The chemicals, emotions and designs that explain F1’s rain problem

Formula 1’s rain delays in Singapore and Japan have served to restart the debate about whether or not the series has a wet weather problem.

The chemicals, emotions and designs that explain F1’s rain problem

There seems little doubt that some of F1’s previous great wet weather drives – think Ayrton Senna at Portugal in 1985, Michael Schumacher at Barcelona in 1996 and Damon Hill at Suzuka in 1994  – would not have happened these days because the races would never have been allowed to start.

This has led to inevitable criticisms that F1 these days is too risk adverse. With car safety standards being so high, plenty of people argue that surely the best drivers in the world should be allowed to get out there and sort things out for themselves.

FEATURE: Ranking F1's best wet-weather drives

But while certainly the threshold for what is an acceptable level of risk has changed with time, there are other crucial factors that make life much harder for F1’s 2022 cars in the rain.

Autosport caught up with Grand Prix Directors’ Association (GPDA) chairman Alex Wurz for his insight into the matter.

And he cites several issues at play – some of which can be changed and some that are here to stay.

The Safety Car Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75, the rest of the field for the restart

The Safety Car Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75, the rest of the field for the restart

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Health and safety

While there are physical factors – such as car and tyre designs – that have their role in dictating wet weather running, one critical element is the level at which the FIA deems running to be safe.

Safety advances have been hugely welcome in F1, and it would make no sense to spend so much effort in making cars safe to then have a completely lackadaisical attitude to letting drivers out in the worst of the rain.

As Wurz, who was caught up in the famous 1998 Belgian Grand Prix opening lap pile-up, said: “The entire world is moving into a more safety-first attitude.

PLUS: How to relieve F1's extreme wet-weather caution

“On one hand you can say this is bad, and this shouldn't be the sport. But I think the sport has been absolutely sensational in improving the safety without jeopardising performance generally.

“But we can't hide from laws, liabilities, difficult jurisdictions and difficult cases, which is continuously influencing sport and society. So it is a contributing factor.”

Changes in society also have their role in making rain delays a big deal too; for he thinks that decades ago fans would have thought nothing of waiting for a few hours. Nowadays attitudes are different.

“In those days, we have all been way more patient,” he said. “Our life is moving into a very short attention span and I want things at my convenience, so not being patient.

“Perhaps we all remember 30 minutes delay in the old days wasn't as irritating as it is now to some fans. It is a fact.”

Pirelli wet weather tyres

Pirelli wet weather tyres

Photo by: Lionel Ng / Motorsport Images

Chemicals and grooves in tyres

One of the key deciding elements in whether or not cars can run in the rain is tyres.

If the available rubber can offer good grip without the risk of aquaplaning then that leaves the door open for events to run.

However, the culmination of a few factors have made things more knife-edge right now.

PLUS: Why wet weather isn't F1's true leveller 

As Wurz explains: “Tyre manufacturers are not allowed any more to use the same chemicals, softeners, and very special oils, which made the tyres very unique in the period of tyre war development in the 1990s and 2000s.

“It's a single make tyre as well. So if you want to increase the grip, which I'm sure Pirelli can do, there is a cost factor too.

“The tyres are wider too, which may be more important than the previous factors. That means it's easier for them to have aquaplaning or reduction in contact patch because of the water displacing. Plus if they have bigger wider grooves, then the ridges fall apart.”

Pirelli proudly states that its wet tyres get rid of 85 litres of water per second at 300km/h.

As Pirelli’s head of F1 and car racing Mario Isola explained in Japan: “With a full wet, you spray in the air three times the water of the intermediate.”

But one of the conundrums with rain tyres is that the better job they do in dispersing rain water, then the more spray gets thrown up into the air – so making visibility worse.

The answer is not then simply designing a tyre to be even more effective in cutting through the water.

Plus, Pirelli also has to take into account the fact that there has to be a crossover period between running the extreme wet, and the intermediate, so they cannot be too far apart.

If track conditions provided too dry for the wet to work, but too damp for the intermediate, it would be a recipe for disaster.

Isola said: “We have tools to modify the tyre. The problem is visibility.

“We had a monsoon tyre in the past but it was a decision to have this kind of product with a broader crossover between the wet, the intermediate and the slick.

“We could also modify the tread pattern, but I'm not sure it is the right direction because, with loss of visibility, they are not running in any case. Then the risk is that you don't have a crossover with the intermediate, and that is even worse.”

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT03

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT03

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Ground effect cars

When looking back at the way races even a decade or so ago were able to take place in terrible conditions, it must not be forgotten that downforce levels have changed considerably.

And, for 2022, one critical factor that is playing its part in the wet is the switch to ground effect cars.

The underfloor venturi tunnels, and the design taken by F1 chiefs to minimise airflow disruption for cars behind by not having it near pursuing cars, means in the wet the spray is thrown more violently upwards – hampering visibility even more.

As Wurz says: “The downforce now is ever increasing. It's also a wider car, so there's more surface to suck up, and more water thrown up - a bit more than 10%.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18, battles with Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75, for the lead at the start

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18, battles with Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75, for the lead at the start

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

Drivers’ attitudes

While some fans may choose to criticise drivers for the fact races do not take place in poor conditions, Wurz is clear that the attitudes from those in the cockpit are unchanged from years gone by.

If it is safe enough, he says, then they are more than happy to get out there.

“The drivers, we are permanently saying that driving in the wet is fun, even with aquaplaning. Driving when you're by yourself, it's super challenging and it’s amazing.

“But the moment you don't see anything, you are exposed to such an ultra amount of risk that just the slightest issue can lead to a fatality.

“And this is when you must applaud the race director to put safety first above all this public, commercial and risk pressure. Can we do it better? Yes.

“We want to support the sport here as much as we can, to maybe find ways to improve the situation. But also help educate the fans and stakeholders of the enormous challenge and courage you need to go out in the wet when you see nothing. Actually nothing.”

This is why, while factors like tyre and car design are not things that can be resolved immediately, there are some ideas, like the ‘information laps’ being discussed with the GPDA, that could mark a small step in solving some of the problems F1 faces when the heavens open.

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