Sunday, 19 February 2017

F1 2017 - Wide Of The Mark?

The new season is upon us and the frisson of excitement is beginning to bubble to the surface. Overworked factory staff on often 24 hour rota shifts have been preparing their teams this winter for the biggest technical changes the sport has seen in nearly a decade.

Rosberg shifts focus
Social media and news outlets have been abuzz since the flag went down in Abu Dhabi last November. Newly crowned World Champion Rosberg dramatically threw in the towel with shock retirement. For him the timing felt right, with the opportunity to spend time with his new daughter and bow out beating nemesis Lewis Hamilton. As the doors open for Valtteri Bottas to take his vacant seat, many will still question whether one championship win over rival Hamilton's two is enough to satisfy. Will Nico feel the itch to prove himself in the near future?

The sport is under new ownership as John C Malone's American corporation 'Liberty Media' have purchased the Formula One Group for £3.3 billion. Old dinosaur Bernie Ecclestone has been ousted from the helm and now serves an advisory role. Credited with the meteoric rise in popularity of the sport with astute television contracts the 86 year old failed to understand or embrace the new world of online media content. Asif Kapadia, director of the cult film 'Senna' once recalled a meeting with Ecclestone. While trying to explain the idea of the film with an onboard Youtube clip of Senna tearing it around Monaco, Ecclestone's first reaction was to organise his legal team to shut down the unlicensed video. While unpaid content won't bring in income itself, relaxation of draconian copyright control and intelligent online revenue ideas are desperately needed. With UK fans facing high subscriptions for pay-per view television the sport faces losing a big chunk of its loyal audience. Although still relying on this revenue perhaps the new owners will be better recognise the new media age? Liberty Media's Greg Maffei understands that only 1% of income comes from digital media, stating the sport "really have no organised digital effort, I think there's a lot of things that can be done around gaming, VR and AR."

Greg Maffei (Left), John C Malone (Centre), Ross Brawn (Right)

Making a welcome return is Ross Brawn, appointed by Liberty Media as 'Director of Motorsports'. Few have made a positive impact in racing circles as this man. Originally joining the March GP team in the 70's as a machinist, he soon developed his engineering expertise at various teams through the ages. Joining Bennetton in the early 90's his skills at calling race strategy became recognised as well as his successful bond with a certain Michael Schumacher. Joining Michael in 1997 with a move to Ferrari that lasted nearly a decade, Brawn became part of the most successful era for the Scuderia. In 2007 he became team principle of Honda and a year later faced the harrowing prospect of Honda withdrawing from the sport with no potential buyer. In a heroic last minute effort before the 2009 season, Brawn bought a majority stake in the team. The rest of the ownership was shared between other senior staff members and thousands of jobs were saved. All involved however were fully aware that their car promised to be a giant killer with its 'double diffuser' design. From ending 2008 in 9th place things took a dramatic turn with driver Jenson Button winning the World Championship and the team also winning the Constructors under the name Brawn GP.  It is unlikely that such an amazing feat will ever be repeated in the sport.

Brawn achieving the impossible in 2009
Few can doubt a man more worthy of his new role, and furthermore Ross Brawn understands what makes great racing and what doesn't. 2017 rule changes see cars wider with a more aggressive look reminiscent of times of old - but aerodynamics are going to take an even bigger influence on outright performance. Inheriting these major changes, Brawn is critical:

"The more aerodynamic performance you create, the more sensitive you are to the wake of the car in front. It's not always the case, because the aerodynamics can be profiled and shaped and managed to reduce that impact, but inherently that is the case. So I hope these regulations aren't going to impact the ability of these cars to race together."

The truth is we won't know the definitive answers until the lights go out in Australia on the 26th of March. But as argued in my previous article, the ground affect principle should be developed to produce downforce with less drag. This has the potential to create great racing a fraction of current costs. This idea isn't new but is victim of the politics of modern F1. Top teams with a bigger controlling stake don't want their tree shaken and order changed and want to avoid an outlay of initial investment. Unfortunately the bigger picture means they will continue hemorrhaging development costs as the spectacle continues to suffer.

Wider cars for 2017

It seems the 2017 rules have concentrated on aesthetics and lap times rather than improving the show. The bodywork and floor is a noticeable 200mm wider as well as the rear wing, which is also 150mm lower. There is some increase in ground effect, with the diffuser 50mm higher and wider. Even more striking are the tyres, with the new Pirelli tyres 60mm wider at the front and 80mm wider at the rear. An increase in mechanical grip from the tyres is welcome, but such a big increase in the over body aerodynamic area of the car means more downforce and drag for the following car to deal with. In an attempt to negate this the front wing is further forward with a diagonal leading edge which hopes to be less sensitive to dirty air from the car in front. The wing itself is 150mm wider than 2016. As teams continue to develop this larger front wing we could find overtaking becoming even more difficult through the corners. Its important to note however that DRS will have a bigger affect on increasing speed, meaning overtaking could increase on the straights. But do we want the band aid of DRS generating the racing or more of an emphasis on driver skill though the bends?

With wider tyres and more downforce the cars will be a lot faster. Engineers are predicting 4-5 seconds a lap over the 2016 cars and around 25mph faster through high speed bends. Faster speeds mean higher Gs through corners and a much bigger physical challenge. Driver fatigue will make a welcome return and we will likely see exhausted drivers losing concentration through a race distance.

Driver fatigue is back! Mansell passes out in Dallas'84.

With wider tyres and more downforce the cars will be a lot faster. Engineers are predicting 4-5 seconds a lap over the 2016 cars and around 25mph faster through high speed bends. Faster speeds mean higher Gs through corners and a much bigger physical challenge. Driver fatigue will make a welcome return and we will likely see exhausted drivers losing concentration through a race distance.

The engines remain the same for 2017 but enjoy much more developmental freedom as the token system is abandoned. Each driver will be limited to four engines per season, but new engines can feature developments the supplier has made. These can't be added to existing engines. There are a few additional rules to govern size and weight of components and boost, but generally speaking engineers will enjoy the opportunity to be creative. It seems this is aimed and allowing others the opportunity to break Mercedes dominance. Many fans still hark back to the era of louder naturally aspirated engines. Few who have attended a race of old can forget that aggressive high pitched sound that still made the ground shake. I am one of those but after attending Silverstone testing last year and witnessing the turbo era machinery for the first time - I was surprised. While I still am nostalgic it was certainly more loud than expected. They also added some of their own individual drama with whooshing turbo and hybrid sounds. I've accepted that this is the future of the sport and its time to move on.

The big changes to the technical rule book could allow other teams to break the dominance of Mercedes. The Brackley team will still enjoy the biggest resources and staff levels but it will only take one clever idea or interpretation of the rules by rivals for the pecking order to drastically change. As mentioned previous, Brawn GP took this opportunity with the 2009 rule changes with its double diffuser design, much to the annoyance and protest of rivals. With such big aerodynamic changes and the general levelling out of engine performance between suppliers last year, its unlikely we won't see at least a few teams taking a leap in 2017. But in terms of racing will the bigger, wider cars really bring us an improved spectacle on the race track?

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