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Saturday, 19 March 2016

2016 Formula 1 Season Preview

Some F1 cars, yesterday
For the most part, Formula 1 suffered from what you could call "tension deficit disorder" in 2015. If it wasn't for the odd surprise podium and Max Verstappen pulling off fearless moves on pretty much everyone to show us that a 17-year-old can acquit himself in F1 after all, there would have been very little wheel-to-wheel racing of the sort we want to see up and down the grid. Mercedes dominated for the second year in a row, to the point that their closest rival (Ferrari this time) only won three races, compared to the Silver Arrows' sixteen victories in a nineteen-race season. This, along with continued financial imbalance and various committees pussyfooting around whenever a decision on change is asked for, have lead to serious discussions about the future of the sport... which one could argue is surviving primarily on its history at this point.

So what things are happening? Well, the cars will be drastically changed for 2017, we're told, but before that happens we will be seeing quite a few changes this year, so now that Friday Practice in Australia has come and gone, let's go through confirmed changes for the new 2016 season first. I'll tell you about the future... in the future.

2016 Season Preview

Behind the scenes, a response to the chronic lack of major decision making has been the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) giving FIA president Jean Todt and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone a mandate to force through changes to the sport if they see fit, or rather, "to make recommendations and decisions regarding a number of pressing issues in Formula One such as governance, Power Units and cost reduction." This came after C. Montgomery Bernie tried and failed to change the power unit rules to allow an independent budget engine of a different specifications for non-manufacturer teams, following Red Bull Racing's self-inflicted woes finding a supplier after very publicly falling out with Renault... who will continue supplying them this year after all.

Another major off-track change has been the relaxing and imminent abolishing of engine development tokens. Since the new V6 hybrid turbo "Power Units" were introduced in 2014, a system to limit their development over time involved dividing parts of the engine into 42 different categories (or "parts"), which were then worth different amounts of tokens - depending on importance - to modify for next season. Developing or changing all of these parts would cost 66 tokens, but teams were only given 32 with which to make changes between 2014 and the start of last year. In-season development of the power unit was officially banned... until Ferrari found a loophole that would allow them to delay signing off their new 2015 engine specification, rather than having to stop developing in February and make do until the next winter off-season. This lead to the FIA allowing manufacturers to spend their remaining tokens during the season after all, allowing limited chances for improvement for all four suppliers.
Originally there would only be 25 tokens given out for winter 2015-16, but after a series of meetings, followed by a series of committee meetings, the teams agreed that this system was a bollocks idea. It was originally designed to save costs, but the power units themselves are a good four times more expensive than the old V8s anyway, plus the strict limits on development essentially meant that Mercedes, who were dominant right out of the box, kept their advantage and would be harder and harder to catch as the token allocation got progressively smaller until 2020. So instead, the token count remained at 32 for this season, and for 2017 there will be no tokens system at all! All power unit manufacturers will have free reign to develop all day, every day. This will be ferociously expensive, but Honda, Renault, Ferrari and Mercedes have got the money to spend, and from now on that expense cannot be passed on to customer teams, who have been (forcibly) promised a fixed, lower price for an engine supply. So really, it's a win-win.

If you're new to F1 and none of the enormous paragraph above made any real sense, don't worry. Next year it will all become irrelevant anyway. Basically, the engine/power unit development will soon be completely open, instead of progressively restricted as was originally planned. Dominance doesn't hold people's interest, so engine builders will soon have freedom to try catching up with each other. Also, independent teams who buy in engines won't be punched in the wallet so much any more by their supplier. Good!

And now to the on-track rule changes! One of the big changes that's been widely discussed is the new tyre rules. Before, tyre supplier Pirelli gave all the teams the same allotment of tyres, split between two wet-weather compounds and two of a possible four dry compounds. Now there are five dry compounds, plus each team can choose up to three of them alongside Pirelli for a given race and have a different number of each. It all gets a bit lengthy to explain from here, so I've made you some visual help! See the infographic below:


Phew. Now that you've sussed out the new tyre rules, you clever thing you, let's move on to the needlessly reinvented Qualifying format! Before, there were three sessions, at the end of which a group of the slowest drivers would not be allowed to advance and would start the race where they qualified in that session, leaving the top ten drivers in Q3 for a "top ten shootout" for pole position. Pretty straightforward, right? Too much so, apparently! So now it's a bit different:

