Lando Norris, McLaren, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, 2024

Why drivers say “you won’t have days like this” in 2026 after qualifying thriller

Formula 1

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One of the key aims of the ground effect regulations Formula 1 introduced in 2022 was to increase the competition between teams.

Closing up the gap between the top and the bottom of the grid is a goal with obvious benefits to ‘the show’. A closer field means more intense fighting between teams, making the results of each race weekend less predictable, meaning more intrigue for spectators in the grandstands and the fans watching on TV.

But two years into the current ground effect era, the competition was a major talking point in the sport for all the wrong reasons. Over 44 races across 2022 and 2023, one team had won 38 of them – with just a single driver accounting for 34 of those victories.

A third of the way into the third year under these rules, that dynamic is finally beginning to change. The last three grands prix saw three different teams and drivers win. Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren arrived in Canada looking like candidates for victory – and then George Russell put his Mercedes on pole position.

Max Verstappen, George Russell, Oscar Piastri, Mercedes, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, 2024
Russell and Verstappen set identical times in qualifying
For a long while now, one of the most popular words among the sport’s team principals has been “convergence” – the idea that the performance levels between the ten teams will naturally reduce over time with a stable rules set.

“It’s inevitable,” said Red Bull’s Christian Horner in Monaco. “We’re in year three of these regulations, and it’s inevitable that you’re going to get convergence.”

Yet just when Formula 1 appears to be at its most competitive at the front of the field since these current rules were first introduced, the governing body has turned attentions to 2026 – the year of the next major technical regulations revolution. If recent history is to go by, the field could be set to lose that parity not long after appearing to achieve it.

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2014

The 2013 came during Red Bull’s original run of dominance with Sebastian Vettel’s four consecutive world championship titles. But it was also very much a year of transition, with all teams firmly focused on preparing for the arrival of revolutionary 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid power units from the following season.

Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Bahrain, 2014
Mercedes dominated with the new V6 power units
Vettel cruised to the championship that season with 13 wins out of 19 races – including a then-record run of nine consecutive victories to finish the championship. Four teams enjoyed a grand prix victory, but those same four teams also hoarded every single podium finishing position across the season.

The next season, Mercedes were even more dominant than Red Bull had been in 2013. They had the best new power unit and best chassis, evident by their 16 wins out of 19 races. While Red Bull were the only team to beat the Silver Arrows across the year, over half the 11 teams scored a podium – two more than the year prior.

Despite Mercedes running away with the championship, the field were actually closer in pace in 2014. The slowest lap time in Q1 for the Bahrain Grand Prix was 3.23% slower than the fastest – a smaller difference than the 3.87% difference in the same session a year prior.

2017

The next major rules change came just three years later, with cars made wider and allowed to generate much greater downforce than before. By the end of the ‘Overtaking Working Group’ era in 2016, Mercedes remained the team to beat, winning all but two of the 21 rounds while Red Bull claimed the remaining pair.

Ferrari returned to winning ways in 2017
But despite the possibility that new regulations would work in the world champions’ favour, the 2017 season was arguably more competitive than the year before. Ferrari rejoined Mercedes and Red Bull as a winning team, with Mercedes ‘only’ taking 12 wins out of 20 on their way to the championship, while five drivers climbed upon the top step of the podium over the course of the season.

One element that did not change, however, was the overall field spread. Teams arrived at Melbourne for the opening round of the season with the gap between the front and the rear of the field slightly longer, but with two fewer cars on the grid, this led to wider gaps between cars across the field. However, by the end of season in Abu Dhabi, the field spread in Q1 of just over 3% was back to around the same level it had been at the end of 2016.

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2022

F1 cars continued to get faster with the increased downforce until the transition season of 2021, where new floor rules slowed cars down slightly in preparation for the major regulation changes of 2022. That final season in 2021 was one of the most memorable of all time, with the year-long championship fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.

The 2022 Mexican Grand Prix was held at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and won by Max Verstappen
Verstappen dominated after the 2022 rules arrived
Although the season was all about the two title rivals, 2021 was an incredibly competitive year through the field. Six drivers took at least one race win, but an astounding 13 drivers appeared on the podium across the season – matching the tally of the year before in 2020.

But once F1’s new ground effect era arrived in 2022, that competition faded. While Red Bull would go on to dominate with 17 wins, Ferrari and Mercedes would spend the season in their wake, ahead of the remaining seven teams who only scored a single podium between them all year – Lando Norris’s third place at Imola.

However, even though the top teams were untouchable, the field itself was much more compacted through the field. Whereas the 19 cars who started the final race of 2021 were separated by 2.48% in Q1 in Yas Marina, a year later, that same metric had been reduced to just 1.53% after a year of heavy in-season development.

