New year, new rules, new look. After one of the most exciting seasons in its history, Formula One is due to make one of the biggest regulatory shakeups for decades.
Why change the regulations?
The overhaul of Formula One's technical regulations for 2022 is so extensive that it's easier to list the parts of the car that aren't changing than the parts that are. Having said that, the cars that line up on the grid for the first race in March will still be instantly recognisable as Formula One machines, although the shapes and philosophies that make up the designs will be a significant departure from the ones that crossed the line at the final race in Abu Dhabi last year.
When Formula One and the FIA, racing's governing body, first set out to create the new set of regulations in 2017, there was one main aim: improve wheel-to-wheel racing. Factors such as aesthetics and cost were also part of the equation, but the overarching purpose of every article in the 2022 technical regulations is to increase the chances of overtaking.
The problem F1 was trying to overcome was well known from the get-go. For years, drivers complained about a loss of downforce while following another car, making it difficult to plan and execute an overtaking move as they lost cornering performance the closer they got to the car in front.
The reason for the problem was also understood: the aerodynamic surfaces of a Formula One car are designed to offer as much downforce as possible as air passes over them, but the design process to reach those surfaces assumes the flow of air is clean and constant. As soon as another car runs in front, it disrupts the flow of air over those aerodynamic surfaces and makes them less effective, reducing the cornering performance of the car.
F1's studies found that a typical car built to last year's regulations would only retain 53 percent of its peak downforce once it is running within a car's length of a rival. This loss of downforce makes it almost impossible for cars to race closely through high-speed corners where downforce is essential to performance, significantly reducing the chances of overtaking at certain tracks.
The new regulations are written to tackle this problem at the cause, and simulations of the new designs suggest cars will be able to retain as much as 82 percent of their downforce while following within a car length of a rival. Whether that 82 percent figure is accurate once teams have tweaked every last surface of the car to work to their advantage remains to be seen, but it's hard to argue with the theory behind the rule change.
Two key philosophies have driven the change in regulations; the first is to make the car less susceptible to losing downforce in the dirty air of the car in front and the second is to ensure the design creates less dirty air in the first place.
The biggest change in that regard is to ensure a smaller proportion of downforce is created by the upper surfaces of the car (which generate the turbulent air on the lead car and are impacted by the turbulent air on the chasing car) by allowing for more downforce to be generated by the underfloor of the car. With the 2022 car this is done by making better use of a phenomenon known as ground effect.
This idea of using the underside of the car to create significant amounts of downforce is nothing new. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, F1 teams started to better understand the potential of ground effect aerodynamics, leading to a sudden increase in cornering performance. Essentially, the length of the car was treated as an upside-down aeroplane wing with the lower surface profiled to generate low air pressure under the car and suck it to the track.
In order to do this, air was channelled into tunnels running the length of the floor of the car that started off wide, restricted in size midway through and then opened again at the rear. The shape of the tunnel increased the speed of the air running under the car, creating low pressure at the most pinched part of the tunnel that quite literally sucked the car to the track surface.
The concept was helped by sliding "skirts" on the side of the car to seal off the tunnels, but occasional failures in the designs led to devastating mid-corner losses of downforce that ultimately led to ground effect cars being banned on safety grounds at the end of 1982. Flat floors were mandated to limit the downforce created by the underside of the car, but the understanding of ground effects never went away. Instead, teams came up with different ways of accelerating the flow of air under the car to generate downforce from the floor.
In recent years, the front wing and barge boards have been designed to energise the flow of air under the car and seal it off to create the desired area of low pressure. Much like the sliding skirts on the cars from the 1980s, vortices of air were generated by the inner sections of the front wing elements to seal off the flow of air under the car and maximise the ground effect from the flat floor. The only problem with this idea is that those vortices are dependent on a clean, steady flow of air to the front wing, which, as we know, can be disrupted when following another car.
What's more, with a flat floor the low pressure under the car could easily be disrupted by the wake coming off the spinning front tyres. The most effective way of protecting against this was to use the outer tips of the front wing to create additional vortices of air that are so powerful they force the turbulent air coming off the wheels away from the car, resulting in improved efficiency of the floor but a very messy wake of turbulent air behind, adding to the problems for the following car. By permitting underfloor tunnels in 2022, the idea is that the cars will not only benefit from the downforce offered by the ground effect, but also a front wing that is more focused on creating outright downforce rather than powerful vortices.
The rules around the shape of the nose and front wing, with the front wing flaps extending as one continuous curve from their tips to the nose itself, have been written with that in mind and to ensure it plays less of a role in the effectiveness of the floor. If more of the front wing is devoted to generating downforce over creating vortices to seal the floor, it should make the entire design less sensitive to running in another car's wake.
