Formula One's New Technical Regulations: Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
The 2009 Formula One season sees the most drastic changes in the technical regulations of the series from one season to the next in its history.
The signature changes include the lowering and widening of the front wing, the removal of body winglets and attachments in the mid-section of the car, the scaling-back of bargeboards, the raising and narrowing of the rear wing, and the return of slick tires.
These changes have cut the downforce of the car by 50 percent and reduced the aerodynamic wake of a car impacting those behind it, while giving the drivers more tire grip to work with in the corners.
The goal of these changes is to produce closer natural following distances and increase overtaking, hopefully resulting in a more active and fun race. If the Australian Grand Prix is any indication, the FIA have really nailed it.
The race saw more overtaking throughout its 58 laps than F1 saw nearly all of last year. Nearly every non-Safety Car lap saw an overtake. It wasn't just the amount of overtaking that was impressive; it was also where on the circuit drivers were able to overtake.
Over the past several seasons, overtaking occurred almost exclusively in the same situation—a tight, hard-braking corner at the exit of a long straightaway in which a car behind caught a nice slipstream from the car ahead.
In Albert Park this weekend, however, the cars were able to follow behind other cars much more closely through the corners, and following cars were able to catch a nice slipstream on relatively short stretches. Nearly every braking point on the circuit presented an overtaking opportunity, and there was at least one overtaking attempt (if not multiple ones) at all of them.
Even more impressive was the amount of overtaking on the outside. It used to be that the attempt of an overtake on the outside groove of a corner was a monumentally moronic thing to attempt. (See Alonso's fascination with attempting such maneuvers in tight hairpins, circa 2007-2008.)
Now, drivers are strangely able to pull this off, and did so in a shocking amount at Albert Park.
This is perhaps due to their ability to follow more closely throughout a lap and catch a more powerful slipstream, building greater momentum and being in better position to capitalize on it. Relatively more powerful engines also aid the ability for outside overtaking, as the power advantage allows drivers to get back to the power more quickly as they take a less-acute route around the corner than drivers on the inside and can carry more speed on corner exit.
A driver who struck me with numerous successful outside overtaking attempts was Lewis Hamilton, and his Mercedes engine certainly didn't impede his efforts in this respect.
A less-discussed alteration made is in the tire compounds brought to each grand prix, as there is now a larger difference in hardness between the prime and option tires.
Whereas before, the prime and option tires were separated by one level of hardness (e.g. a soft prime tire, and a super-soft option tire), they are now separated by two levels of hardness. This makes preparing the cars much trickier, as going with an aggressive setup to generate grip out of the prime tire could result in amplified degradation of the option tire.
This change has the potential to significantly liven the final stages of a Grand Prix, with different teams on different tire strategies. Teams who wait until the last pit stop to use the option tire could be in for hellaciously nervous closing laps as the tire degrades very quickly and possibly teams on the prime tire catch them. This presents even more opportunities for overtaking, and for exciting overtakes for significant podium positions—if not victories—at significant points in the season.
Such was the case at Albert Park this weekend. With nearly all of the front-runners waiting until the end to put the dreaded super-soft tires on the cars, Robert Kubica and BMW-Sauber instead elected to run super-soft tires on the first fuel run (in which they ran light to increase speed) and use the prime medium tires in the final run.
This was an absolutely brilliant strategy, as his medium tires held up well while the super-softs of those ahead of him did not. He overtook Nico Rosberg (who proceeded on a precipitous fall down the grid with his option tires rubbished) rather easily for third late in the race, and he was catching leader Jenson Button and second-place Sebastian Vettel at a torrid pace before crashing with Vettel while attempting an overtake.
Had he successfully overtaken Vettel, he may not have had the time to catch Button, but he would have made the final three laps very interesting.
BMW-Sauber's strategy this weekend may serve as a blueprint for future tire-fuel strategies for underperforming teams under the new regulations. It's become quite clear now that tire degradation means a lot more to car performance than it used to, and should be considered in almost equal weight with fuel load.
Whereas Kubica likely would have had to fight to finish in the points last year with the pace of the BMW and the fuel strategy the team put him on, the increased importance of tire degradation allowed him to challenge aggressively for the victory.
It's not usual for fans or commentators to applaud the FIA for a change it makes; or for that matter, any decision it makes. In fact, one of the criticisms often leveled at them is that they make too many changes from season-to-season.
But in the case of the new technical regulations, the FIA deserve nothing but the utmost praise for a job well done. If it's not offered now, it will be after we witness the most exciting on-track action over the course of a season in the history of F1.
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