The off-season in Formula 1 always represents a shuffling of the metaphorical deck.
Whether it’s drivers switching teams, teams switching engines and personnel, or venues being added to, or dropped, from the grand prix calendar, the arrival of a new season is a time of fierce excitement as we discover who’s been left holding the aces, and who’s been left with the proverbial pair of jokers.
For 2014, the changes are so substantial that it’s less a shuffling of the cards and more throwing the deck in the air and simply seeing where the cards land – it’s that hard to predict.
But what do we know about big rule-changes? What’s the sport’s past form for dealing with significant, transformative new regulations?
Hmm... even looking at past form, it’s still a little hard to accurately predict.
What’s relatively safe to assume is that the sport’s biggest teams traditionally respond best when a technical curve-ball is thrown their way. The big outfits have the resource and capacity to explore multiple routes of development. By contrast, the smaller teams are often faced with more limited options before plotting their own way forward.
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However, what’s clear about a change in the rules is that it’s not simply about good ideas, it’s about the ability to react, to think ahead, to absorb what the competition are doing, and to extend the momentum – taking that next critical step forward.
And, again, this is something that plays to the strengths of the big teams.
Back in 1982, McLaren were far from being the first team to switch from naturally aspirated to turbo-charged engines (Renault were the first to make the change, in 1977, yet – and this is something that happily proves my point – they were never quite able to take the advantage and run with it, never winning a title in that first turbo era), but they pulled the technology together beautifully in 1984 to conclusively set the standard for the remainder of the turbo era.
By funny coincidence, McLaren’s technical director, John Barnard, had been stymied by a change in the regulations, just as he was about to unveil what he felt was the perfect engine for the sport’s then-current ground-effect era.
Having worked painstakingly to design an engine with a swept-up base – in order to best fit the fluted underbody required to maximise the aerodynamic benefits of ground-effect, the FIA swiftly changed the regulations, outlawing ground-effect – and nullifying Barnard’s beautiful TAG-Porsche V6 – at a stroke.
Ever the perfectionist, Barnard was furious: “Our engine specification would have been different if we’d been running flat-bottomed rules from the start,” he said.
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Nevertheless, that TAG turbo V6 was still small, light and compact enough to remain outstandingly competitive in flat-bottom mode, even if the FIA had compromised its ultimate potential. Further proving the point, Alain Prost and Niki Lauda took it to 12 wins from 16 grands prix in 1984 – impressive stuff indeed for an engine apparently hamstrung by such a significant regulatory change!
A few years later, McLaren demonstrated that they could immediately field a car that was built to capitalise on new technical regulations.
In 1988, the FIA reduced fuel capacity from 195 to 150 litres – a huge drop – and limited boost output in order to provide what it felt was a suitable equivalency formula as the sport gradually transferred from turbos over to 3.5-litre naturally aspirated engines.
On paper, the advantage lay with the new crop of cars; with fuel and boost now so scarce, it was felt the turbos would be hamstrung on both fronts during the races. The FIA hadn’t accounted for the brilliance of Honda’s relentless engine technicians, however, who not only managed to eke out more power from the brilliant little 1.5-litre unit, but also made it more fuel efficient too.
Leaving it until the very last minute to finalise the design of the car, McLaren only ran the MP4/4 10 days before the opening race in Rio, at a cold test at Imola. It took only a handful of laps for the team to be convinced that the FIA’s equivalency formula would be a somewhat one-sided affair in ’88 – and, by winning 15 out of that season’s 16 races, it duly proved it too!
More recently, however, fortune has been less kind to the boys in silver. In 2009, the regulatory goalposts were once again moved – complex aerodynamics were emasculated, slick tyres re-introduced and KERS added to the V8 formula.
Having worked tirelessly (until the very last corner of the last lap of the last race, in fact!) to tie up the 2008 championship, the team hadn’t been able to allocate its full technical resource to its ’09 challenge until rather late in the day. As a result, that year’s MP4-24 first appeared in under-developed form, setting times far off the pace-setting Brawn GP car, which had had the luxury of an 18-month stint in several windtunnels to prepare it for the new season.
Still, as I said earlier, speed of response can be just as vital in Formula 1 as speed out of the box. And, as if to prove it, by mid-season the MP4-24 was a pace-setter, winning both the Hungarian and Singapore Grands Prix, and set a string of brilliant pole positions, becoming the sport’s most successful KERS pioneer.
So, with the 2014 season almost upon us, and the veritable box of unknowns that 1.6-litre, ERS-powered V6 turbos will bring, all bets are off.
One thing’s for certain though, even if McLaren aren’t there at the start, you can guarantee they’ll be there in the long-term – they always are!