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 Regulations cover how races are run and, in the wider sense, how those cars are used. The technical regulations tend to be the more contentious – mostly because they contain what could be described as a degree of constructive ambiguity.
A subtle difference between F1 and most other forms of motorsport exists in the tech regs: other series have rules to inform constructors what they can do; F1 rules tend to focus on what they can't. Basically, unless explicitly told otherwise, in F1 anything goes.
The annual rewrite of the technical regulations covers a lot of ground: there are always safety enhancements, usually a few technical loopholes closed and sometimes attempts to create a package more conducive to exciting races. As might be expected in the second season after a major aerodynamic regulation change, this year there's lots of tidying up around the car – though it's a safety regulation that's particularly attracting comment.
2018 sees the introduction of F1's cockpit head protection system. Following nearly a decade of research, the FIA has mandated the introduction of a titanium cage to protect the driver's head from flying debris.
The Halo is a standard specification, so there isn't any design work to do on the device itself – but teams are allowed to fit a fairing around it. While this is primarily for aesthetics, it may have a small impact on aerodynamics. The bigger influence, however, is structural rather than aerodynamic, building mounting points into the chassis and strengthening it to cope with a new set of impact tests required to homologate the new crash structure.
As is always the case with changes to the F1 aesthetic, there's been some pushback from fans, who don't like the look of the Halo. Once the devices are liveried they should look better – though probably not by much. Some drivers and Team Principals have shared a dislike for the look of the thing – others have concerns of a more practical nature, such as the potential for the device to obscure trackside marshalling panels and pitlane traffic lights. On the other hand, some drivers are ardent supports of the Halo and believe the advantages far outweigh the costs.
Certainly in terms of safety the case is compelling. Having studied and modelled real world crashes from across the breadth of open cockpit racing, the FIA is absolutely adamant it will save lives and prevent serious injuries and is therefore rolling it out across all of the championships it administers.
6kg added weight
While the aesthetics and safety implications of the Halo have been widely discussed, one fact that tends to get lost in the signal sometimes is the fact it's very, very heavy. This is only to be expected, as the new device is designed to be the strongest part of the car. The regulations for 2018 have added 6kg to the minimum dry weight of the car taking it up to 734kg – but the Halo is expected to add at least 10kg, maybe more depending on how much meat has to be added to the chassis to mount it.
Building a car that hits – or ideally comes in under – the minimum is a crucial element of car design as nobody wants to give away time for free by lugging around more than is absolutely necessary. Last year that was a struggle for several teams – it's going to be even harder this year.
All things remaining equal, a heavier car is, of course, a slower car – but the nature of F1 is that things rarely stand still. In reality an extra 6kg should be more-than compensated for by development elsewhere. Teams – and engine makers always target major improvements during the off-season and the performance delta is usually enormous between the final race of one season and the first of the next. Even with a slightly heavier car, 2018 should be F1's fastest season ever thanks to a combination of increased horsepower, more efficient aerodynamics and new, seriously soft, tyres.
Another crackdown in the technical regulations concerns oil burning. The regs make very clear that engine oil is to be used for the sort of things that engine oil is supposed to do, such as cooling and lubricating, and not for things that it isn't – such as working as a fuel additive to get more bang for the proverbial buck.
Ride height regs
Over the past couple of decades the regulation that most regularly gets an airing is the one relating to bodywork and aerodynamic influence. With a notable exception for the DRS, the rule bans moveable aerodynamics (sliding skirts, ailerons etc) and insides that bodywork influencing aerodynamics must be rigidly secured to the car with no freedom to move.
This is problematic. Every piece of bodywork influences the aerodynamics of the car, and everything has some degree of flex under load, so there's a degree of interpretation required by the scrutineers, usually based on the intent of a mechanical device or the amount of flex that can be reasonably expected in a given material.
This year's wrinkle concerned systems that alter the ride height of the car based on the steering angle. Systems that lower the front of the car progressively as more steering lock is applied (thus getting the front wing helpfully nearer the track surface in slow corners) will be monitored very carefully. Some change in ride height is inevitable under steering lock – it's excessive amounts of dip the FIA wishes to police. As is often the case, this doesn't come via a change to the regulations but via a technical directive from the race director clarifying how the existing regulation will be monitored – in this instance suggesting movement of more than 5mm will be deemed unacceptable.
Fins and T-Wings
We're saying goodbye to the collection of fins and engine-mounted wings that will make 2017's cars so easy to identify in the pub quizzes of the future. The FIA has closed the loophole that allowed these to be fitted to the spine of the engine cover, and while the new regs still allow for a ridge along the spine, the shark fins, anvils, coat hangers, stegosaurus and tie rack designs will all go back into the toy box. Last year's designs added a small amount of downforce but worked primarily to condition airflow going to the rear wing. Getting rid of them may make the cars a little more twitchy this year.