The 2021 F1 season was supposed to be the beginning of a new era of technical regulations.
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.
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.
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.
“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
|1||Bahrain International Circuit||1’27.264||2020|
|3||Autodromo do Algarve||1’16.466||2020||Not yet confirmed on calendar|
|4||Circuit de Catalunya||1’15.406||2019||New track layout for 2019|
|6||Baku City Circuit||1’40.495||2019|
|7||Circuit Gilles Villeneuve||1’10.240||2019|
|9||Red Bull Ring||1’02.939||2020|
|13||Zandvoort||New track layout for 2021|
|18||Circuit of the Americas||1’32.029||2019|
|19||Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez||1’14.758||2019|
|21||Albert Park||1’20.486||2019||New track layout for 2021|
|22||Jeddah Street Circuit||New track for 2021|
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