OPINION: F1 teams face a high-stakes juggling act

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OPINION: F1 teams face a high-stakes juggling act

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OPINION: F1 teams face a high-stakes juggling act

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For a long time, Formula 1 teams have talked the talk when it comes to the significance of the 2022 season in terms of the chassis regulations reset and the need to produce a strong car as a firm foundation for the new era of rules. But now that the season has started, they must walk the walk and ensure they are not tempted into prioritizing short-term gains.

While some teams have delivered on their expectations, albeit based only on the limited sample set of one grand prix weekend’s worth of data, others have fallen short. For those not at the level they hoped for, some tough decisions will have to be made about how they allocate their resources.

Take Aston Martin, for example. Despite the high hopes for the rebranded team, which had the third-fastest car on average last season, it has started poorly, and blamed the aerodynamic rule tweaks designed to stop downforce levels continuing to grow. Tweaks, it should be noted, that have had the desired effect, with the downforce loss around the five percent mark but varying by team.

Like Mercedes, Aston Martin is suffering from running the low-rake concept that it originally copied from F1’s dominant force. With less volume of air under the floor thanks to the lower rear ride height, the potential for downforce creation is reduced and this appears to have tipped the balance in favor of those running higher-rake, as exemplified by Red Bull’s leading pace.

Setting aside the rights and wrongs of this – and it should be noted that Red Bull was adamant its concept had the greater potential even before the rule changes – it has transformed the competitive landscape. But it’s essential teams respond in the right way. For while those running lower rake cannot leap to a higher-rake concept given the limitations on what they can change and the enormous impact such a move would have on the rest of the aerodynamics of the car, there will be the temptation to squeeze out more performance in pursuit of improved results.

If you look back to the final year before the introduction of the V6 turbo hybrid engines in 2014, there is a cautionary lesson from Ferrari. Having won two races early in the season with Fernando Alonso, Ferrari slid back and was soon out of championship contention. Yet then-Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo was still pushing for improvement within that season. That came at the expense of 2014 development, both in terms of the chassis and engine project, meaning it was off the pace when the rules changed. You can argue that Ferrari, despite a couple of seasons when it was a championship threat in 2017-18, has never entirely recovered from that mistake.

Ferrari invested heavily in its 2013 development, and paid a price when the V6 turbo era began the following year. Coates/Motorsport Images

Aston Martin team principal Otmar Szafnauer was asked after the Bahrain Grand Prix how the bad start might impact the tradeoff of resources in terms of ongoing ’21 development and the ’22 project.

“The trade-off has to be how much more we gain this year, at what expense for next year,” said Szafnauer. “That’s really hard to predict. At this time, we’re going to keep going in parallel.”

Aston Martin is a team with enormous potential, but the rebrand and the strong performance last season bring with it extra pressures. Team owner Lawrence Stroll expects success fast, but it’s essential that the desire to do better this year does not come at the expense of the 2022 car. Given there are limitations in the Aston Martin car concept – a concept that was only ever supposed to be a single hit before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the rule change being put back a year – this must be factored in.

Szafnauer mentioned a trade-off, but if you look at it in simple terms, is one or two places gained this year worth one or two lost compared to what might be achieved next year? Definitely not. When it comes to decisions like this, it’s where strong leadership and a steady hand at the rudder is important.

Inevitably, it is not quite as simple as that and there are confounding factors. For example, while the rules are changing dramatically and the carryover from 2021 to ’22 is negligible, what might be called the underlying science does translate. Assumptions, processes and knowledge that underpin the current car are also being used to on the ’22 project. This means there’s an extra question teams like Aston Martin must ask themselves when making their resource allocation decision – is this year’s bad start down to external, or internal, factors?

There will always be an element of both, but if Aston Martin concludes that it’s genuinely the inadvertent victim of the change of rules without any fundamental failures on its part – beyond perhaps the initial switch to the low-rake concept that was always reckoned to have a lower performance ceiling – then there is little to learn. It should stick with its original plan for the split of resources, or perhaps even bias it more towards ’22. But if there are specific unknowns that have tripped it up, then it must explore them to avoid a repeat next year.

