Admittedly, the new era of F1 is only five race weekends away and everyone (teams, but also the FIA) is still looking for improvements. Nevertheless, the past few weekends have provided a first picture, a glimpse of what regulators are up to. Following had to be facilitated because downforce arises mainly under one’s own car, which reduces the influence of polluted air. The premier class would give up some speed in exchange for something deemed more important: greater entertainment value.
Whether the latter has been successful so far, everyone has to decide for themselves. The fact is that the new rules have led to slightly different struggles for the lead, but also in midfield. An observation shared by everyone in the paddock: drivers, teams and of course tire supplier Pirelli – more on that later. One of the lessons teams say they learn in the paddock relates to race officials, and race control in particular. Both Ferrari and Red Bull have indicated that the approach is slightly different than in previous years due to the new rules.
Slightly less dependent on the opening round and the backspin
Under the previous regulations – although last year was great thanks to Verstappen and Hamilton – the formations were extremely committed to claim pole position or at least a front row spot. After all, it was time to strike in the opening phase. The roadmap was pretty clear: build up a lead of more than a second on the first two laps to avoid giving the competitor a DRS, check the first stint and cut a hole just before the stop to compensate for an undercut. If that worked, checking was also the code word for the second and often last stint. Keeping the tires alive and keeping the man in P2 out of the DRS should usually be enough – except in 2021 due to the Titanic fight.
This pattern was further reinforced when drivers began to feel the effects of the dirty air from a vehicle in front for just over two seconds. Or as Verstappen summarized last year: “With these cars, it’s just very difficult to follow each other, that’s a disadvantage of these rules.” He emphasized that sprint races alone would not bring any added value: “The first laps are fun, just like a normal race, but after that it proved very difficult to follow them.” This means that the following car has a big Speed difference required to initiate an overtaking maneuver. In addition, such an undertaking had to succeed fairly quickly, otherwise the Pirelli rubber would also irrevocably feel the effects of the dirty air.
This year is different for several reasons. The main point, of course, is that ground effect and FIA rules (including restrictions on what you can do in terms of rinse) reduce the effect of dirty air. It suddenly makes long-term pursuit of an opponent possible. Or to illustrate it again with words from Verstappen: “You still lose downforce, but at least the car remains predictable now. You no longer have those weird moments with a lot of oversteer or a lot of understeer when you’re closely behind. Someone’s sitting.” This means that the opening round and the underspin are less crucial than before, and there’s work to be done at other times as well.
Pirelli confirms: Imola and Miami as striking examples
The sprint race in Imola and the race in Miami showed it well. In both feats of strength, Verstappen was able to lag behind his title rival for a long time and overtake without an immense difference in speed (in terms of top speed). Saturday in Imola is actually the best example of what has changed. In the beautiful setting, Leclerc got off to a better start, he managed to control the initial phase and that would normally have been the end of the exercise for Verstappen. According to the old regulations, he had smashed his own tires on the long descendant. It’s different this year and that’s why a good balance can be found performance fluctuations to lead. In Australia Red Bull was on the wrong side of the coin, in Imola Ferrari had more problems. It led to more grit at Leclerc, which allowed Verstappen to excel in the closing stages. Under previous regulations, Leclerc could have gotten away with that lesser balance as Verstappen had also seen his own tires deteriorate in dirty air.
This is precisely the conclusion drawn by tire supplier Pirelli. “In the past, the way the downforce was generated caused the rear car to slide a lot more. This skid meant that tire wear on the rear car was much higher,” explains Mario Isola. “According to the new regulations, we hardly see this negative effect anymore, or at least much less. Now you can follow without increased tire wear. That was clearly seen in Imola and Miami. There wasn’t much of a difference in speed between Leclerc and Verstappen, they alternated with purple times that would normally not leave the gap big enough to overtake.” It has now succeeded, although it should be noted that DRS and Red Bull’s higher top speed are a part of that But the fact that these factors might emerge at all under the new regulations is basically good news.Under the previous regulations, these aspects were partially masked by other obstacles (read: dirty air).
This has also had a positive effect on the mindset of the teams behind the scenes: the ambition to overtake on the track has grown slightly, not only at the front but certainly further down the field as well. The risk has been great in recent years. By throttling their own tires, a midfield driver would lose even more. So waiting for an undercut was a safer option, but this year is different for two reasons. Firstly, you no longer help your own tires in the fight to the pennant and secondly, undercutting is no longer a matter of course. The lower temperature of the tire warmers has made it much more difficult (to calculate) than before to deliver a close outlap to lap the rival.
The overall picture shows that many of the things that have been thought up are absolutely correct. Of course: there is still a lot of room for improvement, but the contours of the new technology philosophy are visible. Dirty air is no longer insurmountable in 2022, so a good balance and the different characteristics of Red Bull and Ferrari come into their own. The latter is also an important disclaimer for all of this: A regulation stands and falls with an exciting title fight between ideally several teams. So, despite difficult regulations, last year was perhaps the best F1 season ever and we also desperately need a battle between different teams under the new rules. Luckily Red Bull and Ferrari have performed flawlessly so far, Mercedes will be there for the long haul and the party is complete…