The wait is almost over. Formula One racing’s bold new era of more dramatic and stimulating cars will finally become reality next weekend with Melbourne’s 2017 Formula 1 Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
Ten teams are fighting out the 2017 FIA Formula One World Championship, with cars that the FIA have promised will be up to five seconds a lap faster than their counterparts in the first three seasons of the turbo-hybrid formula which began in 2014.
Following eight days of pre-season testing, in two sessions in Barcelona, it seems that the leading teams may be a lot closer than they have been since Mercedes’ three-year domination started.
Ferrari have been very fast, with Mercedes not far behind and Red Bull and Williams also looking promising.
But before we start to assess the apparent merits of the leading contenders, let’s take a look at what’s changed since 2016. Quite a lot, is the answer, and the revisions promise much for a racing series that is on the brink of very significant change.
New technical rules
First up are the dramatic new technical regulations, which have resulted in more powerful (and slightly heavier) cars, emboldened with extra downforce and mechanical grip from wider tyres. They will, of course, be much faster than their predecessors, and may well prove to be the fastest F1 cars ever. But with so much downforce and grip they will also be much more taxing to drive - and more spectacular.
As a key part of the new package, Pirelli’s tyres are 25 percent wider than last year’s in the search for a big increase in mechanical grip to go with significant aerodynamic changes.
The fronts are almost the width of the previous rears, rising from 245 mm to 305, while the rears increase from 325 to 405. Their diameter is also slightly bigger.
Just as important, though, is that while Pirelli will supply the usual hard, medium, soft, supersoft and ultrasoft rubber, the individual compounds are different to 2016’s and the aim has been to make them much more durable so drivers can push harder, and longer.
Wider tyres mean more grip - and faster cornering
Bodywork and aerodynamics
The overall width of the cars has increased from 1800 to 2000 mm, facilitating a new front wing that increases from 1650 mm wide to 1800, the width that was mandated between 2009 and 2013. The wing also has a stylish swept-back shape in plan view, and the length of the nose section has been increased slightly.
Where once there were exclusion zones, there is now more freedom for the aerodynamicists in the crucial bargeboard area immediately in front of the sidepods, which is key to the efficiency of the airflow from the front wing to the rear bodywork encasing the power unit and the diffuser at the back of the car.
The sidepods now have a 1600 mm width limit, the same as the floor, which is up from 1400, and also have a swept-back shape in plan.
The diffuser’s leading edge used to start at the rear axle centreline, but now starts 175 mm ahead of it. Where it was previously 1000 mm wide and 125 mm deep, the diffuser’s relative dimensions are now 1050 and 175, to help generate more downforce.
The overall height of the rear wing has decreased from 950 mm to 800, as the width increases from 750 mm to 950. The endplates were formerly rectangular but are now swept back in side elevation, and curve inwards at their bottom edges.
Interestingly, the rulemakers left scope for the return of the ‘shark fins’ last seen back in 2009 on engine covers. Teams including Mercedes, Ferrari and Williams added ‘T-wings’ to these in testing, a solution which may well stay for Melbourne.
The minimum weight was 702 kg, but has increased to 722 to allow for the cars’ bigger dimensions.
The unloved engine token development system has been shelved, leaving teams free to bring design enhancements during the season so long as they do not exceed their allowance of four engines per driver for the 20 races.
However, manufacturers now face new weight and materials restrictions to place a limit on the scope of their ‘unfettered’ development.
Cars are now allowed 105 kg of fuel, an increase of five percent. But there are new restrictions on the fuel blends that teams may use. They may only nominate five for the whole season, with only two permissible per race weekend.
And new sporting regulations
There have also been changes to the sporting regulations.
Key among these, given the misfortunes which befell the Mercedes drivers in particular at times last year, the rules on clutch engagement have been tightened up significantly. Starts could thus be really critical again.
The FIA wants to bring more control within the drivers’ hands instead of the engineers’. Last year they looked at radio communications and clutch bite points, as well as making drivers use only a single clutch paddle. Now there are further limitations on clutch control, and the movement and location of the paddles.
There must now be linear control of the torque during clutch engagement, and it is no longer permissible for engineers to map the settings so that most of the available movement of the paddle would be within the optimum bite point of the clutch.
In other words, with the new linear settings, it’s up to the driver to find the exactly correct bite point of the clutch to make the best start without getting excessive wheelspin or bogging the engine down.
Adding to the challenge, there can only be a maximum movement limit of 80 mm in the clutch paddle, and the paddle must be 50 mm clear of anything else in the cockpit so the driver cannot, for example, rest the back of his hand against the dash panel to help steady his digital clutch engagement.
Wet-weather standing starts
If a safety car is deemed to be required for the beginning of a race due to wet weather, unlike previously a normal standing start will occur once the track is deemed safe to race. The process will see the safety car return to the pit lane and the cars assembling on the grid for the start.