(by Paolo Aversa, Ph.D)
The Formula One 2013 season is just about to start and – as it always happens at this time of the year – the entire world of fans and experts is wondering how the new regulations will affect the upcoming competitions. I believe that first of all it is important to define whether the new changes will have a significant impact on the cars technology and thus the teams’ strategies. Formula 1 official website provides a quick overview on the major rule changes for year 2013. At a first glance, I agree with what several experts already stated: it won’t be a year of massive change. If compared to other season – as the recent 2009 – the architectural design of the cars and their subpart remains more or less stable. The front wing, load and crash tests updates are fundamentally aimed at increasing the driver’s safety, but won’t impact performance or heavily force the other subcomponents’ re-design. The increase of minimum car weight – from 640 to 642kg – is an effect of the new Pirelli tyres which are exactly 2kg heavier than the one used in the previous year. Consequently, the weight-distribution requirement has also been revised to minimum figures of 292kg: 343kg front to rear, leaving teams a flexibility of 7kg of ballast to position at their convenience. All in all, definitely not a game-changer. So what’s really interesting to talk about?
I believe two aspects require some (strategic) reflection, as they represent the areas of critical decision making for teams and drivers.
First, the new Pirelli tyres. Pirelli – who is today the one and only tyre supplier for F1 teams – released this year a new 8-type tyres set for F1 cars, which present some change both in new compounds and construction (for more technical specs see the new video Pirelli recently released). The main point is that all the different tyres will be softer than 2012 – which translates into better grip, faster cars, but also quicker tyre degradation, and consequently more pit stops. In recent years pit stop have changed from being a refueling break to becoming incredible overtaking opportunities. Therefore, the enhanced gripping quality of the tyres will probably correspond to an enhanced gripping quality of the show. As Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery affirmed “Our 2013 range of tyres mixes up the cards once more to help overtaking and ensure two to three pit stops per race.” F1 fans who like strenuous battles with numerous overtaking and race strategy changes will be probably be more than content. As in 2012, we will be able to spot which set of tyres the cars fit thanks to the colored elements on the tyre side. For dry-weather track, 2 sets of high working slick: orange (hard), yellow (soft); for low working range white (medium) and red (supersoft). One tyre for intermediate conditions (green) and for wet weather (blue). As before, each F1 car will have 11 sets of tyres available for the weekend, made up of six sets of the harder and five sets of the softer compound (source: Formula1.com).
The reason why Pirelli was asked to developed softer tyres with better gripping properties is also probably related to the change of rules for the drag reduction system (hereafter DRS). The DRS is a motorsport technology aimed at reducing aerodynamic drag in order to promote overtaking in Formula One. DRS was introduced in the 2011 Formula One season and is an adjustable flap on the rear wing of the car, which opens and closes in response to driver commands. The use of the DRS system is an exception to the rule banning moving parts whose primary purpose is aerodynamic and were introduced in response to the banning F-ducts, as they were not susceptible to enforceable regulation (source: Wikipedia). The DRS helped the drivers exploiting the benefits of the additional acceleration boost provided by the kers. However some major FIA regulation updates will affect the development and use of this device. The active DRS, as well as the Redbull and Mercedes tricky “double-DRS” are now outlawed from races. They can only be used, in limited straights – and only within some specific speed/position conditions – during practice and qualifying days. Still, passive DRS will be allowed through all the race. Passive DRS means that the read flap will be “on” all the time, thus providing an increased speed through all the track, and especially along straights. However, since the main benefits of the DRS are derived from decreasing downforce, cars might experience grip loss and teams might consider them too dangerous to be operated in tracks with several fast-corners. Accordingly, while we can expect that all the teams will implement and use the traditional active DRS during practice and qualification, the use of passive DRS will be highly discretionary during races and not all teams will be likely to have it on the starting grid. The introduction of the passive DRS will push teams to handle an increase in complexity and deciding which of their technological features better fits each of the tracks will get even harder in the upcoming season. As we can expect that tracks with long straights and slow-corners will be preferential for the DRS, there is little understanding of what teams will identify as the threshold to consider DRS as a sufficiently safe solution.
All in all, despite the FIA regulations have not undergone a major update on the technological level, these few changes – tyres and passive DRS – might increase the importance of management team’s decision on the cars’ performance. Strategy is definitely one of the key factors to achieve success in F1, and tt is likely that the major teams will continue increasing the resources dedicated to data processing and analysis, in order to acquire a clearer understanding of the boundary conditions that should drive their decisions, and thus find the right interpretation to the sudden changes that the racing competitions offer.