New designs, new drivers and new rivalries: a new era of F1 begins...
The 2022 Formula 1 season is up and running, following perhaps the biggest change in regulations that the sport has even seen. But what exactly is so different from last year, why have these changes been made, and how have things panned out so far after three races?
Last year’s championship fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, which went all the way down to the last lap of the last race, was one of the greatest showdowns F1 has ever seen. This has left many asking the question: why change a thing? Well the 2022 regulations were initially planned to come into play for the 2021 season, but were pushed back a year due to the impact of Covid-19. Their main ambition is to improve the spectacle by allowing cars to race more closely alongside each other, something fans have long been asking for.
Ever since front and rear wings were added to the cars in the 1970s, F1 engineers have become evermore knowledgeable on the topic of aerodynamics, and F1 cars increasingly reliant on aerodynamic downforce for their incredible cornering speeds. The basic idea is that devices such as wings at the front and rear of the car, as well as additional parts like the diffuser at the rear, and bargeboards on either side, funnel air such that it pushes the car downwards into the ground, in essentially the opposite manner to the wing of an aeroplane. This is called downforce, and gives F1 cars the grip they need to change direction while slowing down as little as possible, which they do better than any other race cars in the world.
The problem with this aerodynamic approach is that it requires the car to run in undisturbed air in order to generate maximum downforce. As it happens, all this aerodynamic wizardry also leaves in its trail a huge wake of aero-disturbance, known as ‘dirty air.’ The result of this is that an F1 car running behind another, in the ‘dirty air’ of the car in front, is able to produce much less downforce, and therefore unable to corner as quickly. Research done by F1 showed that downforce was reduced by as much as 47% when following 10 metres behind another car. This makes it very difficult for cars to race closely.
F1 has attempted to solve this issue with the new regulations by creating cars which do not generate nearly the same trailing wake of dirty air as seen previously. This is principally achieved by taking a very different approach to downforce, and one which has not been allowed in F1 since 1982. Whereas designs of recent years have depended on wings to push the cars into the ground, the 2022 approach involves using areas of low air pressure underneath the car to suck the car downwards. This is known as ‘ground effect,’ and uses long passages on the bottom of the car, known as Venturi tunnels, to create low air pressure.
Ground effect was previously used in F1 from 1978 to 1982, but was outlawed due to the dangerous cornering speeds the cars were reaching. Safety in F1 has come a long way since then though, and this more heavily regulated revival of the ground effect concept is not expected to produce any of the same concerns as in the 1980s. F1’s research claims that the aforementioned 47% loss of downforce has been reduced to just 18%, which constitutes a massive improvement.
As of the 10th of April, three races of the new season have taken place. These races have seen plenty of wheel to wheel action, and the drivers are generally in agreement that the cars handle much better when following behind others compared to previous years. Alpine driver Esteban Ocon even described his tussles with fellow Alpine driver Fernando Alonso and McLaren’s Lando Norris during the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as “pretty much like a go-kart race,” so the early signs are certainly promising.
In terms of pace, Ferrari look to have emerged from their recent malaise with the quickest car on the grid this year, lead driver Charles Leclerc taking two wins from the opening three races, and opening up a 44 point lead in the driver’s championship. Red Bull also appear quick, and Verstappen took the chequered flag in Saudi Arabia, but they have had troubles with reliability, and Verstappen was unable to reach the finish in both Bahrain and Australia. Mercedes, who have won the past seven constructors’ championships, have so far struggled to get to grips with the new regulations, and have been considerably off the pace of Ferrari and Red Bull, although Red Bull’s reliability problems mean that Mercedes are currently second in the table. There are another 20 races to go though, in what will be the longest F1 season ever, so everything is still very much to play for.
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