One of the main goals of Formula 1’s recent rules revolution is to close the field. Conventional wisdom holds that the longer the rules are stable, the closer the competition gets, giving hope that things will get tighter in 2023.
Historically, this trend is broadly correct, although it’s never quite as linear. Both a look back at F1’s past and the current situation in F1 suggest it won’t be that clear-cut and while one hopes 2023 is drawing closer it could be a painful reality check for those expecting it give it.
F1 regulations for 2022 aimed to make the field more competitive in a number of ways and it is realistic to expect it to have a positive impact. This goal has not only been attacked technically, but also by the financial and sporting regulations, as well as the Concorde Agreement that binds the teams, the FIA and the commercial rights holder, Liberty Media, together.
The rules for the new generation of ground effect vehicles are strictly prescribed. This should not only improve the so-called “raceability” of the cars, but also limit the scope for development to a narrow power spread.
The FIA also has the right to ban legal designs for the following season if they contradict those intentions, as it did with Aston Martin’s rear wing endplates and Mercedes’ front wing endplates for 2023. Along with increasing the bottom ways to deal with porpoise problems, these are the only major changes to what is largely a stable rulebook.
Financial regulations on cost caps are also an important factor. While the 2021 cost cap came into effect, it was originally intended to be introduced with the technical regulations before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
With the money the teams can spend on their core business – designing, developing and racing their cars – the potential of the 10 teams should theoretically be similar.
The Concorde Agreement for 2021-2025 also helps by ensuring that the share of F1 revenue earned by teams is shared more fairly.
The aerodynamic test regulations (ATR) also contribute to this. This is effectively a handicap, restricting wind tunnel and CFD testing on a sliding scale, with the lowest-ranked team receiving the most and the top team receiving the least.
Never in the history of Formula 1 has there been such a concerted regulatory effort to close the field with such a wide range of instruments. So when looking at the historical case studies, it’s important to remember that this is a far broader strategy than anything seen before.
There is no shortage of case studies to consider as the rules of F1 have never been stable for long. Over the years, the set of rules with the current Technical Regulations has steadily grown to 183 pages.
There have been nine major rule revisions since 1983, when the flat floor regulation banned pure ground effect vehicles, including the 2022 one.
This gives us eight case studies to consider, looking at the top 10 teams for both the rule change season and the following year.
To do this, we use our Supertimes methodology, which expresses each team’s fastest individual lap over a race weekend as a percentage of the absolute fastest lap. This can then be averaged to get a season-wide performance index.
The reason we only look at the top 10 teams is for the smallest number of teams in the starting lineup during the seasons in question and to eliminate some of the ailing teams that were woefully uncompetitive largely due to their own inadequacies in F1 -Rules.
It’s important to note that there are a myriad of different factors at play, so this is just an opportunity to look at the underlying trends rather than an exhaustive analysis of each rule change.
Our first case study is the 1983 amendments that effectively banned ground effect vehicles through the flat bottom rules.
In 1983 Ferrari had the average fastest car and won the constructors’ championship, although Nelson Piquet won the drivers’ title for Brabham.
The following year, the field drew a little closer together, especially in terms of the gap from first to second place, which narrowed by a little more than half a percent.
But while the 10th fastest car was less off pace, the overall distribution in the field wasn’t dramatically narrower. It certainly didn’t appear to be going to be a tighter season at first glance, as although McLaren was only marginally faster than Brabham, McLaren’s effectiveness on race day meant they absolutely dominated with 12 wins from 16 races.
The ban on turbo engines came into effect in 1989. Although the majority of the field had been naturally aspirated the year before, four of the top five were turbocharged. But in 1989 it was still McLaren-Honda at the top.
In the second year of this rule cycle, Ferrari roughly halved the gap to McLaren and became a real title threat. And while the top 10 range was similar, things closed significantly in terms of the top 5.
1994 was the year of the so-called electric gizmo ban, which banned active suspension, traction control and ABS, among other things. And while that made life difficult for Williams and Benetton’s Michael Schumacher clinched his first drivers’ title, Williams still had the fastest car and won the constructors’ championship.
