The truth about F1 rule changes
Autosport looked at the impact of Formula 1 regulation changes in the first version of this article in November 2017. Now that one of the biggest rule revolutions has arrived, it seemed the right time to revisit the issue to see what we can expect from the 2022 season.
The wait is finally over. There are some laudable targets behind the changes to the Formula 1 aero regulations, described by many as the most significant since the banning of ground-effects ahead of the 1983 season.
Primary among those are closing-up the field and improving the racing. The reduction in the impact of ‘dirty’ air and reintroduction of ground-effects should allow the cars to follow each other more closely, but there are always risks with rule changes.
The new-generation regulations are also far more restrictive. For fans of advanced technology and those that want to see variety, that's not great news, though the rulemakers have tried to leave room for some different approaches.
But, beyond that, what does the 72-year history of the F1 world championship tell us about rule changes?
Changes always have side effects. The higher-downforce and faster 2017 cars did not make overtaking easier, but the front of the field closed up, with first Ferrari and the Red Bull challenging Mercedes’ supremacy. Perhaps having a battle at the front, between two or three teams, is more important than any particular ruleset.
Mercedes supremacy was challenged at the end of the previous F1 era in 2021 as Max Verstappen claimed his first world title
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
And yet F1's regulation tweaks over the past seven decades have had a big impact on the competitive spread. To see just how much – and how often – rule changes helped close or widen the gaps between the haves and the have-nots, Autosport has looked at the spread of leading runners in every world championship since 1950, using supertimes.
Supertimes are based on the fastest single lap by each car at each race weekend, expressed as a percentage of the fastest single lap overall (100.000%) and averaged over the season.
No statistic is perfect and there are caveats here when looking at the supertimes just for the cars. For example, drivers are not constants, so they will also have an influence on some of the changes and gaps.
Similarly, some cars performed better in races relative to the opposition than in qualifying. The Ferrari F2004’s supertimes advantage was ‘only’ 0.218% in 2004, but its 15 wins from 18 races make it one of the most dominant cars in F1 history.
Nevertheless, these factors do not prevent us identifying trends over time.
The major rule changes
Supertime gaps between leading teams during major F1 rules eras
The graph above shows the average gaps between the fastest and second-fastest cars (red line), and fastest and fifth-fastest (turquoise line) throughout world championship history. The former is a good indicator of how close the fight is at the front of the field between the leading teams, while the latter shows how healthy the overall competitiveness of the field is.
The first rule change, when the world championship moved from 1.5-litre supercharged/4.5-litre unsupercharged engines to Formula 2 regulations of 750cc/two litres, was precipitated by Alfa Romeo's withdrawal and BRM's failure.
As it happened, Ferrari was dominant in both. Its margin over Gordini and Maserati was greater under F2 rules (2.466%) than the gap between Alfa Romeo and Ferrari (1.644%) previously, but the change brought more teams closer to the front (the fifth-placed deficit fell from 10.694% to 7.815%).
In that context, the change could be considered a reserved success given the circumstances, and the next two major changes can too.
In 1954, the 2.5-litre F1 regulations arrived and brought down the gaps again. Within the era, each season had closer first-second and first-fifth fastest figures than the best pre-1954 season, with the exception of 1956, when Mercedes' withdrawal and Lancia's demise left Ferrari with Lancia's dominant D50.
With the assistance of team-mate Peter Collins, Juan Manuel Fangio took the 1956 crown for Ferrari, beating Maserati driver Stirling Moss
Photo by: Motorsport Images
The next move, to 1.5-litre engines, was not popular, certainly with British teams. The gap between first and second in the opening year, 1961, was big compared to the previous era, as Ferrari got on top of the new regs first. But it soon came down again, averaging 0.388% across the five years of those rules.
It also closed up further down the field, helped by the fact that many teams, including Lotus and Cooper, had access to Coventry-Climax engines, with the average gap between the first and fifth quickest marques being just 1.632%. This is the first time F1's competitiveness in terms of spread of pace reached levels that are now common.
On the face of it, the next era – 'The Return to Power' – with three-litre regulations looks like it marginally spread out the leading runners (from 0.388% to 0.477%), while allowing the top five to slightly close (1.632% to 1.450%). The latter effect is what you would expect from a long-running set of regulations as those off the pace learn/copy/develop their way towards the leading teams, which suffer from the law of diminishing returns.
But this era should really be broken up. From 1968, when the Cosworth DFV became available, until the rise of turbocharging at the end of the 1970s, the field closed up incredibly.
The availability of F1's greatest engine, along with Hewland gearboxes, not only allowed many people to enter the world championship. It also enabled more of them to run at the front because it levelled the playing field and didn't require huge development costs.
On only 14 occasions has the gap between first and fifth in the world championship been under 1% and six of those came during the DFV years. The average gap between fastest and second fastest was 0.358%, a figure not beaten until the 1998-2008 era.
Williams emerged as a major player in grand prix racing as the ubiquitous DFV engine allowed private entrants to compete with similarly potent power
Photo by: Motorsport Images
This is despite the fact that the DFV period included several key aerodynamic innovations, namely the arrival of wings and then ground-effects.
The rise of turbocharging changed things considerably and again made the engine more important. The table below shows the difference, with 1980 – the last time a DFV-engined team (Williams) was the fastest across a season – as the cut-off point.
|Turbo engine era 1981-88||0.605%||1.926%|
Turbocharging, with its emphasis on manufacturer resources and development, spread out the field to levels not seen since 1954-60.
