All Formula 1 drivers can be fast. What separates those rare all-time greats from the very good and the also-rans is how consistently they produce such speed and across how wide a range of conditions. Think of the true legends not just of grand prix racing, but motorsport as a whole, and a facet they all share is adaptability. This characteristic will come to the fore in the coming months as the drivers dial themselves into a new generation of F1 cars.
Adaptability is always a crucial skill and drivers are always tested on this score in one way or another. Cars are ever-changing, not just in terms of configuration but as fuel loads, tire grip and ambient conditions shift. And there are also more unusual circumstances demanding adaptability, the most common of which is changing teams.
Drivers must not only understand a car with very different demands in terms of how you extract the pace – just ask Daniel Ricciardo after his troubles on moving to McLaren last year – but also the specific tools available. These include the differential settings, brake shapes, engine braking settings – areas where tiny gains can add up to a substantial lap time improvement. All vary in subtle but very significant ways between teams.
This year, the majority of drivers don’t have the inconvenience of settling into a new team. F1 driver contracts periodically slip into phase with each other and currently the odd-numbered years are more volatile. This year, there are only four driver changes – notably Mercedes driver George Russell and Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas swapping places. Guanyu Zhou also makes his F1 debut with Alfa Romeo, while Alex Albon returns with Williams.
But despite this relative stability, we could still see a repeat of the challenges faced by the many drivers who did change teams early last year – Sergio Perez, Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz, Sebastian Vettel – given the shifting characteristics of these new cars. The 2022 cars not only look different, but they will also behave very differently.
One of the most repetitive features of the launches this year is technical directors describing the rule changes as the biggest since whenever they first became involved in F1. It’s a predictable statement and they have all uttered some version of it – but it has become a cliche because it is true. The return of what might be called ‘real’ ground-effect cars, with powerful venturis in the floor down either side of the car producing a big proportion of the downforce, changes things significantly.
The performance profile over a lap has shifted. These cars will have less drag and therefore be a little quicker in a straight line, and are also expected to be quicker than last year’s cars in fast corners but slower in tighter ones. The fact that front-end aero load could be a weak point, especially given the move away from high-rake cars that would shift the aero balance forward significantly on the brakes, means the car might respond better to attacking on entry and a lower minimum corner speed than the previous generations. Particularly in longer corners, the simplification of the top-body aero – specifically the elimination of complex bargeboards – means less control of the airflow and likely more erratic downforce levels through the various phases of the turn.
The switch to 18-inch wheel rims and lower-profile tires also means a more responsive car on turn-in given there is less compliance in the sidewall. This applies not just on a push lap, but in race stints too. As Yuki Tsunoda, who feels his experience on the 18-inch wheels in F2 in 2020 will help him, put it: “the car generally feels a lot sharper, with sharper movement and over a long run”. Fernando Alonso, arguably the most adaptable F1 driver of them all given his capacity to shift his style provided it delivers the feel he demands to respond to its feedback, has also suggested his experience on 18-inch wheelrims in LMP1 with Toyota could help him.
There are also significant changes to the mechanical platform. This is down to a combination of factors, the first of which is the simplifying of suspension systems not only in terms of configuration, but also the elimination of hydraulic assistance and inerters. As a result, the suspension is set to be more reactive, especially given the desire to hold the car in a consistent ride height to ensure the all-important underfloor aero is working hard. So these should be stiffer, more unstable cars potentially requiring more manhandling and corrections.
Pre-season testing, which starts in Barcelona on Wednesday, will be the first time the 20 race drivers have the chance to build some real mileage in these cars. While they have all completed plenty of laps in the digital realm using driver-in-loop simulators, this is using models of cars created without real-world data. This is why checking the correlation, not just with the driver-in-loop simulator but also other simulation tools such as the windtunnel, CFD and dynamic rigs, is a priority for testing.
Granted, some drivers have got behind the wheel of the genuine cars on filming days, which are limited to 100km of running, but these have been perfunctory, often split between teammates and hit by bad weather. So heading into Wednesday, even those with a little real-world experience only have a slender advantage over the rest. As four-time world champion Vettel explains, all the simulator running in the world only has limited value.
