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Analysis

Will the new F1 2026 cars really deliver better racing?

The original intentions of the 2022 regulations to improve the quality of racing in Formula 1 didn't translate successfully. But the FIA is optimistic that its work on the next rules cycle in 2026, outlined today, will truly offer a greater spectacle. Here's why

Formula 1 has had its fair share of scare stories about the new 2026 car rules. From concerns about 'Frankenstein' machines, to drivers needing to change down gears on the straights, and then alarm at some simulator tests where cars were spinning out on the straights, it has not been smooth sailing to get where we are today.

But with the new rules now having been announced – although there will likely be some further tweaks – there is a sense from those who have framed them that those early worries have been addressed. So rather than F1 fans needing to fear that what is coming from 2026 could be bad for the show, there is actually some optimism that things will be improved.

The reset of chassis rules has also opened up the opportunity to address some mistakes that were made with the current ground effect challengers. Beyond the fact that today's cars are too heavy, they are also too ride-height critical, and are getting increasingly sensitive to the dirty air that the all-new rules for 2022 were supposed to have eradicated.

All three factors have played their part in limiting the ability of cars to follow each other close enough for good racing. And this issue has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the 2026 regulations are fit for purpose in delivering a more exciting F1.

The FIA's head of aerodynamics Jason Somerville said: "The main goal of the 2026 aero rules is really to focus on re-establishing following car performance. We want great racing; we want to ensure that the cars can race closely. The 2026 rules are an opportunity for us to reset the baseline level of the car so that they can race well together."

The end result is cars that are going to be smaller and lighter – around 30kg less than now – but more critically, with aerodynamics that are much less prone to being manipulated by teams to move away from the original intention of better racing.

A clear focus has been made on improving the ability of cars to follow each other in 2026

A clear focus has been made on improving the ability of cars to follow each other in 2026

Photo by: FIA

The FIA says it has dug deep to understand what teams did to alter the wake of their cars in recent years to bring back the outwash characteristic that has helped trigger the latest dirty air problem. Speaking to Autosport, the FIA's single-seater director Nikolas Tombazis said that the simulation figures for the 2026 cars were improved over how things were for the start of 2022.

"The new rules and baseline spec, their wake characteristics are significantly better than the start of 2022," he said. "So, they are starting off far better than in any other simulations we've done.

"We believe we've got a handle on what teams could do to degrade this as part of their performance development and know where the levers were. So, I'm expecting the ability to race closer to be significantly better."

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He added: "We have learned a lot from the last couple of years. While the cars are still better now than they were in 2021, they are definitely nowhere near as good as they were in the beginning of 2022.

"Certainly, some of the objectives set for 2022 have been degraded, that's a fact. But we have understood a lot about the underlying reasons and believe that we can avoid a similar degradation for the new regulations. I'm quite confident of that."

But it is not just the difficulties of cars following each other closely that have proved problematic for the spectacle since 2022.

One consequence of the fact that the current generation of cars is incredibly sensitive to ride heights is that it has been difficult for teams to get totally on top of things, which has served to open up a gap in the grid. Even the once-dominant Mercedes squad is still battling with what is needed to get the most out of the current rules set.

For 2026, changes to the underfloor have been aimed at deliberately widening the performance window for the cars so they are no longer operating in such a tiny window of rear ride height operation.

Widening the performance envelope of the 2026 cars will help teams like Mercedes that have struggled to get its cars in the sweet spot

Widening the performance envelope of the 2026 cars will help teams like Mercedes that have struggled to get its cars in the sweet spot

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Tombazis said: "Here too we have learned quite a lot. We have been working on the philosophy of the floor, which is going to have a less strong diffuser and is going to be less dependent on being very close to the ground.

"We expect the operating conditions of the cars to be in a more moderate rear ride height and therefore to not have that issue".

Frankenstein car fears

The creation of the 2026 cars has not been without controversy, as teams have voiced concerns about the way things appear to be heading.

Last year Red Bull said it was worried about the risk of 'Frankenstein cars' that had been compromised so much because of the energy deployment characteristics of the new hybrid engines that will rely on battery power much more than before.

PLUS: The key ingredients changing as F1's 2026 engine war shapes up

More recently, some simulator tests of new active aero triggered concerning results after experiments of just having the rear wing move proved unworkable. The FIA says that the final version of rules that have been agreed has addressed both these issues.

"We carried out a huge amount of work on energy management and a lot of these scare stories were fairly premature," explained Tombazis.

"We finalised the power unit regulations in August of 2022, in order for the power unit manufacturers to be able to start designing and developing power units, especially the newcomers.

"At the time, we carried out some basic simulations and knew what the main issues were and what had to be solved. While we hadn't ticked every single box, we knew that there were solutions for the various topics. More work was needed, to decide between multiple options at our disposal.

Tombazis is confident that the FIA can lay to rest concerns about the 2026 cars performance

Tombazis is confident that the FIA can lay to rest concerns about the 2026 cars performance

Photo by: Mark Sutton

"This created a period when a lot of people thought 'the cars will downshift on the straight', or 'reach top speed in the middle of the straight and then drop off' and so on. So, to sort out all of that I think we've done a reasonable job together with teams, not by ourselves, to simulate and to define all the energy management side. I am confident it's now okay."

On the recent active aero worries, Tombazis added: "We did some tests in order to see whether the rear wing adjustment by itself could be okay or not and concluded that it could be too unbalanced. So, the front and the rear wings have to be adjusted together."

The end result should be, according to Tombazis, a car that is not a backwards step.

"The cars have overall more power," he pointed out. "So faster acceleration out of the corners, and either similar or higher top speeds overall, with no significant rollover of top speed on the straight.

"Cornering speeds are going to go down a bit, due to the lower downforce. So overall: lower cornering speed, higher straight-line speed and harder braking."

In fact, there is very much a sense that 2026 offers a chance for F1 to make up for what it missed with the current rules set.

As Tombazis said: "We believe we made a step towards closer racing in 2022. But there were also things we got wrong, and we're trying to get it completely right now."

Will the rules revamp deliver the improvements in racing that everybody wants to see?

Will the rules revamp deliver the improvements in racing that everybody wants to see?

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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