less comparable, but YMC is another matter. We shall wait and find out.

        1. @jerejj
          Yas Marina was a very strange weekend. Mercedes getting outpaced by RB in quali and race and both, Mercedes and RB, setting slower times in S3 in qualifying than they did in 2019, despite the cars producing more downforce in 2020. Even Ferrari improved by 0.4 sec in S3 compared to 2019.
          As you say, we will have to wait and see what happens.

    8. I think we could expect that Singapore’s lap record could be broken. I expect teams to unlock more pace by that stage of the year. The lap record was set in 2018.

      1. @krichelle The same for Interlagos. Shanghai as well, if it somehow found itself back on the schedule later, but unlikely to happen.

    9. Neil (@neilosjames)
      1st March 2021, 15:29

      Not really bothered – if anyone can tell me they can see the difference between a car going round a corner at 200kph and the same car going round the same corner at 201 kph, they have far better eyes than I do.

      I like the visual impact, though. The big expanse of floor ahead of the rear wheels is one of the few bits of an F1 car I find ugly, so it’s nice to see it cut away a little.

      1. To be honest, I thought the cars looked faster in the 90’s and 00’s than they do now. So much more work put in by the driver to make them go as fast as they were. And they sounded a lot better then too, to add to the experience.

        It’s such a primary school age thing to focus on laptimes and top speeds. That’s what time-trials are for, races are for racing.

        1. Agree. The mid-nineties cars were far more nimble and looked it. Even if outright pace was much slower.

          The current aero-tanks are much heavier, certainly faster, yet look much slower thanks to their heft and FOM’s camera/lens, shot choices. And such sluggish pigs in slow corners. Maybe F1 should just remove all chicanes and hairpins from all tracks and convert to high speed ovals. ;-)

          Understand the need for improved safety. And that adds weight. And weight reduces the nimbleness.

          Maybe the next ‘reduced’ aero gen will be harder to drive, tougher to control and more fun to watch. Also… maybe world peace will break out across the world.

        2. If you think of speed not in km/h but in “car lengths per second” it all makes sense. Todays cars are much bigger, so at the same speed they will move fewer car lengths in a given time and therefor look slower. That is probably the main reason it would be nice to see smaller cars again, because they would look faster, even if they aren’t.

          1. Size may be part of it – and they are certainly way too big – but I was really referring to the fact the cars used to twitch and move around a lot more.
            In that sense, F2 looks faster than F1 at times. As does Indycar.

      2. @neilosjames 1-2mph difference though a corner obviously not but I am able to spot when cars are slower by say 2-3+ seconds over a lap.

        For example when watching FP2 I can immediately spot when somebody has switched from a qualifying simulation to a race run because I can pick up that the car looks slower through each section of the track. It’s why I was one of those who held the view that the cars looked slow in 2014 after that regulation change & why I wasn’t that unhappy they gave them the performance boost with the 2017 changes (I also prefer the pre-98/post 2016 wider cars, Larger tyres & lower wings).

        I get caught out when going back & watching old stuff sometimes. Again giving an example.. I was watching the 1998 Italian Gp qualifying session not too long & kept mistakenly thinking cars on hot laps had backed off because of how much noticeably slower they looked through the Lesmo’s when compared to current cars.

        The speed is obviously a part of it, But it’s also things like how the higher downforce of today allows drivers to throw cars into corners & how that along with the speed/grip makes the direction change look more aggressive.

      3. Actually you see in FP when they are going for quali laps or races laps the race laps are slugish in corners due the extra weight while in quali laps the same corners are nible (not in the fast corners BUT the low and medium speed corners)

        In the 60-70 the cars were really small so the illusion you got is they went very fast. 80-90 the cars became bigger and it looked slower then 90+ the became sleaker and technical and they are much faster. ect.ect.

        Today the cars are very big and ofcourse they looks very slow but we know they are the fastest ever.

    10. McLaren technical director James Key expects most teams to begin the season with less downforce than they had last year. “I’ve heard this from other teams as well during various meetings and so on, that the regulation changes were effective,” he said. “They did knock downforce back quite a bit. “Most of it was rear-axle. There’s always some upstream implications as well. But that was really the aim of these regs and they did have quite a significant effect.

      So Mercedes lose DAS and this season’s regulations have reduced the effectiveness of an area of the car, real axle/diffuser, where they apparently made gains too last year (an early 2020 technical article identified these two developments as the most critical in terms of potential speed gains, the second more so). It will be interesting to see what they’ve done about that.

      1. Mark in Florida
        1st March 2021, 22:29

        (@david-br) what they are saying is true, relatively speaking. Down force will be cut back by a certain percentage but it will affect the top teams less and the small teams more due to development ability. So the finishing order will probably be the same as last year’s with Merc on top, Lewis winning another championship and everyone else fighting for the leftovers. So if your not a Merc fan another year of suffering no matter what the rules have cut back the down force. Cause it’s all relative.

    11. Stevenholmes
      1st March 2021, 22:40

      What a dumb question to ask. Every car should be faster than last year. Teams that fail to improve their speed this year should be omitted from racing.
      How about asking what each driver eats to see if that somehow makes them faster. Like I said another ridiculous topic.

    12. 26 days to the first race!!

    13. I know that they’re expecting the new design cars to be significantly slower but my bet is that it wont take long for any losses (if any at all) to be regained.
      Personally I can’t wait to see the new cars on track, regardless of whether or not they’re a bit slower because we “should” see them running closer to each other. I’m just hoping that the restrictions that have been built in don’t prevent at least some freedom in design so that there are still differences in how teams interpret them so they don’t all look exactly the same.

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