Little winglets have been added above the front wheels to help manage the disruptive air flow created by the tyres, while wheel covers are now mandated to stop engineers manipulating airflow through the wheels themselves, further tidying up the wake of the cars. The rear wing, too, has been rounded off, again with the intention of minimising the disruptive wake to the car behind, while simultaneously sending any turbulent air high up and over the following car rather than directly at it.
Will it make F1 more exciting?
While the theory behind the new regulations is sound, F1 rule changes have a history of unintended consequences. In 2009 a half-baked study into improving overtaking led to a rule change that resulted in one of the most dominant starts to a season by any single team, as Brawn GP made use of a loophole in the diffuser regulations to help win six of the first seven races. What's more, there was little evidence that wheel-to-wheel racing actually improved in 2009 as a result of the rule changes.
The 2022 rules are far more comprehensive and prescriptive than 2009, meaning there is less potential for finding a loophole and a better chance of improving on track action, but some truths of motor racing cannot be escaped. The cars will still rely heavily on aerodynamics for performance and that means the following car will still be at a disadvantage. It may be easier to follow another car, but we are not about to see NASCAR-style paint swapping in the middle of high-speed corners.
One indicator that F1 isn't entirely convinced it has found the perfect answer is its decision to leave the Drag Reduction System (DRS) in the regulations to aid overtaking. Often seen as artificial, the DRS has been a key factor in allowing drivers to race one another in recent years and removing it completely could lead to less overtaking in 2022 rather than more. But one of the positives about the DRS is that it can be "tuned" to suit the cars and circuits, meaning that if overtaking becomes too easy, DRS zones can be shortened or simply removed over time.
On the plus side, with DRS still in place and the new car designs helping matters, it's impossible to imagine a situation where the 2022 rules make things worse. The last generation of cars made their debut in 2017 with no aim other than to knock 5.5 seconds off the lap times seen in 2015. That created some of the most impressive F1 cars in history in terms of performance, but very little thought was given to the impact it would have on overtaking. And when you consider how good some of the racing was in 2021, it's thrilling to think how much better it might be in 2022 - assuming the cars are still evenly matched.
Of course, the other lesson from 2009 is one team gaining a significant advantage by finding a loophole. Another Brawn GP situation, in which one team found a significant performance gain, can't be ruled out but most teams have indicated that the rules are too tightly defined to allow for a game-changing loophole. Standard parts and designs, such as the "t-tray" at the front of the floor, should mean the intention of the rules are followed, although the sheer number of creative minds looking to exploit the regulations at each team far outweigh the number at the FIA who wrote them.
Perhaps the biggest factor in ensuring racing is competitive between teams over the coming years will not be written in the technical regulations but in the introduction of the budget cap last year. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the delay in the new regulations from 2021 to 2022 but plans for a budget cap in 2021 were stuck to, meaning a significant proportion of the development of the 2022 cars was limited by the $145 million cap. While teams with the best resources and facilities at their factories will likely get more bang for their buck, the days of spending your way to success should be a thing of the past as the cap gets tighter year on year.
Whom will the new rules suit the most?
One of the great things about the new regulations is that, at this stage, no-one knows. It's incredibly unlikely that Williams, Haas or Alfa Romeo will find themselves on pole position at the opening race, but picking between the top teams is tough.
To help level the playing field, F1 also introduced a sliding scale for aerodynamic development time last year, meaning the lower a team was in the championship, the more wind tunnel and CFD development potential it had for the following year. Based on championship finishing positions in 2020, it means Ferrari, which finished sixth, had significantly more development time than the likes of Red Bull and Mercedes at the start of last year before the levels were reset midway through the season based on each team's championship position on June 30. Of course, it's how you use the wind tunnel time and CFD data that counts, but it's another factor that could provide some surprises this year and help Ferrari return to the front.
Add to that the balancing act Red Bull and Mercedes faced in developing their 2022 cars with fighting for the 2021 championship and we could see another levelling factor at the start of the season. Mercedes said it turned off the development taps on last year's W12 around May to focus on 2022, which is why Lewis Hamilton had to make do with his last car update at the British Grand Prix in July, but Red Bull appeared to devote more of its resources towards ensuring Max Verstappen came out on top. While Red Bull will take some comfort in knowing that development was well spent in securing the drivers' championship, it will be interesting to see if it starts the 2022 season slightly lower on its development curve as a result.
Meanwhile, Alpine, McLaren and Aston Martin have all undergone or are still undergoing major investment drives at their factories, which have probably come too late to offer a significant advantage for 2022, but could be critical in future success if their new cars are innovative enough to make a leap up the grid this year. All three teams have ambitions of fighting for championships in the coming years and making a strong start under the new rules will be absolutely crucial.
However, not all 10 teams can get it right and regularly challenge for podiums in 2022 so, despite the optimism at this time of year, for every winner under the new regulations there will almost certainly be a loser.