For the second year of this standard period in 1995, the distribution of competition in the top 10 is similar to that in the top 5 – albeit with the caveat that displacement has been reduced from 3.5 to 3 liters – and much more spread across the top 10 thanks to a combination of the big teams’ wins and the fact that those further down the line with customer engines were even more underperforming.
Narrow gauge cars and grooved tires were introduced in 1998 with McLaren taking the initiative.
Not much has changed for the second season of these rules. The gap at the top was similar on average, as was the distribution of the top 5 and top 10. What actually made 1999 more open was the mistakes around McLaren and Ferrari losing Michael Schumacher to his mid-season leg fracture, coupled with Jordan’s improvement enables it to take advantage of the top pair’s problems.
The first two were much closer in performance over the following two years, although Ferrari later asserted its dominance as it set new standards for an F1 team.
The move to 2.4-litre engines in 2006 had no immediate impact as the chassis regulations were largely stable, although this was a case of the top 10 closing in its second year.
But even then, the lead group dwindled, Honda fell behind and the fourth-fastest team’s gap on pace increased significantly.
The first season of ‘thin’ aerodynamic regulations in 2009 produced a remarkably tight field with just 1.4% in the top 10.
In the second season, the spread across the field increased dramatically. But there were mitigating factors, including the fact that the 10th-fastest team, Lotus Racing, was a brand-new company, Sauber regained independence after BMW’s withdrawal, and the ban on customer cars that Toro Rosso inevitably put the brakes on.
Red Bull was able to design its car from the ground up around the double diffuser concept in a way it was not able to in 2009 when the field was also kept tighter by preseason dominant force Brawn lacking the development budget to build up his advantage and slid backwards.
The introduction of the 1.6-litre V6 turbocharged engines had a major impact on the competitive order, with Mercedes dominating and the team that led the way for the previous four seasons, Red Bull, falling thanks to engine battles from Renault.
Not much has changed in the second season. In fact, Mercedes was more dominant, failing to win just three races with a greater front-to-back spread. Even taking just the top five, the range was about a third wider than last year, with Red Bull falling even further off the pace.
In 2017, F1 launched wider cars with more downforce and wider tyres. Mercedes remained at the top, as was customary at the time.
But there was little change in how close the field was in the regulations’ second year, except at the very back, where Sauber’s recovery and Williams’ ongoing decline crossed in such a way that the slowest car of 2018 wasn’t as bad as 2017 was. Otherwise it was similar.
Each of the seven examples we looked at produced a slightly different pattern in season two.
But on average, while there is a small increase in the gap between the top two and the distribution of the top five, it’s not a dramatic shift. The top 10 are on average over half a percent more spread out, although this is skewed by a few extreme cases.
The standard deviation from the first to the second year also increases slightly on average. This is a measure of the spread of each dataset compared to the mean mean, meaning performance tends to be slightly less clustered in the second year.
So history tells us that while there may be a gentle effect in the second year, there is usually no dramatic change.
Nor is there any reason to expect an immediate change, given the size of the advantage that the biggest F1 teams have built up over the past decade in terms of facilities and knowledge.
Last year’s leading midfielders Alpine and Mclaren also have their sights set on 2023. Alpine is just a year into its much-touted 100-race plan to emerge as a regular front-runner, while McLaren has long said it doesn’t anticipate being able to make big strides with the top teams until 2024 once the new wind tunnel will be put into operation this year.
Further down the order, Aston Martin is moving into a new factory awaiting its new wind tunnel, which will be operational from 2024, while the Sauber-led Alfa Romeo team is still recovering from the financial woes of the post-BMW era and Ramping up after a difficult decade – now with a focus on building up to 2026 when it becomes the Audi works team.
And while the FIA aimed to close the field, it was always expected that this would take several years.
“In terms of the first year of the regulations, I think the gaps for the first year of the new regulations were very small,” said Nikolas Tombazis, FIA Director of Technical Affairs for single-seater racing.
â€œIf it were the fifth year of its kind, it would be a little more concerning. If you look back at the first year regulations and either 2014 or 2009 or 1998, those first few years usually had some pretty big gaps. This year it was a lot less than that.â€
It will take some time for the field to close, but there are reasons to expect it. This is the most comprehensive rules overhaul in Formula 1 history and, being such a complex sport, it will inevitably take years rather than months to see the full impact.