Analysis: How Formula 1’s big rules changes disrupt the competition

2022 F1 season

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Formula 1 is heading into the unknown in 2022. Its new regulations have ushered in a complete rethink of how the cars’ aerodynamics are designed, and more besides.

While the power units and drivetrains are largely unchanged, there is still plenty the teams need to get right and can’t afford to get wrong. The potential for a major change in the competitive order is obvious, and many teams are banking on that being the key to their success in 2022.

Mercedes have been the pace-setters for much of the past eight seasons, since the current power units were introduced. Their most well-equipped rivals, Red Bull and Ferrari, have tried to close the gap with varying degrees of success.

In 2021 F1 enjoyed it most competitive season for years. But the coming revolution could put a different team at the front of the pack, and potentially well ahead of its rivals. How likely is that? And if it happens, how long might it take for the rest to catch up?

F1 has been through periodic revisions of its technical regulations in past seasons. The last two major shake-ups provide pointers how the coming change might unfold.

2014: The V6 hybrid turbo era begins

Red Bull won the final nine races of 2013
The introduction of new, highly complex V6 hybrid turbo power units in 2014 proved the biggest shake-up of the playing field in F1 in recent memory.

Prior to that teams used normally aspirated V8 engines with, by modern standards, a mild hybrid component. But the arrival of the V8s in place of V10s in 2006 did not disrupt F1’s competitive order as dramatically as their successors did.

From the beginning of 2014 a Mercedes V6 hybrid turbo was the thing to have. Perhaps no team demonstrated this more clearly than Williams, who went from ninth in the 2013 standings (with Renault power) to fourth a year later.

On average, Williams were closer to Mercedes than any of their rivals on outright lap time over 2014. However their deficit stood at 0.9%. The year before, four teams lapped quicker than that on average, illustrating how much more competitive F1 was in the season before the hybrid turbos came in.

It took Mercedes’ manufacturer rivals a long time to match the their power unit’s blend of performance and economy. Ferrari began to draw closer in 2015, but the continued performance of Mercedes-powered Williams and Force India demonstrated the three-pointed star’s continuing advantage.

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2017: Wide cars return

The midfield has been catching the front runners
At the end of 2016 F1 shook up its aerodynamic regulations, increasing the width of the cars and giving teams greater freedom to generate downforce. Lap times were slashed by five seconds per lap or more at some tracks.

Ferrari exploited the opportunity presented by the new rules, cutting their deficit to Mercedes. For the first time in four years Lewis Hamilton faced a championship rival from outside his team, though he saw Sebastian Vettel off with two races to spare.

But while the new aero regulations enhanced the competition at the sharp end, they were not good news for the midfield teams, who slipped further back. Even Red Bull didn’t master the new rules to begin with, though by the end of 2017 they were back on course.

2022: The state of play

Only in the past two seasons have the midfield teams got as close to the front runners as they were at the end of the V8 era. Thanks to this the likes of McLaren, Alpine (previously Renault and Lotus), AlphaTauri (formerly Toro Rosso) and Racing Point (now Aston Martin) been competitive enough to snatch occasional wins.

Will the new rules help one of the midfield teams to emerge from the pack and overhaul Mercedes, who won their eighth consecutive constructors championship last year, and Red Bull, who took Max Verstappen to the drivers’ title? Could any team obtain the kind of long-standing advantage Mercedes had from the beginning of 2014?

The examples of recent changes provide some encouraging pointers. The power unit regulations are largely untouched, making it unlikely we’ll see the kind of far-reaching disruption to the competitive order which was ushered in by the 2014 changes and persisted for next three seasons. The aerodynamic changes in 2017 weakened Mercedes’ dominance.

The pace-setting teams of 2021 were also preoccupied by a close championship fight which went down to the final race. That inevitably served as a distraction from their 2022 projects. “Last year we were fighting for a championship and we needed to make sure that we did a good job with that and we also did a good job with this year’s car,” acknowledged Mercedes’ technical director Mike Elliott in a video released by the team yesterday.

