With Formula 1’s three days of pre-season testing about to begin, all eyes will be on the timesheets to see who has gained and lost out. But headline times are a notoriously fickle indicator of form, and you need to look more closely to get a more representative view of who is hot and who is not, which may well be blown out of the water come the first race anyway.
There are many measures of performance, but the most straightforward one is the least relevant. Outright lap time will allow us to compare the pace in testing to last November’s Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, albeit with the complication of varying fuel loads and programs, but that in itself will tell us very little.
In motorsport, what really matters is relative performance, and the 2021 season might be one of those unusual cases where going no faster than the previous year is a victory. Results will be dictated by how much faster or slower than the rest a team is, but this year is unique given the enforced carryover of much of the car.
This is complicated by the small, but significant, aerodynamic rule changes for 2021. The package of four tweaks has been implemented to prevent downforce levels from rising further given that the Pirelli tires have been carried over for a third successive season, aside from some modifications to the construction to improve their robustness.
Along with the reduction in width of the downforce-producing winglets on the lower part of the rear brake ducts and the shortening of vertical vanes in the diffuser, the key changes are to the floor: the triangular cut that means the floor tapers inwards towards the rear wheels, with the longitudinal slots eliminated. This creates an ‘exclusion volume’ around the rear wheels. Given the importance of the way the floor and rotating wheels interact in generating downforce, specifically in terms of the all-important sealing of the underfloor area, there’s a lot to be gained in terms of relative performance from effectively re-optimizing around the modifications.
“The combination of the floor area that people are trying to hide, the change in the brake duct shape and change to the diffuser fences, is a pretty substantial reduction in downforce,” says Alpine chassis technical director Pat Fry. “That area will be one of the main areas of development.
“We’ve certainly got a whole program lined up, and through a lot of the teams I’ve been at, that area is one of the things where you can never model the deflected car shape quite correctly in the windtunnel anyway. So I suspect you’ll see everyone with a myriad of test items turning up in Bahrain and the first few races.
“We haven’t just got one solution, we’ve got many things to test and get on top of. It’s certainly been a significant loss. We haven’t recovered all of it yet, but it’s still a work in progress. When we get to the first test, it will become really interesting, seeing how well things are relating to CFD and windtunnel, as well as the absolute numbers that we get out of the car.”
So these changes are the confounding factor that create the opportunity for teams to get it right or wrong. Estimates are mixed on if, and when, teams will get to the same downforce levels as in 2020 – and the answer will vary, given the differing levels of downforce last year. But it’s likely to be one of the most powerful sources of performance swings.
There are others. Ferrari took a big hit ahead of last season thanks to the series of technical directives issued to tighten up the engine regulations. Ferrari worked with the governing body to create these after the FIA could not prove what it called “suspicions that the Scuderia Ferrari PU could be considered as not operating within the limits of the FIA regulations at all times” in 2019 – suspicions it said Ferrari “firmly opposed”. As engines were frozen during the season last year, upgrades couldn’t be introduced, and a significant step is expected this time around. While Ferrari concedes Mercedes is still likely to have the edge power-wise, team principal Mattia Binotto is confident that Ferrari will no longer have the weakest engine.
Overall, Ferrari is the team with the biggest potential for improvement. Not only does it have engine gains, but last year’s car was too draggy and suffered from rear-end instability.
“Last year the main issue was the speed on the straight lines, both power and drag,” says Binotto. “We’ve worked a lot, both on the power unit and the car aerodynamics to reduce the drag of the car, and based on our simulations today, based on what we can see in terms of power output from the dynos, and the drag of the car from the windtunnel, I think that we recovered quite a lot of speed on the straight lines.
“So, I’m expecting the speed not to be such an issue as it was. We believe that our car is certainly more efficient compared to the one we had last year, both from the aero point of view, and from the power unit point of view.”
As Ferrari was in the tightly-packed midfield group last year, it won’t take much to elevate it from sixth to third – especially if new signing Carlos Sainz makes a bigger points contribution than Sebastian Vettel managed last year. Ferrari was 71 points behind third-placed McLaren in 2020, which sounds substantial but only amounts to an average loss of 4.2 points per race. More significantly, it was only an average of 0.240% slower than third-fastest Racing Point. That equates to 0.2s of a second around a 90-second lap, which is well within what can be gained.
So while jumping three positions to third is relatively straightforward for a team with the resources of Ferrari and the many obvious upsides – provided, of course, it’s got things right – a far bigger step is needed to move up to second. It was 0.721% slower than second-fastest Red Bull, which is a lot to ask, doubly so when you consider how much stronger Red Bull was in the closing stages of the season.
