Has the F1’s regulatory revolution, launched just last year, truly failed? The current Red Bull dominance seems to tilt the balance toward “yes.” However, the present has the drawback of not considering the long term, which can only be done in hindsight. Thus, current judgments possess the gift of fragility; they can be easily revised and are also prone to being fallacious – often reaching incorrect conclusions driven by emotional waves rather than historical memory.
First, it’s true that Red Bull’s dominance has an extraordinary intensity; it never falters. It might be challenged in qualifying, but during the race, it maintains a lead of at least six to eight tenths (probably even a second) over the nearest competitor. This applies to Verstappen, not Perez. It’s frustrating that there seems to be no contender on the horizon apart from Red Bull, disregarding errors and breakdowns, and the fact that many races are virtually indistinguishable from one another (due to similarly designed circuits and crowded calendars).
However, if we remove the Max-Red Bull combination from the equation – a hypothesis that’s merely for the sake of our discussion – the competition would certainly be more open. Yet even here, consider the years 1988, 1992, 1993, 2004, 2014, and 2019. These are just a few randomly selected years where there was no one who could challenge a team and its driver(s) with dominances similar to the current one. Add eight years of Mercedes domination, which ended recently, and many seem to forget. But let’s return to the starting point.
This set of regulations was created, devised, and implemented with a fundamental goal: allowing cars to follow each other closely without causing the tires of the pursuing car to overheat due to the negative turbulence caused by excessive aerodynamics – the myriad wings, flaps, and parts that flexed and formed a cohesive unit (including the suspension, partially for aerodynamic purposes) with the front wing, extending to the side pods’ inlets.
Just look at the 2021 Mercedes and Red Bull cars for reference. The cars following these aerodynamically advanced models not only suffered significantly reduced tire life but also became unstable, particularly in corners. How was this goal supposed to be achieved? By returning to ground-effect cars, without the “mini-skirts” from the previous era (late ’70s, early ’80s).
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The mini-skirts were sort of barriers running along the outer profiles of the side pods, sealing off the gull-wing-like inverted wings within the pods – one on each side. When the cars experienced oscillations (due to centrifugal and centripetal forces as well as track surface imperfections), these barriers moved up and down while continuing to seal the side pods.
This greatly enhanced the ground-effect, resulting in cars literally sticking to the ground, especially in corners. Sometimes, cars even raced without a front wing, as can be seen in photos from those years. However, there were two problems.
First: structurally fragile cars. Carbon fiber technology would only arrive at the end of the first ground-effect era (1981, with the McLaren MP4-1), and most cars had chassis composed of welded aluminum and/or steel tubes, reinforced with honeycomb aluminum panels.
Second: extremely dangerous cars. A direct consequence of the first point, especially when, for one reason or another (e.g., an accident), the cars lifted off the ground, becoming erratic projectiles due to the ground-effect. Witness the death of Gilles Villeneuve. And mini-skirts were banned due to this danger.
Ground-effect cars are back now, but with a partial ground effect. Meaning, the mini-skirts are absent, so teams need to create this sealing effect by utilizing the surrounding air. Not an easy feat, as you can imagine.
But why the return to this partial ground effect? By prohibiting any aerodynamic appendages or bargeboards, and by imposing fixed front and rear wings through regulations, the idea was that the upper part of the cars would become less significant – the sculpted side pods would create the necessary downforce. Thus, cars could follow each other more easily. At least, that was the theory.
Then there were the changes in tires, moving from 13-inch to 18-inch tires. The goal, with these new wheel/tire combinations, was to make them more predictable, as they don’t deform in corners like the older ones did (larger wheel, more tire, less deformation; smaller wheel, less tire, more deformation and greater tire shoulder stiffness).
Did the new regulations achieve the desired outcome for overtaking? Yes and no. Cars can follow more closely, but DRS is still necessary (even though the regulator intended to phase it out over a few seasons) for overtaking. Nonetheless, two reflections need to be considered.
F1: Present Explains the Past
First, without Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, the times are fairly leveled. This is even truer if you exclude Red Bull from the equation. Second, and this is the most crucial part for me, there was a strong intervention by the Federation halfway through 2022, which led to two results: increasing the rigidity of the plank, which is the section without ground effect in the center of the car, to ensure it doesn’t wear out unusually fast; and raising the cars by 15 millimeters, starting in 2023, to prevent porpoising on straights.
Let’s leave aside how and why we arrived at the current rules. This is not the platform for that discussion. But starting from mid-2022 and then from the beginning of 2023, we have ground-effect cars that are slightly less ground-effect-oriented. Teams like Ferrari and Mercedes had based their cars on running as close to the ground as possible to maximize the ground effect. Paradoxically, Red Bull focused on optimizing downforce without going excessively low.
And Red Bull’s approach proved victorious. But it was also a victory because of the regulatory intervention by the Federation while the game was still being played. Be clear, there’s no conspiracy here – Red Bull was staunchly against DT39 (directive technical number 39). Conversely, Mercedes strongly desired this intervention. Nevertheless, the result is as described. Red Bull became untouchable.
To sum it up, this aerodynamic revolution, in its current state, seems to have failed. However, we can’t determine if this revolution has entirely failed, for two reasons. First, it was almost immediately contradicted, with the rules for the floor modified (quite significantly), restoring greater importance to the car’s bodywork. It might be coincidental, but overtaking has become more difficult again.
Second, we can’t know what Ferrari could have achieved with the F1–75 if things hadn’t changed, beyond the proclamations from Mattia Binotto that the new rules enacted by the FIA hadn’t influenced Maranello’s car. The facts say otherwise, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Additionally, another aspect needs emphasizing: this is a new set of regulations, with cars having only two years of development under them. At the dawn of this regulatory philosophy, there are ample improvement opportunities (as demonstrated by McLaren). The challenge is to bring performance closer together without sacrificing F1’s competitive DNA.
Since porpoising has been largely eliminated (and Mattia Binotto was right in saying that teams had already solved it without
the regulator’s heavy intervention), the Federation could cancel the post-TD39 rules. However, this seems impossible – it would be admitting a mistake. And then more development opportunities would need to be granted (private testing? more hours in the wind tunnel? etc.). The regulation itself is probably neither good nor bad, so to speak, but the stringent rules preventing or greatly slowing down developments are what create “stagnation.”
To wrap up, in the current state, the revolution launched in 2022 seems to have failed. But there are extenuating circumstances to explain this failure: the FIA’s dramatic turnaround and the fact that there’s still room for improvement. A negative judgment, but one that’s suspended.
Let’s hope that next year brings more competitiveness from those chasing Red Bull. If that doesn’t happen, then indeed there would be trouble. Because then we would have to look to the new regulatory change, i.e., 2026. And even today, ideas are few and muddled. A 2024 identical to 2023 would be too much, even for the most resolute F1 enthusiasts – including Max and Red Bull fans.
Source: Mariano Froldi for FUnoanalisitecnica