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“That was a big challenge particularly now the regulations are such that we’ve got a cost cap, we’ve also got very limited runs in the wind tunnel. So we had to choose really carefully what resource we spend on the ’21 car versus what we resource we spent on the ’22 car.”

Red Bull wind tunnel, 2014
Teams faced tighter wind tunnel restrictions
On top of that new rules introduced last year restrict the amount of development resource teams can use based on their championship finishing position. As the 2022 car development was limited by the 2020 championship finishing positions, Mercedes were permitted less resource than Red Bull, who had less than McLaren and so on down to last-placed Williams.

Elliott admitted this, plus a general reduction in the amount of development permitted, has been a “big challenge over the winter” for Mercedes. “That’s been challenging, trying to work out how much we should have spent on last year’s car versus how much we should have spent on this year’s car.”

Furthermore, the new 2022 rules were designed in part to reduce the teams’ aerodynamic freedom, giving less scope for any one of them to produce a design masterpiece which leaves their rivals a second per lap down.

All of this means the world champions – and likely their rivals too – are in some doubt over exactly how competitive they will all be come the season-opener in Bahrain next month.

“In most years where we’ve got carry-over regulations, you’ve got a pretty good idea what good looks like,” said Elliott. “You know what sort of gains you need to make from the previous year’s car and you can sort of work on a direction of just fine tuning, finding all those incremental gains that are going to make you a little bit quicker.

“When you’ve got a brand new set of regulations, you don’t know what the limit is, you don’t know where you can get to. And that’s exciting for engineers, it’s an exciting challenge to work out what the opportunity might be and to try and explore all these opportunities and try and do that in a better way than the opposition does.”

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 18 comments on “Analysis: How Formula 1’s big rules changes disrupt the competition”

    1. Interesting article.

      Any reshuffle in technical rules means a big chance of the richest teams being back at the front.

      And we need to address some fear at the moment: in the last 15 years, Mercedes hit the nail twice when there were resets in tech rules: first in 2009 as Brawn and then again in 2014.

      I sense that´s going to be a lot of disappointment when this season begins.

      1. And we need to address some fear at the moment: in the last 15 years, Mercedes hit the nail twice when there were resets in tech rules: first in 2009 as Brawn and then again in 2014.

        As far as I am aware, as Brawn, the team were not one of the richest teams. I may be wrong, of course.

        1. Great point, Doc.

          What I remember was that Brawn had the biggest budget in 2008 coming from Honda. Honda pulled the plug at the end of that year, but all that money and effort was carried to 2009.

          And something curious: Newey missed the big trick that year, the double diffuser.

          1. And he also missed a trick (the complexity of the barge boards as Mercedes showed, as well as some other things) at the start of 2017, which meant they lacked downforce for the first half of the season @becken-lima – would be a bit anticlimactic if Merc got the rules right again while Red Bull missed a few bits; let’s hope a good selection of the other teams get it right (too)!

        2. No, but Honda poured a ridiculous amount of money into developing the car that became the BGP-001. I forget the actual number, but there were many, many zeroes.

      2. Doesn’t the budget cap negate the “richest teams” argument? At the very least, it won’t be an inevitability. Keep in mind Haas has been working on their 2022 car since basically late 2020 and they’ve borrowed a few hands from Ferrari. And you can bet there’s been a huge transfer of IP between the two during that time.

        1. The smaller teams are still spending quite a bit less than the budget cap. Though it will be interesting to see how Haas turn out, I agree.

    2. Great article as always Keith, backed up with stats and numbers, so no one can argue otherwise. Although I’m sure someone will try! As you’ve pointed out, when you factor in the Red Bull v Mercedes resource draining 2021 title fight, the cost cap and the 2020 Championship standings resource points offered for 2022 development. I’m pretty confident we will see Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Alpine at least being within 1 second of each other. In just over 6 weeks we will find out. Finally F1 is moving away from being a who’s got the biggest pockets arms race!