The constraints of this season make it difficult to judge what kinds of gains are realistic, although we can make some assumptions. Even Binotto concedes that making the 1.4% relative gain to Mercedes is not going to happen, and history supports him on this. While there was a time when there could be huge performance swings thanks to the pace of technology, whether it was some new innovation or refining an idea that had already appeared, such strides are rare these days.
To put that into context, during the V6 turbo hybrid era that started in 2014, there are only five cases of teams gaining more than 1% in terms of relative performance from one year to the next. One was Manor from 2015-16, a leap of 2.68% thanks to the massive struggles of the revived team in the first of those years – hardly a representative set of circumstances.
Another was Williams, which was so catastrophically bad in 2019 that even a 1.470% leap last year was only good enough for it to join the ‘Class C’ group of strugglers at the back. Renault, now Alpine, gained 1.285% from 2016-17, another exceptional case given the car in the first of those years was desperately underdeveloped under the ailing previous ownership prior to it being taken over. It was a similar story for Racing Point, now Aston Martin, from 2019-2020, which gained 1.104% but with its 2019 car compromised by the previous ownership’s struggles.
That leaves just McLaren, which gained 1.290% from 2018-19. That’s a more interesting case, as it was a team that had some serious weaknesses laid bare by its switch from Honda to Renault propulsion, which was seen as a panacea prior but simply proved the engine had been a lightning rod to attract all the criticism. McLaren had chassis problems too, and fixing them allowed for the big step.
You might argue a team like Ferrari this year is comparable because the SF1000 was certainly a package beset by a series of unusual problems. That’s what makes it the team with the biggest potential to catapult forward. But of the teams that did well last year, it’s unlikely we’ll see anything spectacular. Red Bull, for example, has been making slow progress, with steps of 0.161%, 0.145% and 0.014% relative to the pace over the past three years. Progress, yes, but at that rate it will be another six seasons before it gets on terms with Mercedes.
This is why the major rule changes next year are so tantalizing. Not only are the technical regulations governing the car undergoing their most dramatic changes in grand prix history, but they combine with the arrival of the cost-cap this year, and the more equitable distribution of team payments to create the conditions for some big changes. That’s why so many teams will be turning their maximum development resources to the 2022 project very quickly this year. Already, significant R&D has been going into next year’s car by all teams.
The last time there were significant aerodynamic changes was in 2017. Then, the performance shifts weren’t massive, save for the aforementioned gains by Renault. The biggest beneficiary was Ferrari, which gained 0.6% relative to the pace and started to win races again after a dry 2016. But the most famous example is the 2009 rule changes, which introduced the ‘skinny’ aero regs.
That season actually laid the foundations for today, with the Brawn team that had been revived from the embers of Honda winning the championship and Red Bull emerging as a race-winning force. Red Bull leaped from seventh in the constructors’ championship in 2008 to second, with Honda turning ninth into first.
The Brawn example, in particular, is often misused as an example of what can be achieved by focusing on next year’s car. That team required some big changes after Ross Brawn’s arrival late in 2007 and it was logical to focus on that, along with investing much of what would have been its 2008 development budget into the 2009 car for new regulations. That made it arguably the most expensive F1 car ever produced at that time, as Honda, despite its struggles, was not short of cash. The 50bhp deficit to Mercedes that Honda suffered from in 2008 was also eliminated by the change of engine supplier. As for Red Bull, it had invested heavily, recruited the best and needed the rules reset to get onto an even keel up against the rest.
Such conditions are rare and the teams best-placed to exploit the 2022 regulations remain the best-funded. What’s more, Honda went from around 1.0% off the pace at the end of 2008 to setting the pace at the start of 2009, which was enough to make the leap. Today, there’s that 1% chasm between the leading teams and the front of the midfield, a gap that was solidified by the 2017 rule changes.
Coming back to this season, the fascinating thing is that this is a challenge of readjustment to a minor but impactful rules tweak rather than a clean sheet of paper. As the saying goes, shares may go down as well as up, and there will be teams whose gaps in understanding prove more costly. But it should be within the realms only of an adjustment of the competitive order rather than a revolution – albeit with enough of a challenge to make the season interesting.
The hopes for that revolution must wait for next year. But as history shows, rules changes can also stretch the gaps between teams and leave many playing catch-up. In this world where relative gains count though, it’s no coincidence that the pre-eminent force – Mercedes – has the most stable numbers for the past seven years, usually making gains or losses measured by less than a tenth of a percent.