Here we are at the start of another Formula 1 season. This one, however, is shaping up to be a real humdinger. And that is saying something considering the epic battle we witnessed between the sport’s top two drivers last season, that culminated in the (farcical) last race, last-lap pass for the championship. So why are things going to be any better this year? And more importantly, how are the escalating on- (and off-) track battles we saw between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen going to influence the rules of engagement this year?
If you watched any F1 last year—or the cliff notes version, Drive to Survive—you will have undoubtedly seen some of the most incredibly dangerous racing that we’ve seen in decades with high-speed clashes in Silverstone, cars literally driving over each other at Monza, and the brake check to end all brake checks in Saudi Arabia.
None of these things would or should be tolerated in any form of motorsports, let alone at the pinnacle of it. Despite the ever-improving safety record for motorsports, driving a 1,000-plus-pound car at 200 mph is inherently dangerous. Motorsport bosses tend to forget that from time to time with catastrophic consequences. See Anthoine Hubert, who was killed in a high-speed crash at Spa. It is only by good fortune that neither Verstappen nor Hamilton have gotten seriously hurt in their various comings together.
With this year’s new car regulations that promote closer racing, F1 needs to get its act together. So let’s dive into what has changed and how that is going to affect the action we see on the track.
Regulating the Cars
To start, let’s talk about the cars and the new rules that govern them. Basically, the powers that be in F1 have thrown everything out the window in the hopes of creating a design that will minimize the “dirty air” coming off a car. That dirty air reduces the downforce of the trailing car, making it substantially harder for that car to stay close through the corners.
Ground-effect cars, which utilize the air flowing under themselves more so than the air flowing over, are less affected by this dirty air. Additionally, the new rules have also been designed to push the dirty air over following cars rather than at them. Cleaning up this airflow should, in theory, allow the trailing car to follow much more closely to the leading car, making overtaking a bit easier. The hope is that this will enable closer, wheel-to-wheel racing than we have seen basically since the aero generation started back in the ‘80s.
Next up, we’ve got a brand-new, 18-inch tire whose performance characteristics should be completely different from what the teams have used in the past. Using an 18-inch rim means that this new tire will have a much shorter sidewall than previous tires. In theory, the main benefit here is that the tire should be less susceptible to the large temperature variations that we saw in the previous 13-inch rollers. This was one of the things the teams struggled with massively. Some teams were able to get the tire in the right zone during qualifying; however, during the race, when pushing hard or when attempting to overtake, tire temps would soar and be out of the range that worked for that particular car. So, again, F1 has made changes to allow the cars to stay closer to one another for longer without suffering a substantial performance drop-off.
Pirelli’s F1 boss, Mario Isola, told Autoweek, “I’m confident with the new aero package we can improve [the tire issues], as when you follow the car in front you will lose maximum 10 [percent] downforce, not 40 [percent]… If the drivers lose downforce, they lose performance. And if they lose downforce, they start sliding. And if they slide, they start overheating the surface of the tire and they lose grip—so it’s a double effect.”
Isola went on, “If they still have the downforce and the tire is pushed on the ground and it doesn’t slide, then you can keep the surface temperature in range and can attack more. So hopefully with the aero package and the new tire we can achieve the result—not necessarily more overtaking as the car in front also has less degradation, but it means we have closer racing overall.”
New Head Honchos
With all the pre-season focus on closer racing, one of the things that’s been somewhat overlooked is what’ll change between each team’s command center and race control. We barely survived all the major controversy from last season with multiple incidents between the two title protagonists. What rules are going to put limits on the engagements and who is going to enforce them—if at all?
Let’s tackle the last question first as we have some definitive answers on that.
After a short investigation by the FIA, Michael Masi, the embattled Formula 1 race director, has been booted. If you would like to know why, I wrote an entire article on that very subject. To paraphrase, Masi wasn’t actually very good at his job, though it was not an easy one. With the passing of former race director Charlie Whiting—who died on the eve of the Australian Grand Prix three years ago—Masi was thrown into the deep end and tapped to replace him at the very last minute without much oversight or any real experience in the job at that level. His governance was wildly inconsistent and he appeared to be influenced too much by the various uber egos within the F1 paddock.
The FIA brought on not one, not two, but three people to replace Masi, probably to show how very difficult his job was. Former DTM race director Niels Wittich and WEC race director Eduardo Freitas will act as alternating race directors. They will be additionally assisted by Herbie Blash in the role of permanent senior advisor. The veteran Blash, who is returning to F1 five seasons after he left his position as deputy race director to the late Whiting, was part of the Bernie Ecclestone-run Brabham team and is the Euro equivalent of getting NASCAR legend Smokey Yunick to guard the foxes from the hen house.
To put it bluntly, Blash will take no shit.
The FIA will also institute a Virtual Race Control Room to further assist the race directors in their decision-making process, which will function something like instant replay in football. It will connect in real-time with the race directors and help them to better apply the sporting regulations.
And one last bit. Direct radio communications between teams and the race director will be removed. It should have never been permitted in the first place because it allowed team managers to potentially influence the race director while they were making a decision in a high-stress situation.
How It’ll All Play Out
So how does all of this affect F1’s new rules? It’s too early to say for certain, but I can guess.
One of the first orders to come from the new race directors is that the track surface will be strictly defined as white line to white line. And there’s been much rejoicing at the news. With all these Tilke-designed, stripes-on-a-giant-paved-parking-lot F1 tracks (I’m looking at you, Paul Ricard) with miles of paved runoff, there has been almost no penalty for drivers to just take whatever line they want through a corner with no repercussions. Now that will all change.
What remains to be seen is how that will affect Verstappen. Now, I’m not trying to pick on him; I genuinely enjoy watching him race and his aggressive, attacking, zero-fucks-given style of racing is seriously entertaining. However, there are lines that should not be crossed and Verstappen crosses them with impunity. He is one of the most ruthless drivers I have ever watched.
Verstappen is the type of driver that they have to make specific rules around to stop him from doing what every other driver considers reckless and bordering on dangerous behavior. Remember the “moving in the brake zone” controversy from his rookie year? The FIA literally had to make a rule to stop him from doing that.
Verstappen’s latest thing is to make passing nigh impossible. He takes the inside line, brakes well past his normal braking point, and throws his car into the corner with no chance of staying on the racing surface. Thereby, it forces his antagonist well off the racing line and stops any chance they have of making a legitimate overtaking maneuver.
With the new racing surface being defined as white line to white line, Verstappen shouldn’t be able to make such moves penalty-free this season. Theoretically, anyway. But, as I said, it still remains to be seen how those rules will be applied.
One thing to remember is that open-wheel cars have to operate under a completely different set of rules as compared to, say, touring or sports car series. Cars in these series have their wheels enclosed by bodywork and a protective roof which allows for a more “full contact” style of racing. In open-wheel racing, the danger of wheels from two cars intertwining is massive, and it’s almost certain that one or more of the cars will be launched into the air. And there is nothing more dangerous to both drivers and spectators alike than an airborne race car traveling at high speed.
With cars more likely to be able to follow more closely, and overtaking theoretically becoming more regular, policing drivers’ on-track action will become a major factor in how the season plays out. If things go the way I think they will, there are going to be a few drivers who are going to have to change their racing style. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long season for them.
Either way, with new cars, new tires, and new officiating, I think this season of F1 will be one of the most exciting and unpredictable in the sport’s history. And considering the season we had last year, that is really saying something.
Robb Holland is an American race car driver and automotive journalist. He has competed in the British Touring Car Championship, Pikes Peak, the World Touring Car Championships, and more.
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