Official F1 explanation
The big difference this year is that instead of the slowest five/six/seven drivers being eliminated all at once when the session ends, they're eliminated one-by-one in 90-second increments after the first few minutes of the session have elapsed. The "top ten" has become the "top eight" so that seven cars are eliminated in both Q1 and Q2, now that we have an extra team on the grid. As you can see above, the first elimination happens less than halfway through the session. The driver with the slowest time once the elimination timer hits zero is no longer allowed to participate in qualifying, as their grid position is now locked in (pending any grid penalties shuffling the order around afterwards). The timer immediately resets and counts down again until the session is over, arranged so that the final elimination happens when the session ends. This means there will be a two-car shootout for pole position in the last 90 seconds of qualifying. Unlike before, when drivers could finish the lap they were on once the chequered flag fell, this year it's tough luck; at zero, a driver's eliminated immediately.

Is it better? Yes and no. It's designed to add more jeopardy and potential for mixed-up grids, as a driver who messes up his lap time may be punished by losing the opportunity to set another one and being eliminated early. Rather than TV audiences waiting around until the last couple of minutes when suddenly everyone is frantically having one last go at improving, the tension is spread out across the session. It doesn't necessarily mean cars will be on track more, though, as the tyres still wear out quickly and drivers will thus only go out again if their first time turns out not to be fast enough. The real problem is that this system has been rushed in, so much so that it was at one point suggested the new format wouldn't be introduced until the fifth race of the season (so they could adjust the timing software, although that's no longer true and it's being introduced this very weekend at the opening round in Australia), so there may still be some creases to iron out. What if it was raining at the start of a session and then it stops, meaning lap times are suddenly much faster after someone's been eliminated? It would be a total lottery. What if the session is red-flagged due to a crash and somebody loses their chance to avoid elimination, or a driver gets held up and it's not their fault? Another unfair scenario. It's all a bit unknown, which should at least keep it unpredictable to start with (the same is true of the tyre choice, as that was decided months in advance of this race)...

UPDATE: After the new qualifying format turned out to leave the track completely empty during the final minutes of the sessions in Australia and Bahrain, the system has now been dropped and reverted to last year's simpler format. Woo! That means it will be 10 drivers in Q3, not 8 as stated in the infographic above.


The other significant rule change this year is the ban on radio communications to reinforce the rule which says "the driver must drive the car alone and unaided." It's not a complete ban, but so many things are no longer allowed to be told to the drivers during any session that the FIA has found it easier to simply tell teams what still is allowed... and even that list has been significantly trimmed back from the originally planned one. There are now only 24 messages or commands that can be said, which sounds like a lot, but the driver is not allowed any help whatsoever when it comes to start procedures, managing tyre and fuel usage, deciding on changes to race strategy, using different modes on the steering wheel (unless safety or reliability is a critical concern for whatever reason), even finding gaps for going out to qualify. Here is the list of allowed messages if you're interested - you'll have to open it in another tab if it's too small to read:


Essentially, anything that could help the driver run his race that isn't said for safety reasons is outlawed. Teams can still tell the driver to hurry up and how many laps are left, as well as another driver's lap time, but other than that and procedures relating to Safety Car periods and the like, it's down to the one behind the wheel to figure it all out himself. If Kimi Räikkönen ever becomes suddenly desperate for some small talk, he can still discuss the weather with his race engineer.

The FIA have stated clearly that they can hear every radio message and will be listening carefully for any coded messages. Also, the same restrictions apply to information on the pit board displayed as the driver crosses the start/finish line. Maybe teams will start sending texts to the driver's steering wheel instead...

Here are the other rule changes and clarifications for this year:
  • The maximum number of races allowed in a season has increased from 20 to 21.

  • Each driver is allowed five power units (as a set of "components" including engine, turbocharger, MGU-H, MGU-K, battery and control electronics) for the whole season, instead of the previous four. Grid penalties are incurred once they need a sixth power unit or component thereof.

  • Manufacturers are now allowed to supply a power unit of a previous year's specification to teams without re-homologating it.

  • Stricter enforcement of track limits, including deletion of laps involving corner-cutting/extending in practice sessions as well as qualifying.

