During the coming weeks, all 10 Formula 1 teams will reveal their 2020 machines, then run them on track for the first time during a quick-fire six days of pre-season testing. All the hopes, dreams and expectations for the season will be bound up in the performance potential of their cars, and some teams will come to love them. But others will eventually be sick of the sight of them, even though right now they are objects of excitement with simulations numbers encouraging them to expect a season of targets hit and objectives achieved.
But while these are new cars, every team has its own unique technical story. This year is effectively 2019 part two, with no significant regulation changes to throw a curveball into the mix. But that doesn’t mean the new cars will be identical to last season. Instead, it will be the changes – or lack of them – that reveal much about the approach and challenges for each team.
Here’s what to look out for when each new car breaks cover.
Every year, there’s speculation surrounding whether Mercedes will make a dramatic shift in design concept, perhaps to running significantly higher rake or adopting some other conspicuous design favored by Ferrari or Red Bull. And every year, Mercedes comes out with a car that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but does further refine its concept in countless, often invisible, ways that ensure it remains a potent package. Last year, for example, the most obvious change was the modified rear suspension, a development made for aerodynamic gains while maintaining the stiffness and kinematic behavior.
For years, Mercedes has produced a well-rounded package with a performance profile that makes it potent throughout the season, so it would be a surprise to see any big changes to its concept. But it’s often the imperceptible and unflashy changes require enormous engineering detail and, cumulatively, confer the most significant gains.
Perhaps the most important question is what Mercedes High Performance Powertrains comes up with. The engine package was still a strong one last year but, while it remained the class of the field in race trim, Ferrari – some of the time – had a big advantage over a single lap. Mercedes has redoubled its efforts to improve the power unit package, and history suggests it will succeed.
January is always a time for endless rumors to swirl around concerning changes to the Ferrari car – some accurate, some wide of the mark. One that appears likely to be true is a switch to a front wing concept closer to that of Mercedes and Red Bull with what is called the loaded outboard design. Rather than the wing profile dropping away as it moves outboard to the endplates, this involves having more wing surface to create downforce.
All teams have been working on both loaded and unloaded designs. While the loaded concept has greater potential for producing downforce, it is trickier to control the airflow and ensure that it is channeled towards the center of the car to maximize the crucial bargeboard area. It’s a logical concept for Ferrari to pursue, given it fell a little short in terms of front aero load last season, but it will likely test its ability to control airflow significantly.
If this change is indeed made, it will likely result in a change in the enormously complex zone around the bargeboard. If Ferrari goes this way and it works, it could unlock greater performance potential. But as Renault and Haas found last year, it can also create problems if you aren’t completely in command of the airflow.
Red Bull’s 2019 car didn’t start off as hoped, and it required a series of upgrades deployed from the Spanish through to the Austrian Grands Prix to get its car working at the level required, as the team struggled a little to get on top of the front wing regulation changes designed to mitigate outwash. But the progress made suggests its understanding of the change to the airflow regime was thorough. With Honda sure to take another step forward this year, the question is whether Red Bull can become a title challenger.
To do that, it must deliver from the start of the season, something that has been a weakness for Red Bull in recent years. There’s sure to be some small innovations on the car – there always are – but it’s likely to build on the same successful aero concept of 2019.
In the second year of Red Bull Racing using Honda, there could also be some more aggressive packaging. While Adrian Newey is famously pushy when it comes to packaging, the way Red Bull and Honda have collaborated so far on this has been very productive. But with the lessons of last year, there’s every chance of some detail changes to optimize the car now that the team has a year’s experience of running the engine.
The expectation at McLaren is that 2019 was just the start of the turnaround, with the front of the midfield only a waypoint in its return to the front. When the wraps come off the MCL35, which will be powered by a Renault engine before McLaren switches to Mercedes, look out for the promises of a change in concept being delivered.
Inevitably, this conjures images of dramatic innovation, but the reality is a little more subtle than that. The areas of the car where the concept will shift are those where step changes are required to unlock the potential to close on the ultra-refined big guns.
“You have to make changes to your car concept to maximize some of what you are able to do,” said technical director James Key. “There are definitely aspects of chipping away, but there are step changes in certain areas that we need to make. You’ve got to try and work out what the hell they are doing to be a second and a half quicker, what are they doing that’s different? It’s not easy, but it’s a great challenge to have.”
Most likely, this will manifest itself in detail. So pay close attention to the key aero areas – the front wing and particularly the bargeboards – as well as for potential suspension changes to give aero gains.
Renault’s sustained improvement of 2016-18 came to a juddering halt last year in terms of championship position, although it was at least fractionally closer to the outright pace than the previous season. While there were some reliability problems, the significant step taken with the engine package suggested that the main concern was aerodynamic.
It emerged that Renault was locked into a concept that restricted developmental returns, particularly in the bargeboard region that became critical for delivering performance under the 2019 regulations. But the front-end concept was the root of the problem, Renault pursuing the trickier-to-optimize but potentially superior loaded front wing concept favored by Mercedes and Red Bull.
“You have got to develop things in conjunction,” said Renault executive director Marcin Budkowski. “It’s not only a front wing, it’s a front wing, nose, chassis winglets, bargeboards, everything – the whole system needs to work together. There’s a trend towards unloading the outboard, and it’s fair to say we might have missed something there in the early season. The problem when you develop the front of the car around a concept [is], it’s more difficult to change; it’s not changing the front wing, changing the front wing is going to make you slower. You have got to change the whole front of the car.”
Look to the front wing of the 2020 Renault. That will reveal whether the team has felt obliged to go the unloaded route, or hopes to make a breakthrough with its management of the airflow off the front wing from the loaded design.