New 2017 Formula 1 Regulations Risk Spoiling the Decreasing Gap Between Teams

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistJune 1, 2016

The gap from Mercedes to the rest of the field is slowly closing.
The gap from Mercedes to the rest of the field is slowly closing.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

In the third season of Formula One's V6 hybrid engine era, fans are finally being treated to a taste of the long-promised performance convergence between the teams. Unfortunately, the improved competition could be undone by the regulation changes to be introduced in 2017.

Yes, Mercedes have still won five of the first six races this year, but there are promising signs: Ferrari should have won in Australia, if not for a tyre-choice blunder at the restart. Likewise, Red Bull looked set for victory in Monaco, but for a mistake in the pits. And Red Bull did win in Spain, although that one was wind-assisted (to borrow a track and field term), as the Mercedes team-mates collided on the first lap.

Red Bull's chassis has always been strong, but their engine supplier, Renault, has struggled with the new V6 engine regulations. The French company brought an upgraded power unit to Monaco, although it was only available for one Red Bull car and one from the Renault works team. The results were immediate, as Daniel Ricciardo put his Red Bull, with the new engine, on pole and should have won the race. 

Not only that, but, as Sky Sports' James Galloway noted: "Monaco is one of the least engine-dependent circuits on the calendar, meaning a bigger performance uplift should be felt on forthcoming tracks such as Canada and Austria."

Daniel Ricciardo should have won the Monaco Grand Prix for Red Bull.
Daniel Ricciardo should have won the Monaco Grand Prix for Red Bull.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Red Bull also confirmed over the Monaco Grand Prix weekend that they, along with sister team Toro Rosso, will be using Renault engines in 2017 and 2018. This is particularly good news for Toro Rosso, who are using year-old Ferrari engines in 2016.

Further down the field, Honda are also catching up after reentering the sport a year into the V6 era. McLaren, the only team using Honda power units, had just four points through six races in 2015 and scored 27 in total. They already have 24 this year.

But rather than continue with the stability that has allowed the performance gap to close, the FIA, F1's governing body, has announced significant changes to the Technical Regulations for 2017.

The goal, as stated in the FIA press release, is, "to create more exciting cars, delivering additional downforce to increase speeds and lower lap times."

FIA president Jean Todt.
FIA president Jean Todt.Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

There is no mention of closer or more competitive racing.

The problem with any major regulation change is that some teams—usually the richer ones—will inevitably come up with better solutions than others, giving them an advantage while the others try to catch up.

Remember back in 2009, when Brawn made the most of radical changes to the aerodynamic regulations, allowing Jenson Button to win six of the first seven races and, ultimately, the drivers' championship?

That is also what happened in 2014. Mercedes developed the best hybrid power unit, and it is only now, three seasons later, that the other manufacturers are finally reeling them in.

But maybe it won't be the same this time.

At a press conference before the Russian Grand Prix, Daniil Kvyat said: "As time to prepare is a bit limited, I think everyone might start in a very similar condition, which could lead to closer racing perhaps. All the teams might be much closer."

History and the new aerodynamic regulations are working against that hope, but there is something else to consider. While the exterior of the cars will change significantly for 2017, the revised engine regulations should actually promote closer performance.

The token system that limited engine development will be dropped. This should allow the trailing manufacturers an opportunity to catch up as the law of diminishing returns constrains Mercedes.

"We are not mandating convergence," Fabrice Lom, the FIA's head of powertrain, told Autosport's Ian Parkes and Lawrence Barretto. "We have just measures in place that should help convergence.

"Naturally convergence will come with the stability of the regulations and we'll try to speed up convergence by having these measures, but there is no prescribed convergence at all."

So clearly the FIA does recognise the need for stable regulations—unfortunately, they only applied that thinking to the power unit, not the entire car.

Speaking about the new regulations, Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff told Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble: "We should just leave it alone. And maybe speaking against ourselves because clearly we don't have the advantage we had last year, but the racing is great and will become even greater if we leave the regulations alone."

Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff.
Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff.Tom Dulat/Getty Images

A cynic would say that Wolff just wants to maintain the edge his team currently has. But his comments also show an awareness of the sport's history and a concern for its future.

If the regulations remained stable, Ferrari, Red Bull and the others would continue to close the gap to Mercedes—that is a near certainty.

Instead, the powers that be in F1 have opted for uncertainty, which will be fun for the first race or two but not if it becomes apparent that one team has scooped the others and developed a much better car under the new regulations.

Rather than recognising a good thing when it has it—and the start of the 2016 season has certainly been good—F1 has opted to fix something that isn't broken. Let's hope it works.

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