To a greater or lesser extent, all teams face this question mark. The temptation will always be there to turn the handle a few more times on ’21 development when the potential for a better result is within sight. That’s going to be a particular challenge for Mercedes and Red Bull, locked in a championship fight, as well as those contending for leadership of the midfield. On current form, that’s McLaren, Ferrari and AlphaTauri – although we still need a few more events at different circuits to be confident of the competitive order.

For Mercedes and Red Bull, the prospect of a title battle adds further complication to the question of how much should be invested in this year’s car. Sutton/Motorsport Images

Arguably, McLaren is in the best position. It had the extra challenge this year of adapting its car to the Mercedes engine. While that offered a performance gain, this prevented it using its development tokens in other areas. Yet given the potential pitfalls, it emerged from Bahrain as the midfield leader and might have had an even better haul of points had Daniel Ricciardo not picked up diffuser damage when he was clipped by Pierre Gasly early on.

McLaren also benefits from the tremendous leadership focus that’s in place. Since becoming team principal, Andreas Seidl has not only contributed to clear improvement on track, but also shown the capacity for longer-term strategic thinking. Retaining third in the constructors’ championship is very possible and it will likely be in that fight all season, but this will not be a team that gets sucked into compromising ’22. In James Key, it also has clear technical leadership that will focus on what matters and therefore has to be regarded as one of the best-placed to strike the right balance.

But it is also a racing team, and the fact that the battle with Ferrari is likely to rage all year is also a significant part of the story.

“Everything that I saw shows that Ferrari made a big step forward compared to last year, which is not unexpected” said Seidl. “We never underestimate the ability of a team like Ferrari, with all the resources they have, with all the experience they have, to come back quickly. They have two great drivers as well. We’re simply looking forward to battling with Ferrari again this year.”

Ferrari is also in a challenging position, one that will be another stern test of team principal Mattia Binotto’s leadership. When he took up the role, expectations of him were sky-high and he made a promising start, but that gleaming halo has become duller over time and Binotto himself has admitted he doesn’t have infinite time to make Ferrari a success. He set his sights on third in the constructors’ championship as the minimum over the winter, which effectively is also the maximum given it won’t be beating Red Bull or Mercedes.

Third in the constructors’ is an attractive target for McLaren, but not at the expense of its potential to move up the order when the new regulations come into force. Sutton/Motorsport Images

But like McLaren, third place this year must not be prioritized over a strong start to next year. Given the politics at Ferrari, particularly with Binotto’s most staunch supporter, Louis Camilleri, standing down as chairman, he will be feeling the pressure. But the long game is what matters. Just as in 2013, these decisions will be a test of leadership.

It’s the same up and down the grid, where the resolve and judgment of every single team will be tested to the limit – perhaps with the exception of Haas, which had effectively given up on 2021 before it even started.

These decisions are complex. The narrative of teams giving up on seasons to focus on next year has been a popular one ever since the Honda/Brawn transformation of 2009. But while that has always been an extreme case and it’s never quite as binary as it seems, there are some similarities with the rules reset of next year. It’s certainly an opportunity for the establishment of a changed competitive order.

What it will test is the capacity of teams to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Is there something you can troubleshoot on this year’s car that is applicable to next year’s car? If so, there’s a strong argument for doing it. If it’s just about squeezing another tenth or two out of this year, then you need to think very carefully.

It’s made uniquely difficult this year by the limitations of the cost cap and also aerodynamic testing. With windtunnel and CFD strictly limited, and the best-placed teams having less than the weakest performers, everything you do must count. While once you could ‘brute force develop’ your way to success, the increasing restrictions over the years have made that harder. This simply makes it more challenging.

While no team should entirely abandon 2021 because there is always something to learn, they should lean towards accepting short-term pain in search of long-term gains. But to get those calls right, their decision-making must be clear, well-informed and dispassionate.

After all, these decisions are made by human beings. But making the wrong call now could set back a team for years.

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