The start of the new Formula One season is upon us and with it comes a whole new set of regulations. Split into Sporting and Technical sections, the regs change from year to year, because the sport never stands still.
In many instances changes are implemented to catch-up with the changing tactics and improving technical prowess of the competitors; sometimes the changes are to introduce new technology – usually safety related. Occasionally a change is simply there to head-off a potential problem somewhere further down the road.
The two rulebooks do exactly what they say: The Technical Regulations cover the car and its systems, the sporting regs cover how races are run and, in the wider sense, how those cars are used. While senior design and engineering staff tend to sweat over the tech regs, the Sporting Regulations are the domain of the team manager (who tends to be the font of all knowledge when it comes to interpreting the written law) and the race engineers who have to instruct the drivers how to act in many different scenarios.
In terms of Sporting Regulations, there isn't much change for 2018. We have a tweak to the rules regarding safety car restarts with slightly more flexibility to choose a standing or a rolling start, and a change to the rules governing demonstrations – which will be of interest to those who enjoyed last year's F1 London Live event. These aside, the big three changes people will notice in 2018 are:
Three Engines Per Season
Each car will be allowed to use three power units over the course of the 2018 season. This is the most stringent engine quota that the sport has seen – though things have gradually been moving in this direction over the last dozen seasons. The number of engines available over the season has undergone a gradual glide-down, going first to one engine for the whole weekend in 2004, then to a requirement for an engine to last two events in 2005, then eight for the season in 2009, five in 2014, four in 2015 and now three.
In a pleasingly-symmetrical quirk of the calendar, this means the power units will have to last seven races each in the 21-race 2018 season, rather than the five they needed to survive during 20-race 2017. In theory, this shouldn't cause problems: into the fifth year of the current engine regulations reliability should be such that the extra mileage can be accommodated. In practice... well, some engine manufacturers are more concerned than others.
Reducing the number of power units available is – as has always been the case – a cost-cutting measure. Drivers aren't particularly happy with the situation, however, fearing they'll have to spend rather more time nursing their power units than driving flat-out with everything turned up to 11. F1 drivers have been complaining about this aspect of their craft since May 13th 1950.
Changes to grid penalties
Of course, should the reliability gremlins strike, drivers will face the usual array of grid penalties. Last year the penalties were thought by some to be unnecessarily confusing, so there's been a very gentle tweak to the sporting regs for this season. Any driver collecting 15-plus penalty places will automatically be sent to the back of the grid. If there's more than one driver in that situation they will line-up, as always, based on the time at which the FIA were informed of the offence.
More Tyre Compounds
A rather more colourful tyre selection will be on offer in 2018, with Pirelli expanding their pool of dry weather compounds from five to seven. In terms of naming, the tyre supplier has added one compound to either end of the range, with new superhard and hypersoft compounds extending the line-up.
In reality, the range is getting softer across the board. The new superhard compound will be a weapon-of-last-resort tyre, seeing use if it transpires teams have found a lot more downforce than Pirelli expect and are destroying tyres on high-energy circuits. Everything else is going one step softer than last year – thus the 2018 hard compound will be comparable to a 2017 medium, a 2018 medium will be comparable to a 2017 soft, etcetera. This means that both the ultrasoft and the new hypersoft will be softer than anything used during the 2017 season.
The purpose of the changes is to bring more strategic options into play. The ideal scenario for an exciting grand prix would be to make a two-stop race the standard, with the potential for drivers to gamble on a long one-stopper or a fast and furious three-stopper. This sort of variety didn't feature much in 2017 with the tyres generally considered to be too hard, reducing many races to uniformity with the mandatory single stop.
Pirelli were intentionally conservative last year, wisely playing it safe against the backdrop of a new set of aero regulations. With a year of solid data to work with, 2018's tyres are much more aggressive, which should mean faster lap-times, fewer processions and more worry-lines on the faces of strategists.
More compound choices also mean more tyre colours, with pink and 'ice blue' added to the spectrum. The full slick range is: superhard (orange); hard (ice blue); medium (white); soft (yellow); supersoft (red); ultrasoft (purple); hypersoft (pink). The wet tyre remains blue and the intermediate will still be green. Are the blue wet and the ice blue hard compounds likely to be confused by spectators and commentators? It's going to be a pretty unusual set of circumstances where that's a genuine choice – but it's not beyond the realms of possibility.