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2024

2026 F1 car rendering - front
Feature: The seven concerns Formula 1 teams raised over new rules for 2026
Now F1 less than 18 months away from another regulations revolution – the first change in power units rules since 2014, which has the potential to cause as much disruption to the competitive order again.

In the 11th year of the V6 hybrid turbos, the sport seeing closer competition at the front once again for the first time since the ground effect rules arrived. Over the first eight rounds of 2024, there have already been four different winners, with both Red Bull, both Ferrari and both McLaren driven having finished on the podium at least once.

This year’s opening qualifying session in Bahrain was one of the closest in history, as all 20 cars were separated by just over a second. Although the field spread out over the races which immediately followed, it has closed up again, and this weekend the average F1 car is just 1% off the pace:

That growth in separation has been affected by Sauber falling away from the ultimate pace increasingly as the season has progressed. But what is encouraging is how many teams seem to be gaining on the leaders over recent rounds, McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes, RB, Haas, Alpine and Williams have all reduced their deficit to Red Bull over the last five rounds of the championship.

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Note also that most of the current field is closer to begin with than teams were in 2013 – the graph below is on the same scale as that above:

Now with the data trending in a positive direction for the sport and its fans, it seems that the convergence that many expected would come with these new regulations under the budget cap is starting to manifest. Perhaps this is why so many drivers appear to be concerned about what will happen when the rule book undergoes its next major revision in less than two years’ time.

“I think every time the regs have changed, it’s led to a pretty big spread,” said McLaren’s Oscar Piastri on Thursday. “Especially with engines, 2014 being the last time with that and kicking off a really long period of dominance.

“I think we’ve seen even with these regs, we’re only just starting to catch up to Red Bull, week in, week out, now. I wouldn’t be surprised if the teams sort of separate a bit more in 2026, both with different aero regs and especially the engine regs. There’s a very big chance, I would say, that the teams are going to be more spread out than what they are now. But we’ll have to wait and see.”

Hamilton agrees with his McLaren rival: “I think it’s difficult to say, but more often than not, when they’ve done the changes, some teams do better than the others, and there is a bit of a difference early on,” he said.

“I hope that with this new regulation change that everything’s a bit closer, and the engine’s not a complete revamp. It’s not like moving from V8 to V6, so hopefully through that, that doesn’t make too big a difference, and then it’s just about getting the cars right.”

Lando Norris, McLaren, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, 2024
Norris fears the field will spread out again in 2026
Saturday’s qualifying session in Montreal was rivetingly close as George Russell and Max Verstappen set identical times at the front of the field. Lando Norris ensured three different cars were separated by just two hundredths of a second at the sharp end.

But he believes that will inevitably end in 2026. “You’re not going to have days like today again,” he said, estimating it will take until 2028 and 2029 for the field to close up after the coming change.

“It’s how it’s always been. Every time there’s a regulation change, there’s big gaps. Even at the end of the last era, [2021] things were getting closer again. You had still Red Bull against Mercedes, and everyone was getting closer. And then everything spread out again.

“Red Bull had their time, and now it seems like we’ve been able to catch up. So just as we’re getting there, and I think probably looking ahead to next year already, next year should be an exciting year for everyone, just from first to last. I think it’s going to be exciting. But then that’s all going to go in ‘26.”

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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7 comments on “Why drivers say “you won’t have days like this” in 2026 after qualifying thriller”

  1. notagrumpyfan
    9th June 2024, 12:49

    @Will Wood, question about the data/graph.
    With RBR having the fastest quali time this year except for Monaco, how can the five-race average have deteriorated from Monaco to Montreal?

    1. I assume because they didn’t set the fastest lap time in Montréal as some of the Q2 times were quite a bit faster than what was Verstappen able to achieve in Q3.

      1. notagrumpyfan
        9th June 2024, 15:44

        Thank you.
        That makes sense.

  2. Red Bull’s dominance was never predicated on qualifying pace. Let’s see some racing action where the teams can fight for wins on merit. This constant complaining about the 2026 season by teams is getting a bit dull.

  3. The same people that moaned that Red Bull was so dominant in 2022-23 and they would probably take every championship until the new regs in 2026… now moan that “oh well, we finally caught them, ignore our previous moaning”.

    F1 circus in a nutshell…

  4. This is a good data-driven analysis, but i also wonder about the differences at the sharp end of the grid, because that’s where most of the interest lies. It would be interesting to see a similar analysis but looking at the points gaps per season between 1st and 2nd place in the drivers and constructors championships. Or better yet, percentage points gaps so that you could look at the trends across decades of regulation changes which had different points systems. This would also give more of an idea about overall performance across the races, rather than just looking at qualifying pace. Then you could see whether regulation changes on average lead to closer championship battles, or more one-sided ones.

    1. A copy of the first graph, but for the last 10 or 20 years, would be wonderful there.

      You can look at the lower lines to see the back-to-front gap, or you can look at the second and third lines to see competitiveness at the top.

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