Today saw the start of the second pre-season testing window in Formula 1 (“F1”).
The new 2017 cars were debuted last week in Barcelona where they have returned for another week of testing before taking the grid at the season opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on 26 March.
2017 will be a significant year in F1 as it will be the first season since Liberty Media Group (“LMG”) bought the commercial rights in an $8 billion deal, which in turn saw the end of Bernie Ecclestone’s reign as the key decision maker and influencer within the sport.
As is often the case with F1, a new season brings with it a new set of rules and regulations. This year’s changes represent a sea change in terms of grip and downforce since the introduction of hybrid turbo power units in 2014, which in turn are designed to result in cars which many believe may be as much as 3 to 5 seconds quicker per lap on circuit.
The sport’s rules and regulations, both sporting and technical, are governed by the FIA, the World governing body for motorsport which has announced the following changes for 2017:
Tyres – will be around 25% wider. Front tyres will increase in width from 245mm to 305mm whilst back tyres will increase from 325mm to 405mm. The effect of this change is a significant increase in the contact patch leading to more grip, which in turn will allow for greater cornering speeds.
Front Wing – will increase in size from 1650mm to 1800mm.
Rear Wing – will decrease in height but will again be wider growing from 750mm to 950mm.
Rear Diffuser – will again be more powerful with an increased height from 125mm to 175mm.
Sidepods – will increase in width from 1400mm to 1600mm
Weight – the overall allowance for the weight of the car is increased from 702kg to 722kg including tyres.
The effect of these changes will result in much greater downforce on the cars again allowing for greater speeds through the corners. Despite this some have questioned whether the changes will have a significant effect on the ability to overtake, the largest criticism aimed at the sport as a spectacle, given that cars may still be unable to get close enough to the car in front for fear of being affected by the leading car’s wake.
Power Units – a rule change has been made to prevent drivers stockpiling spare power unit elements. During any single event, if a driver introduces more than one of a power unit element that is subject to a grid penalty, only the last element fitted may be used at subsequent events without further penalty. A number of changes have also been introduced aimed at reducing power unit costs, guaranteeing supply for customer teams, and closing the performance gap between engines:
- the power unit price for customer teams has been reduced by €1m per season compared to 2016, with further reductions of €3m to be introduced in 2018.
- to ensure the supply of power units to customer teams, the ‘homologation’ procedure now includes an ‘obligation to supply’ that is activated in the event of a team facing an absence of supply.
- the previous ‘token’ system for in-season engine development has been removed.
- additionally, constraints on power unit part weights, dimensions and materials, and on boost pressure, are being introduced in 2017 and in 2018.
Other non-technical changes include:
Wet Weather Standing Starts – if a race starts behind a safety car, when no overtaking is allowed, the race will be stopped and restarted in the usual way once the conditions allow for a standing start to take place.
Helmet livery – after unpopular (amongst drivers) rules were introduced in 2015 prohibiting drivers from constantly changing their helmet design (to ensure drivers could be more easily recognised during the season), the FIA has relaxed its rules partially to allow each driver to change their helmet design for one chosen race each season. This would allow a driver to exploit commercial opportunities, or other reasons, for example at their home Grand Prix.
Reports coming from testing suggest that the rules changes have had the desired effect in terms of downforce and the pace of the cars which are felt to be considerably faster than previous years. Indeed such is the difference in driving these more powerful vehicles that some have questioned whether this will mean driver fitness standards will also come into play when it comes to race results.
LMG has also hinted at further changes to make the sport more appealing to its reportedly dwindling fan base.
Off track these include an increase in use of social media, the extension of the race weekend to a race week and making Grand Prix more experiential and events based, with both live music and events throughout the week.
On track LMG has employed the services of F1 guru Ross Brawn as the sport’s technical director and whose remit also includes advising on ways to make the sport more appealing. Brawn has stated that his main goal is to make F1 more competitive and a championship in which more teams and drivers can win races thus narrowing the gap between top and bottom teams. The main idea floated so far is for the return of a non-championship race at which new concepts / rule changes could be trialled ahead of their introduction to Championship races.
Whatever happens it is clear that big changes can be expected in F1 this season and thereafter as LMG usher in a new era after nearly 40 years of Ecclestone being in pole position.