Why 2017 is F1’s most important year – ever!
This season’s new machinery will be better to look at and faster and more physical to drive, testing drivers’ skills as never before. But have all the implications of the changes been fully anticipated?
Was the sport really so broken that it required such a massive ‘fix’? And what changes are F1’s new owners planning to make – assuming they get to buy it at all?
As a new year dawns, so does a new era of Formula 1. And this time it’s grand prix racing on steroids. This is a major shift in the sport’s focus, born of a desire to boost its ‘wow factor’, and an abrupt reversal of 50 years of history: not since the 1960s have rule-makers actively sought to make the cars quicker.
The new rules are intended to make cars run up to five seconds a lap faster and look more dramatic. They will be wider, with big, fat tyres, arrow-shaped delta wings at the front, and low, aggressive-looking wings at the back. They will test drivers physically in a way they have not been tested for at least six years, and increase cornering forces by up to 1G in fast corners.
So why is all this happening? Put simply, it’s to return the ‘hero factor’ to F1. The sport’s bosses felt it needed spicing up following concerns about a decline in television audiences.
Not everyone is happy about it, though. In November 2015, Mercedes made a last-ditch attempt to stop F1 adopting the new rules that will change the face of the sport this season. In a meeting of technical chiefs before that year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, the world champions questioned the desire to reduce lap times by five seconds when cars were already approaching historic highs in terms of downforce, and raised concerns about the ability of Pirelli tyres to cope with the increased speeds.
But the other teams rejected Mercedes’ complaints, believing them to be rooted in a desire to keep a competitive advantage, and seeing in the change an opportunity to peg them back after three years of domination.
So F1 starts 2017 knowing it is facing its biggest potential upheaval for eight years. There is a lot riding on it. And for many in the sport, this will be a pivotal year.
NEW RULES, FASTER CARS
New rules generally lead to a change in the competitive order. The introduction of hybrid engines in 2014 ended the Red Bull era and ushered in Mercedes dominance. Having committed more resource much earlier than all their competitors, Mercedes started with an advantage that continued until the end of 2016.
The changes being brought in for 2017 are slightly different. The engine rules are remaining stable – with the exception of extra freedom on development – but the chassis rules have been overhauled.
The last two times this happened, one team’s hegemony ended, and another’s started. McLaren took over from Williams with the introduction of narrow-track and grooved tyres in 1998, and Red Bull leapt to the fore in 2009, once the anomaly of Brawn’s blown-diffuser-led initial dominance waned.
So, in theory, new chassis rules mean that even if Mercedes continue with a power and efficiency advantage – which has to be considered likely, although it is far from being a given – another team could reduce the gap by having a better car.
There is an important link between those last two sets of major rules changes. In both cases, it was Adrian Newey who led the technical team that stole a march on their rivals at the start of a new era.