James Coghlan analyses the implications of this year’s new technical regulations in Formula 1, which appear to have arrived at just the right time.
Following a desperately uncompetitive 2013 season, in which Sebastian Vettel won no fewer than 13 races en route to a fourth consecutive title, it had become apparent that Formula 1 is stuck in something of a rut.
Since the start of the last rules cycle back in 2009, the sport has witnessed the remarkable ascendancy of Red Bull, whose recent dominance thanks to the efforts of Vettel has made the majority of races rather predictable affairs. This has signified a gradual decrease in global TV viewing figures; 2013 alone saw a staggering drop of 50 million, representing an alarming 10% decline.
As a result of this, many see 2014’s dramatic technical regulation changes as an opportunity to spice up the action and resurrect the excitement of years gone by. Undoubtedly the area that has been most affected going into the new era is that of the engines, which have been given a drastic overhaul as the sport carries on its relentless pursuit to embrace environmentally-friendly technology.
The new rules mandate the use of a 1.6 litre V6 turbo engine, which is limited to 15,000 rpm and produces in the region 600bhp, which may seem rather meagre compared to the outgoing normally aspirated V8s fans have become used to.
However, these new ‘power-trains’, as they are now termed, can boast an ‘Energy Recovery System’ or ERS, which combines the familiar KERS system with an additional electric motor which is attached to the turbo. ERS also benefits from the additional motor’s ability to convert thermal energy produced by the turbo into electric energy.
This energy is harnessed by batteries and can be deployed by the engine management computer to produce an extra 160bhp for 33 seconds per lap, which is a dramatic increase over the KERS system used in previous years which afforded drivers a boost of 80bhp for only 6.5 seconds per lap.
Outwardly, the most noticeable changes are those concerning the chassis, which have resulted in some rather odd looking cars up and down the grid. The area of highest contention is the nose, which has been lowered significantly in an attempt to reduce the chance of a car being launched into the air in the event of it hitting the rear wheels of the one in front.
Coupled with a complicated set of dimensional requirements and the teams’ desires to maximise airflow under the chassis, this has meant that several of this year’s challengers feature pretty unorthodox designs, some of which resemble anything from anteaters to vacuum cleaners.
There are a number of other changes to the chassis as well, including a narrower front wing and the removal of the lower beam rear wing. Both of these changes mean that the airflow around and over the car is significantly less fluid than in the last few seasons, which means that overall downforce will be reduced.
The exhaust system has had a bit of a makeover as well, with the dual-pipe layout being succeeded by a single, central one which sits directly above the gearbox. The effect of this has been to eliminate so-called ‘exhaust-blowing’, the practice of harnessing exhaust gases to boost downforce – an area in which Red Bull in particular has excelled in recent years.
Taken as a whole, these changes are certain to offer one thing: unpredictability. Not only will the cars be very difficult to drive thanks to the unsavoury combination of increased torque and reduced downforce, but they will also be far more unreliable; indeed, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner suspected that failure rates could reach as high as 50% of the entire grid in the early stages of the season.
If you are the sort of fan who misses the exciting spectacle provided by the notoriously uncontrollable cars of the 1980s, this news will be of some comfort; there is no doubt that F1 cars of recent years have been rather conservative in their design. The re-introduction of turbocharged engines and limited downforce should thus revive some of the excitement of an era where the emphasis was primarily on the skill of the driver and poor reliability meant that everything was to play for.
If the first pre-season test at Jerez is anything to go by, it looks like these hopes may be justified. The drivers were incessantly complaining about how they were much harder to drive than their 2013 forerunners. Then there is the reliability: the teams knew that it would be a significant issue at this very early stage of proceedings, but they can’t have expected just how unreliable the new power-trains would be.
The complexity of the new technology means that a number of teams have struggled with a number of issues relating to consistent ERS functionality, and have consequently managed to do hardly any running. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than at Red Bull, which managed to rack up a grand total of 21 laps over the four days of testing when their car wasn’t confined to the garage.
The fundamental problem appears to lie with the Renault power unit, whose construction has led to ERS issues inherent in the design which cannot be rectified without some significant changes. Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari on the other hand experienced no such issues, all three teams racking up a healthy number of laps; indeed, Nico Rosberg was able to put in a full race distance on the last day of the test.
At this moment in time, it is difficult to discern who is on top in terms in raw pace, but that seems to be of relatively little concern for most of the paddock; there is no doubt that the usual suspects at the top of the grid have produced quick cars, but it’ll be for nothing if they can’t get them going.
With that in mind, it looks like reliability will be one of the most decisive factors in progress of this year’s championship, and will undoubtedly rekindle some of the fire lost in previous years.bookmark me