Formula One 2017 | The season starts here (part 1)

The wait is nearly over and the bags for Australia are packed, F1 2017 is inbound.

New regulations, new cars, new owners and a new team on top? What will Formula One have in store for 2017 as aero tweaks bring back shark fins but a lack of power could prevent a McLaren from making a comeback. Again. Something that should not hamper Ferrari as the Prancing Horse is set to bolt the stable and join Mercedes’ atop the F1 table.

2016:2017 comparison (c) Ferrari

A birds-eye comparison of the 2016 and 2017 F1 cars courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari.

            Aero takes control from the hybrids?

Intended to up the pace of the races by up to five seconds a lap and give the drivers’ more of a challenge, Formula One set about changing the way the cars look. Giving them more downforce, more mechanical grip and hopefully opening the door to more chances to overtake. A door that needed to be opened as Formula One’s viewing figures began to decline.

At present, the overtaking element may need to be tested as with more downforce comes more drag, thus making it harder for the car behind to follow closely. More drag has also offset some of the benefits Toro Rosso may have found from moving to the latest offering from Renault rather than the one-year-old Ferrari engine used last season.

Sainz Toro Rosso

Carlos Sainz lapping the STR12 during pre-season testing. Photo credit: Toro Rosso.

There again, in terms of speed, the new aerodynamic parts have proven their worth already in pre-season testing. With the fastest test lap around the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, set by Kimi Raikkonen, coming home 3.366 seconds faster than Lewis Hamilton’s 2016 Spanish Grand Prix pole lap.

One area in particular where that speed has come from is through the corners. With the aerodynamic tweaks, from the wider front wings at the front of the cars, all the way back to the now wider and lower rear wings, meaning drivers can carry far more speed through the corners than before.

Some drivers were even able to take the long turn three at Barcelona flat out during pre-season testing. A topic Fernando Alonso could only joke about when it comes to McLaren’s pre-season performances (something I will touch on tomorrow).

Alonso - McLaren

Fernando Alonso hitting the track during pre-season testing. Photo credit: McLaren.

Not only have the wings changed either, as side on views of the 2017 spec cars show one big difference. The return of the much-debated shark fins – which first appeared in Formula One during the 2009 and 2010 seasons before rule changes took them away.

While not all fans enjoy the looks of a shark fin, it has returned for a reason. Even if the launch spec of the Force India made it appear as if a piece of MDF had fallen off the shelf and landed perfectly atop the car. Others, namely Ferrari, McLaren and Toro Rosso, were at least able to weave the fin into their new cars designs.

The intention of the shark fins is to stabilise the rear of the car in the corners. Keeping the car as under control as possible, particularly during a side wind, meaning the driver is able to lap faster.

Airflow control, and adding even more downforce, is also the reason behind the returning use of bargeboards in 2017. These turning vanes like features sit alongside the cars and are used to manipulate the 250 air vortex flowing rearward from the prescribed section (centre) of the front wing.

Ricciardo - Red Bull

Daniel Ricciardo putting the ‘Bull through its paces in pre-season testing. Photo credit: Red Bull Racing.

Red Bull’s interesting hole in the front nose cone is an addition to their intended air flow through this vortex as well. Creating another passage for air to flow through the channel in a, legally wise, not too dissimilar way to Lotus’ two-pronged nose cone from a few years ago or Force India’s split nose introduced last season.

While Red Bull’s gap in the nose is legal, another unexpected downforce device introduced thanks to the new rules is the T-wing (a.k.a mini rear wing). This small coat hanger like feature sits between the shark fins and the new, lower rear wings. But only thanks to a loophole in the regulations for car design, where there is a tiny 50mm gap between the maximum width of the rear wing and the furthest point of the extended shark fins.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Barca pre-season - (c) Mercedes AMG F1 Team

Valtteri Bottas lapping his new Mercedes F1 car during pre-season testing. Photo credit: Mercedes AMG F1 Team.

But this is F1, where the experts are paid the big money to find the loopholes and exploit them for whatever benefit they can find. And in this case, the loophole welcomes a slight aerodynamic improvement similar to the full-size rear wing in terms of air flow.

One team certainly in favour of running a T-wing in testing was Mercedes, the reigning world champions. A team which also found themselves almost alone in running the top element of their suspension wishbones above the wheel hub area for better aerodynamics. A route only joined by Toro Rosso, who were left disappointed that Mercedes had also thought of doing so in order to allow more air to go under this area.

Suspension trickery was, however, a key focus point for the FIA. With the sports governing body sending a directive out to all teams early on that they would be checking for any trick systems following Ferrari’s request for clarification on what was permitted.

Ferrari’s clarification request itself, though, is believed to have been based upon their desire to know if the systems being used by Mercedes and Red Bull were legal.

Honda F1 hybrid power unit - (c) Honda

Honda’s Formula One hybrid power unit. Photo credit: Honda.

            Power unit stockpiling no longer an option

Over the past two seasons, the stockpiling of engines became an occasional task for engineers when their drivers had reached the limit of units allowed. McLaren, particularly, utilised this during 2015 amidst Honda’s difficult bedding in year.

But not only did McLaren and Honda utilise the stockpiling of engines, Mercedes did too in 2016 – when Hamilton reached the mid-season point and knew he would require multiple units across the remaining half of the year.

This, however, is no longer an option.

As of 2017, if a driver should introduce more than one of a power unit element that is subject to a grid penalty, only the last element fitted may be used at subsequent events without further penalty.

The previous ‘token’ system for in-season engine development has also been scrapped. Meaning Honda, Renault, Mercedes and Ferrari are all free to develop their units across the season. Giving them all greater scope to oblige to new constraints on power unit part weights, dimensions and materials being introduced in 2017 and in 2018.

F1 safety car - (c) Thales Munhoz

Formula One’s safety car laps Interlagos at the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix. Photo credit: Thales Munhoz.

            Safety car starts are not the real starts

In 2016, when a sudden downpour at Silverstone soaked the track and heavy rain dampened the Monaco harbour so much so that a safety car was deemed necessary to start the race, fans cried out over the prolonged safety car periods. Particularly when drivers darted straight into the pits upon the restart to change from the mandatory full wets onto the intermediate tyres.

This year at least, the fans should not have this worry as the rule makers have introduced standing starts following a safety car start. Meaning once the track is deemed dry enough for the race to get going, the safety car will peel into the pits and the drivers will line up once more on the grid for a standing start.

Come back tomorrow for part two of ‘Formula One 2017 | The season starts here’.