INSIGHT: The F1 spying stakes increase

Image courtesy of Aston Martin Racing

INSIGHT: The F1 spying stakes increase

Formula 1

INSIGHT: The F1 spying stakes increase

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Only Alpine has yet to reveal its 2022 car, but that doesn’t really tell the story of where we’re at in terms of the Formula 1 launch season.

Alfa Romeo won’t launch until after the first test, but its actual car ran at Fiorano this week and provided plenty of actual detail to look at — unlike Red Bull that did launch something last week but it was just an old model of a show car to show off its livery. Williams even did two in one day by using a show car for its launch, and then following it with the actual car on track.

But there’s a reason so many teams are being secretive or a bit unorthodox with the way their new cars are appearing at present, and it’s not just because of the race against time to have them ready for the first test.

It’s true that teams never want to give away their secrets, and would rather their rivals have as little time as possible to react to anything they might see on each others’ cars, but that’s especially important this year. There was a fear that the new regulations would be so restrictive that all of the cars would end up looking the same, but as McLaren technical director James Key explains, that hasn’t been the case so far when reviewing what his team has delivered compared to Aston Martin and Haas.

“I think it’s nice to see diversity in the space of three car launches, or real car launches so far,” Key said after the MCL36 was launched. “So it shows that some of the fears about everything looking identical isn’t necessarily the case.

Tighter parameters or not, differing design approaches to the new rules are already visible, like in McLaren’s MCL36 seen here. Image courtesy of McLaren

“There is a couple of different philosophies there and it’s all around trying to solve the same problem, and it’s maybe that we see several ideas along the bodywork side of things that try to do the same kind of thing. The wider sidepod is not unfamiliar to us, we have just decided to tackle the same aerodynamic problem in a slightly different way.

“I guess what we will find out with these things is that there are probably different philosophies and ways of doing things as cars get launched and there are going to be some trends that establish themselves over time and we will find that the different philosophies become commonplace. But to begin with it’s a bit of an unknown.”

And how do those philosophies become commonplace as Key says? Well, that’s where the fun comes in. Teams will be scrutinizing each other’s cars as much as possible to see what they’ve done in response to the new rules and how well they appear to work. It’s not just the teams, either. A senior engineer at Formula 1 told me recently that they too are looking at the different solutions — paying spy photographers for as much information as possible — to be able to see how the regulations are being exploited in case there are any loopholes that need closing off in future to ensure the intention of being able to follow more closely is achieved.

Limited pre-season running makes views of the new contenders like Mercedes’ new W13 all the more invaluable to rivals. Image courtesy of Mercedes AMG Petronas

Of course teams have always done this, but at the very start of a new set of regulations, there’s more value at this stage to learning as much as you can from other teams as well as your own car.

“One of the biggest unknowns is what everyone has done with the regs,” Key explains. “We know we have all faced a similar challenge; interestingly, there has been added complication of doing it in a cost cap, which wasn’t originally planned. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 situation arrived that we had to develop it within the cost cap, so we have all had to try and adapt in that way too.

Harder for the bigger teams than the smaller teams, but that has been a factor.

“We have this rather topsy-turvy situation of being able to develop the car mechanically for a long time — two years basically — but delay the aerodynamics until 2021, so aero lags behind mechanical, which is completely the wrong way round.

“So with all those added complications it is going to be really interesting to see what everyone has done and how they have interpreted these rules,” Key says. “They are simpler aerodynamically in terms of the surfaces you have, but the subtleties in there are very influential and that’s what is going to be of most interest.

“Definitely because there is zero data and no reference point for these cars — they have been digital and mathematical for two years until recent months without clear and firm data — comparing what others have done will be a fascinating thing for all teams.”

So why is the spy race going to be so lucrative this season? Well, there’s an added need for teams to know what others have done and how effective a solution is in this era compared to the past because of the budget cap, which limits how and when you can spend your resources on car development.

It’s not that catching up is more difficult than in the past, but teams are going to be restricted in the work they do and how many upgrades they can bring to the car, with Key admitting that being able to develop in multiple directions more easily is the approach McLaren has taken, rather than backing one clear concept.

“It depends what your problem is,” he says. “With our car — and I’m sure everyone has done this — we have made an effort to try and give ourselves a platform which is very well future-proofed for development, so it offers opportunities beyond us getting the here and now right. We’ll see how that goes, but there is plenty more to learn and do at this stage.

“I think it then drops down to what your development strategy is in terms of introducing things. The longer you leave something, the quicker the car will be when you’ve got it on but you’ve spent more races without that performance step.

“I think that’s what the cost cap forces you to do, which is a good thing because you have to think smartly and you have to think about the most efficient way to do things.”

The 2022 cars are designed to improve the racing, but those that get a handle on what the best concepts are the quickest — even if they don’t have them incorporated into their cars right now — will have a head start on the rest.

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