    3. We keep seeing this pattern of relative stability in the rules bringing teams closer and closer together as they homogonise their designs towards one overriding philosophy, then rules are shaken up and the field spreads again, only for it to slowly close up before the next big change.

      Every so often, the shake up will push a different team to the top but essentially, if you want a close field, keep the rules stable – or just make it one make formula! But you can’t have it both ways sadly.

    4. Mercedes was seemingly more unaffected by the WDC battle, though.
      They stopped considerable development relatively early, although wind tunnel development is something all teams wholly shifted to this year by the summer break at the latest.
      I’d be unsurprised if Merc gets the new aero rules right better than others, although I don’t count Ferrari out either.
      Achieving dominance will be harder than before via budget cap, WCC position-based wind tunnel time allocation, & prescriptive designs.
      Even if one team got things better than others, their advantage would probably only be marginal at best.
      I hope at least three teams could appear on top positions regularly & also a more condensed tail-end without a sole backmarker a la Haas last season & Williams in 2019.

      1. Mercedes stopped the 2020 car very early to develop the 2021 car to the maximum. A lot of the developing during 2021 was already done the year before.
        The start of 2021 was not so good. Mercedes missed the targets and needed a lot more. Only after the controversial Silverstone win they were back on track.

    5. GP2 aerodynamics! GP2 aerodynamics! I hope the cars do look different. Finally we’re in February so looking forward to seeing new cars!

    6. Wouldn’t 2008-2009 be the best comparison in terms of reg changes? 2009: Aero overhaul aimed at more overtaking and simplification, but engine architecture remains the same. And it should be noted the biggest aero gains in 2009 came from a shrewd underfloor solution.

      1. @btcamp I think the 2016-17 changes provides a similarly useful basis in that, as you say, the aerodynamic rules were changed but the engine rules largely didn’t (KERS aside in the case of 2009). However the more recent period offers the significant benefit that you don’t have to take differing qualifying fuel weights into account (I hated those rules).

        1. Fair point. It would be interesting to see a list comparing all the defining factors from one side of a reg change to the other. That being said, that list sounds painfully tedious to compile and I’m in no way asking anyone to actually take that on lol

          1. Edit: a more exact list**, i.e tire sizes, suspension geometry, fuel load requirements, etc

    7. Really excited for this season. Hoping someone gets it right moreso than Mercedes / Red Bull just so it’s not the same names in the headlines and on our screens for the majority of the race. I think trying to predict it is a bit of a waste, although I do expect the field to be a bit closer in general throughout the season, not necessarily in lap times during the race, just because some cars will work better than others at different tracks as the teams get a handle of the new tyres etc.. This can actually be seen with the 16-17 graph above, despite being averaged the ’17 teams’ performance is a lot more variable throughout the season compared to ’16

    8. The overall relative pace of the teams is interesting (and I really like the graphs of 5-race mean % deficit) but surely it’s a secondary factor to wins and points. You even mention it in passing (Williams was second quickest in 2014 but only 4th in the standings). Equally, mercedes lost some of its advantage in 2017 but still won the next 5 constructors titles.

      It’s more instructive to look at the major regulation changes in the past and try to analyse the impacts. Going back in time, I can think of the following:
      2022 – aero
      2017 – aero
      2014- aero, engine
      2009- aero
      2006- engine
      (Feel like there were big changes to sporting regs and tyres between 1999 and 2005 but no year-on-year seismic shifts)
      1998- aero
      1994- aero
      1989- engine
      (Big changes in the 70s and 80s but not imposed by major changes in regulations)
      1966- engine
      1961- engine
      1954- engine, chassis
      1952- engine, chassis (F2 rules)

      Of these changes, some resulted in significant upheaval in the pecking order (all the early years changes, 1994, 1998, 2009, 2014) and some resulted in the leading team consolidating or maintaining its place at the front (1989, 2006, 2017). It would be interesting to examine why.

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