Formula 1’s plans for a dramatic regulations overhaul went from theory to reality over the course of the past week as all the teams launched their latest challengers, the first generation to be designed under the sport’s new set of regulations for 2017 onwards.
Changing sporting regulations every few years has always been part of Formula 1’s nature, but the latest changes reflect the sport’s current struggle to map out a future path of success. In other words, the new generation of cars don’t simply exist for the sake of changing the rules, but also as a means of shaping the sport’s future. In light of this, a discussion on how they will affect the pinnacle of motorsport is in order…
How have the cars changed from 2016?
Perhaps the best place to start is to mention what has not changed. For one thing, the engines are still the same 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged power units, so the way the cars sound out on track will be mostly unchanged. Instead, the changes have been made on the outside. The cars are noticeably wider, with front tyres that are 60 millimetres wider and rear tyres that are 80 millimetres wider than last year. With the width of the front wing remaining unchanged, this changes the appearance of the tyres relative to the wing; instead of the wing ending at the same width as the tyres, it now ends several centimetres before the outer edge of the tyres. At the back of the car, the rear wing has become wider and lower, in contrast to last year’s rear wings that were thin and high. In between the two wings, the overall bodywork of the car has become wider, and the majority of the teams have opted for the inclusion of a “shark fin” (a piece of bodywork extending from the engine cover to the rear wing) in order to maximise performance.
— FOX Sports F1 (@FOXSportsF1) February 27, 2017
Why did the sport feel the need for such dramatic changes?
The sport’s decision to adopt the new set of regulations stems, amongst other reasons, from a desire to portray the image that Formula 1 is still extreme, thrilling and exciting. Everybody knows that an F1 car is fast. However, over time the perception has started to creep in that the sport has become too easy, too controlled and too sterile. The new generation of F1 cars will enjoy far higher downforce than those from last year, thanks in part to the wider tyres, which will provide more grip as the cars travel around the corners. The rules introduced in 2014 gave the cars that were used until the end of 2016 more raw speed than their brethren from 2013 and earlier, but less downforce. However, that downforce has now been returned without a reduction in raw grunt, leading to estimations that the 2017 cars will be four seconds per lap (and perhaps even more) quicker than their 2016 counterparts. The idea behind this approach is to once again portray F1 cars as terrifying beasts that can only be tamed by the bravest and most skilled drivers. The new cars’ familiar, yet more aggressive appearance is intended to add to the image of a high-speed spectacle that will keep viewers on the edges of their seats. In effect then, the sport is trying to find a way to reconnect to viewers that have been disillusioned with the on-track show produced over the past few years.
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) February 27, 2017
How have the new cars been received by the paddock and the public?
As the old proverb goes: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As such it could hardly have been expected that the new generation of F1 cars would be greeted with unanimous praise. However, the initial reaction to the new cars on social media has generally been positive, although the “shark fin” used by the majority of teams has been criticised for being unattractive. The small, protruding section on the tip of most of the cars’ noses evoked a similar reaction. On the whole, the 2017 cars are certainly no worse-looking than last year’s field, and are certainly far softer on the eye than for example, the step-nosed cars from 2012 and 2013, which were blasted for being unsightly and unrefined. In short, the 2017 cars appear to be a sort of hybrid between the 2014-2016 cars and the cars of the 2007-2008 era, albeit noticeably larger. Overall, the new cars are perhaps not quite as revolutionary a departure from last year as fans were led to believe, but they are different, and yet familiar enough to be instantly identifiable as F1 cars.
Christian Horner on new F1 cars:"The cars all look great, apart from the McLaren colour scheme. I think Ron must be going mad!"
— Ben Hunt (@benjhunt) February 27, 2017
How will the new cars affect the racing?
While the new cars will certainly set vastly improved lap times compared to last year, there are concerns about the quality of the racing that they will deliver. It is certainly true that faster cars are exciting in theory, but whether the television audience will be able to notice a significant increase in performance from their living rooms is debatable. Even over the past decade, lap times have fluctuated without a noticeable visual change when witnessed on television. There are also concerns about overtaking in 2017. With the new cars generating such high levels of downforce, they will also create a greater volume of turbulent air behind them. This turbulent air reduces the performance of the car following behind, as it interferes with the following car’s own downforce. This is why it can often occur that the following car is faster than the car in front, but unable to make its performance advantage count and perform an overtake. Despite the continued presence of DRS on this year’s cars, there could be less overtaking than in recent years. In addition, on certain tight and twisty circuits, such as Monaco, the increased size of the cars will leave less space for the following car to make its way past. This may seem like a minor detail, but given how close the cars often come when racing wheel-to-wheel, it may have an impact on the overall spectacle.
— FOX Sports F1 (@FOXSportsF1) February 21, 2017
What do the new cars mean for the future?
On paper, the new generation of cars are supposed to lead Formula 1 into a new era that sees the sport become more thrilling, with a greater on-track spectacle and closer, more exciting racing. They may achieve this to an extent. However, the sport is affected by other issues that are detracting from the overall quality of the show. Concerns over the way in which drivers are penalised after collisions, the continued back-and-forth debate over the introduction of the Halo device and questions over the financial situation of the sport and its teams are a few of the other, major factors detracting from the overall quality of the sport. These factors will have to be addressed by Formula 1’s new management team in order to steer the sport towards a sustainable and successful future that sees the stands at race events filled to capacity once again. Perhaps the new generation of Formula 1 cars, with their greater performance and more aggressive appearance, will do more good than harm to the sport. However, they are unlikely to be a silver bullet that solves all or even most of the problems faced by the pinnacle of motorsport as it seeks to capture the attention of the world over the next decade.