When Formula 1’s managing director of motorsport, Ross Brawn, first revealed the early concepts for what would ultimately become the technical regulations revolution for the 2022 season, there was one core aim underpinning everything: improving the racing.
In Brawn – whose exploits as a technical director and then team owner had rewarded him with multiple world championships – Formula 1 had someone extensively qualified to not only recognise the root causes of the ‘dirty air’ affliction, but be able to conjure a viable solution to it.
“Once the cars get within a few car lengths of each other, they lose 50% of their downforce,” Brawn explained when the concepts for the then-2021 cars were made public for the first time in 2018. “That’s a substantial amount of performance lost. So we set about understanding why that was and how we can improve it.”
Now, years later, the ten teams, 20 race drivers, millions of eager fans across the globe and even Brawn himself have finally had their first glimpse of this new concept come to life, with three days of real world test data following last week’s ‘shakedown’ in Barcelona.
While the radically redesigned ground-effect cars have certainly proved pleasing when it comes to looks, the key question on everyone’s lips in the paddock – beyond ‘who’s looking the quickest’ – was can drivers finally run closer behind rivals without being heavily hampered by the invisible force of disturbed air?
“It seems like it’s a little bit easier to stay behind,” said world champion Max Verstappen after his first full day of running in Red Bull’s new RB18.
“At least, you don’t have this weird loss of downforce where sometimes you have a lot of understeer or massive oversteer. Of course, I don’t expect it to be fully gone and that you can follow on the rear diffuser, because of the speeds we’re still doing in an F1 car, but it all seems a bit more under control.”
Williams driver, Nicholas Latifi, was much more encouraged by the new rules package.
“I did actually have the opportunity to get behind a few cars,” he said. “And yeah, it’s definitely easier to follow. Without a doubt.”
Latifi’s optimism was echoed by new team mate Alex Albon. Asked if he had been surprised by anything out on track during his first official run as an F1 race driver since 2020, Albon replied: “how well we can follow”.
“That’s been pretty surprising,” Albon continued. “It’s a nice surprise, and it’s something which takes a bit of getting used to.”
Drivers are having to effectively relearn how to drive their cars while running close behind other cars, Albon explained, and try to forget the techniques they have forged over years of battling with dirty air.
“You gain almost a memory of what you can and can’t do when you’re a certain distance from a car, you learn how to back off, you learn the limits of following – and that’s kind of been recalibrated a little bit,” he said.
“I haven’t spent many laps behind other cars, but you can tell that it’s improved greatly. And that’s great for the sport.”
While most teams and drivers were focused mainly on learning about their dramatically different cars during their limited track time last week, George Russell and Lando Norris did find time to lap the track together and get a better feel for how the ground effect cars behave when tucked up behind another.
“I think me and George had a perfect demonstration of it,” explained Norris. “I didn’t want to let him past while he was on a quick lap, so screwed him over and held him up a bit.
“Definitely the ‘following in the corners’ part is an improvement. How much exactly? It’s hard to know, because you’re always on different fuel levels and tyres and stuff. Maybe when there’s two, three, four, five, six cars ahead, it can be quite different again.”
While Russell believes that it is now easier for cars to follow with the new rules, he admits to being concerned over how the ground effect aero dependency appears to have lessened the effect of slipstreaming down long straights.
“I think the following has been improved, but the slipstream effect has been reduced quite substantially, I think,” said the new Mercedes driver. “So I don’t really know.
“You obviously need that delta on the straights to be able to overtake, as you can only really overtake at the end of a straight into the corner. I think we can follow closer but, from what we’ve seen, the slipstream effect is definitely less effective, so we’ll have to wait and see. I got right up behind Lando and I was a car length or two behind and I couldn’t catch him down the straight, so that was slightly concerning.”
Valtteri Bottas offered similar feedback to Russell, despite his limited laps at the wheel of the Alfa Romeo over the course of the three days. Bottas projects that if the trend continues, DRS may end up becoming a more powerful overtaking aid in 2022 that it was before.
“I did chat with some other drivers, they say they got close, they said they had less slipstream effect,” Bottas explained. “I think it’s an important point that the DRS effect is bigger this year because of the wider wing, so maybe that will compensate the small loss of the slipstream.”
While that may prompt some worries from concerned fans hoping to see the back of the Drag Reduction System from Formula 1 for good, it’s also important to keep in mind how all this is based from impressions over three days at the Circuit de Catalunya – a track capable of producing close racing in many series, but less so when it comes to F1.
The second test at the Bahrain International Circuit, with its multiple long straights heading to slow corners, may offer much better insight into how slipstreaming and DRS may work in 2022. But it is only when all 20 drivers are racing in Bahrain on Sunday 20th March that we will get our first true indication of how successful these major technical regulations have been at giving fans more of the wheel-to-wheel racing they love to see.
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