Why F1's pursuit of speed under the current Regulations has a dark side.
Formula 1 is a perpetual engineering and technological arms race. The teams continually strive to improve the performance of their cars subject to the constraints dictated by the existing rule regime. As a result, in the absence of rule changes speeds tend to creep up and lap times reduce year by year.
Greater speeds are certainly thrilling for fans watching their heroes do battle. But there is a price to pay. Increased speeds inevitably also increase the risks faced by drivers in the event of an accident. For this reason, the FIA has on many occasions introduced rule changes designed to counter the inexorable rise in speed.
2017 was different…
THE 2017 RULE CHANGES
The rule changes for the 2017 season were designed very much with the fans in mind. They came amid growing dissatisfaction among viewers with the direction F1 was taking in the hybrid era, while also acknowledging the significant improvements in driver safety that have been achieved over the years.
More powerful engines, bigger tyres, wider chassis, lower and larger rear wings – the cars re-acquired many of the characteristics associated with Formula 1 in the late ’70s and ’80s – the “Golden Era” of F1 as we discussed in The Best Season in Formula 1 History.
One overriding goal of these changes was to improve lap times by a full 5 seconds a lap. The pole time for the 2015 Spanish Grand Prix was nominated as a specific target reference.
It is debatable whether faster lap times alone actually improve the F1 spectacle or the quality of wheel to wheel racing. But it was commonly agreed that the pinnacle of motorsport needed to be significantly quicker than other categories. A change was required – there was a need for speed.
SO JUST HOW FAST WERE THE 2017 CARS?
In order to assess the speed improvement achieved in 2017, we’ve chosen three different measures of lap time: fastest qualifying time, fastest lap time during a race, and the median lap time of the winning driver. We compare the times for 2017 with those achieved on the same tracks in 2016.
For each metric we exclude tracks where wet conditions in either or both years prevented a reasonable like for like comparison.
So while they may not have achieved a full five seconds per lap improvement on average, the 2017 cars were certainly quicker. Out of the 20 races held over the course of 2017 there were 11 new lap records set. The cars looked spectacularly quick through the corners; Motorsport.com confirmed that F1’s top corners were taken at 30kmh faster in 2017 compared to 2016!
As a consequence, the G-forces experienced by the drivers have also increased significantly requiring the drivers to work extra hard in the gym pre-season to beef up their neck muscles.
HOW TO IMPROVE LAP TIMES FURTHER – A WEIGHTY ISSUE…
An unfortunate side effect of the new technologically advanced hybrid powertrains is weight. The 2017 cars tipped the scales at 728kg (minimum weight including the driver). For comparison, this is almost 35% heavier than the iconic 1988 McLaren MP4/4.
So while the overall power generated by a 2017 Mercedes powertrain is 12% higher than the MP4/4 – 750kW compared to 670kW respectively – the power to weight ratio is actually 17% lower than what was achieved nearly 30 years ago.
The power to weight ratio is a key factor in the performance of a racecar. But clearly, it’s not the only thing that counts. Somehow the drivers managed to drag those weighty 2017 beasts around the racetrack in record times last year.
How? In a word – aero. Cornering speed is critical to lap time and this is significantly enhanced by aerodynamic downforce, in addition to mechanical grip.
One way to get a feel for the impact of aero on an F1 car is to compare them to a MotoGP bike, which has very little in the way of aerodynamic downforce.
VELOCITY V DOWNFORCE – MOTOGP & FORMULA 1 COMPARED
A MotoGP bike is an impressive machine – in 2017 the bikes produced 170kW with a minimum weight of 157kg (without rider). Add seven-time MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi to the mix at 67kg and the 2017 Yamaha tipped the scales at 224kg. That gave a power to weight ratio of 0.85kW/kg.
Impressive yes, but still 17% lower than the 2017 F1. And yet if we compare their top speeds the bike is at least equivalent if not faster than the car in a straight line.
Why? Let’s do a quick comparison of performance at a few of the circuits where both categories competed in 2017 and see what it tells us.
The combination of aerodynamic downforce in addition to significantly more mechanical grip (consider those fat 2017 F1 slicks compared to the tiny contact patch on a MotoGP bike) means the F1 cars can carry far greater speed through the corners and this translates into much faster lap times.
But as we can see from the difference in top speeds achieved aerodynamic downforce is no free lunch. The aero package puts a limit on top speed via increased drag. It enhances the average speed at the cost of top speed.
This raises an interesting question: how fast could an F1 car go in a straight line without all that aerodynamic downforce limiting its terminal velocity?
Well, luckily for us this experiment has been done. The Honda squad put this to the test in 2006 at Bonneville salt flats, setting a record of 413kph for the fastest F1 car in a straight line.
What would Honda give for some of that pace right now…..?
2017. QUICK, PRETTY CARS, BUT….
Thumbs up to the FIA for delivering fantastic looking cars that were extremely quick and a big step up in 2016.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to all of that sophisticated aerodynamic downforce – turbulence. The 2017 cars were very hard to follow and hence pass, due to the turbulent air they left in their wake.
It’s true that as fans of F1 we love to see racing cars going VERY fast. But there is more to racing than just lap time. The on-track battles and heroic overtakes are a big part of what draws fans to the sport, and these have been somewhat compromised by the current design rules.
On the topic of overtakes, this is something we will be looking at much more closely in 2018 so stay tuned for further overtake analysis from F1 Bytes.
For those interested in technical details, the issue of turbulence and some potential solutions was addressed beautifully by Craig Scarborough here.
MOVING ON TO 2018…
The stats presented here show very clearly that in 2017 the FIA delivered on the need for speed – although perhaps not quite to the level they’d hoped. We have also alluded to a few of the ongoing issues faced by the sport – problems whose solutions are not necessarily consistent with the goal of a faster lap time.
Lap times continue to fall in 2018 with new lap records being consistently set in qualifying.
We hope that the future development of the sporting regulations carefully balances both the need for close wheel-to-wheel racing and the ultimate need for speed. The powers that be are clearly aware of the issue with changes rushed through for the 2019 season to try to improve overtaking - 2 years ahead of major rule changes scheduled for 2021.