“From the driving point of view, the main challenge for all of us will be adapting to these cars,” says Vettel. “They feel a bit different driving in the sim, but I think it will be different in real life.”
Vettel will be a fascinating case study given he’s a driver who can struggle to adapt. He’s ferociously fast when the car gives him what he wants – decisive turn-in and the ability to brake relatively late, turn in sharply and then get on the power with conviction – but can struggle at other times. Given how different these cars are and the extent to which they could evolve over time, in particular in the early days before teams are completely on top of them, we will see the drivers stretched in a different direction. Some will surprise and some will disappoint, while for others it will appear seamless.
But what will make this year so difficult is the impossibility of knowing exactly what is achievable with these cars. Early in the year, they will change significant as teams make rapid changes and, although drivers will always know the characteristics they would ideally want, calibrating that against what is achievable and what is not because of the limitations created by the rules is going to be tricky. The same applies for the teams too. What exactly are you gunning for is a difficult question to answer, so profound is the change to the car concept and the reduced ‘tuneability’ of the aero thanks to the elimination of many of the fine details.
It’s therefore essential drivers are open-minded with their expectations. They should neither chase something unachievable, nor fixate on the idea these regs create fundamental difficulties that cannot be overcome. That’s also why the cannot be overly-dependent on the preparatory work done in the simulator so far.
“I’m trying to start thinking of [how]to get it in that place, where I’m putting the car in a position in the corner where the car is optimal,” says Ricciardo. “And constantly trying to figure out ways to drive the car that the car likes doing.
“With the sim as well, you can make mistakes, and press the reset button and go again. So that’s been good to experiment. I want to do enough, but I don’t want to do too much because until we get to the track, it could be different. And as good as the sims are, they are not perfect 10 times out of 10. I’m using that as a device to try to experiment a little bit for now, but it’s more I just want to get on track and then start playing around.”
Ricciardo also points out the value of pre-season testing being extended from three to six days this year, which he describes as a “night and day difference”. Although some teams lobbied for more running given these are all-new cars, it’s at least enough mileage for the drivers to rack up some serious seat time.
However, there is another aspect making all of this a moving target – engine performance The 1.6-litre V6 turbo engines aren’t changing dramatically this year, save for the rules requiring E10 to be used with 10% of the fuel renewable bioethanol. There’s been some aggressive development given the engine freeze that kicks in over the course of the season, with homologation deadlines in March and September, but fundamentally the way the power units work is the same.
But the way the engines are operated will have to be tweaked to better suit the demands of the new chassis regulations, as Mercedes AMG HPP boss Hywel Thomas explains.
“I suspect the way the PU operates over a lap will not be the same as last year,” says Thomas. “While it’s difficult to really know the lap time difference, generally the car will perform differently, generating downforce and performance in a new way.
“The drivers will want the PU to do different things at different times through corners and potentially from one corner to the next, because of the car characteristics. The amount of full-throttle time, the way the drivers approach and exit corners, won’t be exactly like they used to be and this will also have a knock-on to how we harvest energy and deploy it.”
Given how significant this area of performance is in terms of achieving the driveability the drivers will need to have the torque delivery they require when feeding in the throttle, particularly in slower corners, while minimizing the use of battery to achieve it, this is an area the teams will focus on. And it will impact the car dynamically.
So this year really is a completely different driving challenge for drivers. These new generation of cars may very well end up similar to the old cars once they are refined, fully understood and developed over time, but initially at least there are some significant changes to adapt to and limitations to be dealt with. They will also be a moving target, with the way the car works aerodynamically and mechanically impacted and even the power unit operation affected.
That’s what makes this such a big change for F1. The very best will adapt, they always do. But you can guarantee that there will be some winners and losers across the rest of the grid as some find it harder than others to adapt – or simply find the demands of the new rules set less in tune with their strengths and weaknesses.