Yet the banning of turbos at the end of 1988 did not immediately have the reverse effect. With big powerhouses such as Honda and Renault still involved, the 3.5-litre era began with margins that were just as wide as before.
Again, this 1989-97 era, from the introduction of the 3.5-litre rules to before the grooved-tyre/narrower-car period, needs to be broken in two.
For the first part of the period, increasing technology, such as active suspension and traction control, kept the gap between the haves and the have-nots very large. Manufacturer engine development and clever innovation from teams created gaps even bigger than during the first turbo era.
Once the cars were simplified, the field closed up dramatically and immediately. The change to three-litre engines in 1995 appears to have made little difference, though the average gaps were not as small as during the DFV period.
The next big change was not engine related – in 1998 cars became narrower and grooved rubber arrived. This briefly spread the field out, but did not affect the overall trend of F1 becoming closer.
McLaren emerged at the forefront of the new narrow-body regulations in 1998
Photo by: Motorsport Images
During the 1998-2008 grooved-tyre period, engine regulations became more restrictive and the era ended with all cars having to run rev-limited 90-degree 2.4-litre V8s.
With the engines all therefore much closer in terms of performance (despite the involvement of manufacturers) and a relatively consistent set of rules, it is no surprise that this era was the closest in F1's history at that time. The average first-second gap was a mere 0.287% and first-fifth 1.257%.
Interestingly, both of those figures were beaten by the next rules set, with new aero regulations and slicks returning in 2009. The average gaps of 0.258% and 1.076% make this the closest era in terms of raw pace. In 2009 all 10 teams were covered by 1.241%, a smaller gap than that between first and second just two decades before!
Crucially, apart from the lowering of the rev limit, the same engine rules were in place and essentially nullified them as a factor. Aero was key but, once the paddock had got over the shock of the double diffuser, finding a big advantage was almost impossible.
Red Bull's ability to win four drivers' and four constructors' championships during this period shows how good modern F1 teams generally are at making the most of any slight advantage they have, thanks largely to better reliability and the enormous amount of engineering and data that can be used to optimise cars almost every weekend.
As the graph shows, the move to hybrid power spread the field again, to levels not seen since before the gizmo ban in 1994. The 1.6-litre turbo-hybrid regulations – which certainly made F1 more relevant to the wider automotive industry – pushed the midfield further back. But, as the era has progressed, the trend has once again been towards smaller gaps.
The move to faster cars in 2017 allowed Ferrari to get very close to Mercedes. The extra aero development pushed the midfield further adrift again, but it gradually concertinaed together over the following seasons.
Ferrari got close to Mercedes when F1 introduced its revamped aero for 2017, but it wasn't enough for Vettel to win another world title
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Aside from the remarkable dual-axis steering-armed Mercedes W11 in 2020, the gap between first and second remained small for the five years of the previous ruleset. And the gap between Mercedes and Red Bull (0.143% in Merc’s favour) is distorted by the latter’s track limits and other errors in qualifying during the 2021 campaign – in reality, the RB16B should probably have been fractionally ahead of the W12.
And the gap between Mercedes and fifth-fastest McLaren (which also won a race) was just 0.789% – the smallest gap since 2012.
So, while the turbo-hybrid started with quite big gaps, the era’s overall average is perfectly sensible compared to other F1 periods, and 2021 was one of the closest in championship history.
The bad news, of course, is that the new rules threaten to spread the field out again, but there are reasons to be cheerful…
Engines are key
Rule changes sometimes increase gaps between teams, which is not a surprise. Those with more resources can react quicker to find solutions, but the rest soon close up again.
The increasing level of professionalism in F1 is underlined by the relatively small gaps between first and fifth compared to the earlier days of the world championship, but what the regulations actually are influences the speed at which they close and the degree to how narrow the margins can become.
It's clear that complexity, as exemplified by the 1989-93 period, keeps the margins big. But perhaps the most consistent factor influencing the competitive spread is engines, far more so than changes to aero regulations.
Complex rules mean large spreads in the field, such as in 1993
Photo by: Motorsport Images
When Coventry-Climax and later the DFV powered significant numbers of the grid, more teams could get on the pace. The increasingly prescriptive engine regulations since the late 1990s (and engine freeze from 2007) prior to the hybrid era helped simulate the same thing.
This makes sense because you are removing a variable. A single-spec chassis and open powerplant approach, such as in Formula E, would presumably create a similar pattern. History shows that keeping the engine regulations consistent is key to maintaining (or improving) the competitiveness of F1, and so is keeping a lid on complexity.
The new F1 era is one in which the engine rules have not changed and, indeed, will be frozen until the next major rule change in 2026. So that’s one variable largely removed.
The cost cap rules, which will gradually get tighter, and the sliding scale of windtunnel time (the higher you finish in the constructors’ table the less you get) should also mitigate the chances of the big teams stealing a march on the rest, or at very least maintaining a big edge.
The 2009 and 2017 aero rule changes had good impacts on the spread of the field, and the former had the bonus of mixing up the competitive order, something most fans would surely welcome.
The seismic shift in the F1 rules for 2022 means there is always the chance that a team will nail an interpretation that catches everyone else off guard and spreads out the field. But all the ingredients are in place to minimise that opportunity, and history shows that – whatever happens this season – the field will surely close up in the years to follow.
It's expected that the 2022 season will result in the field spreading out again as some teams nail the new rules while others miss the boat
Photo by: Motorsport Images
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