  • Stricter monitoring of drivers being released from their pit box - watched from above as well as in front of the car.

  • The stewards now have up to an hour after the race ends to decide if anything in the race requires further investigation. Previously they had five minutes.

  • The rules on passing another car under Safety Car conditions have been clarified and all pertain to confusion when leaving the pits.

  • The curfew during which team members cannot work on the car or enter the garage has been extended by an hour to eight hours.

  • The recently introduced Virtual Safety Car (VSC) system can now be used during Free Practice sessions. It's used if recovery vehicles are within the confines of the track, to prevent another accident like Jules Bianchi's fatal crash into a 6.5-tonne tractor at high speed.

  • Drivers must now wear in-ear accelerometers from the FIA's supplier during all official sessions. This can be used to help check for things such as concussion and to calculate the forces in a crash.

The technical regulations are very stable this year, the most obvious mandatory change being taller cockpit side protection... which brings us to the cars and drivers!

Teams & Drivers:

Renault have finally taken over Lotus Grand Prix officially to create a new factory Renault F1 Team. For those of you keeping track of team history, the branding lineage of the ones nicknamed "Enstone Team" after their home town goes: Toleman -> Benetton -> Renault -> Lotus-Renault -> Lotus -> Renault. If the French manufacturer withdraws from the sport again in the future, this lot should call themselves Toleman again. Everyone loves '80s nostalgia! This team overhauled a dominant Ferrari to win back-to-back world constructor's championships a decade ago in 2005 & '06, in the middle of their previous stint as the Renault factory team. I wouldn't expect that to happen this year though; Renault's power unit isn't the most competitive and the team was bought very late in the proverbial day, so 2016 will be a year of growth for the team as the significant extra financial input slowly has an effect. You'd expect France's only current F1 driver to be in this team, but Romain Grosjean decided that he simply HAAS to have a change of scenery for this year.

On that note, yes, there's an all-new F1 team for the first time since 2010! HAAS F1 Team. They've had considerable technical support from Ferrari, so consider the car as being Italian-American, like Fat Toni from The Simpsons. Learn a bit more by clicking here. Also, it turns out that it might arguably be pronounced "Hass" after all, due to American accents and stuff. But I'm sticking with the version that rhymes with arse. It just works.

Red Bull Racing's pathetic engine saga from last year has resulted in them and supplier Renault being legally divorced and yet still living in the same house for the time being. It sounds like the premise of a sitcom or a soap opera, and on that note the team's engine supplier is officially listed as "TAG Heuer" even though the Swiss watchmaker had precisely nothing to do with designing, engineering or building the power unit. Or rather, if they did design it then it's an amazing coincidence that it's identical to Renault's power unit and built by the same people in the same place in France. To add to all that, Red Bull recently announced a partnership with Aston Martin that involves some Aston Martin stickers in the places that Renault or Infiniti stickers used to be, plus a collaboration on a new hypercar designed by Adrian Newey and intended to be "faster than a Formula 1 car" somehow. Maybe it'll be a blend between Caparo T1 and Red Bull X2010 Gran Turismo. Maybe it will just have a higher top speed. We shall see.
One peculiar byproduct of all this is that Red Bull's "B team" Toro Rosso have to use last year's Ferrari power units, which are OK but will get no development at all. They'd better have a strong start to the season...

Manor Racing have rebranded and look to be a much more promising outfit than they were last year, when they were basically still there due to sympathy from other teams and the fans. This year they have a beautiful new livery, two rookie drivers, 2016-spec Mercedes power and Williams technical support in the form of a transmission, rear suspension system and some helpful boffins. They'll be keeping the likes of Haas and Sauber very honest this year, methinks.

Here's the full rundown in the form of a Spotter's Guide!



It's difficult to imagine there will be much movement in the pecking order compared to last year, but it does seem to be closer between all the teams. As well as seeing if McLaren Honda have actually fixed their engine problems, the two real question marks are the all-new HAAS and good-as-new Manor Mercedes. Oh, and the growing Renault factory team. OK, so there's a few things to think about this year.

In fact, actually, this is shaping up to be a genuinely intriguing season, especially compared to last year. I hope it delivers!


Written for SmallBlogV8, not other places

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