Formula 1 2009: preview part 1

March 22, 2009

This year’s Formula 1 World Championship is potentially the most open in decades, with a raft of new technical regulations and a last-minute change to the scoring system thrown into the mix.  I’ll be taking a look at the prospects of the teams and drivers for the year ahead every day this week.  Today, we’ll look at the changes to the rules and regulations and how they may stir things up in 2009.

The big news going into the final week of the pre-season is the change to the scoring system.  Gone (but not entirely forgotten) is the flawed 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 framework, with number of wins now being the first deciding factor in determining this year’s World Champion.  Points will still be awarded, and decide the championship standings from 2nd downwards, and, in the event of a tie in number of wins, the championship itself.  The reaction to this, a rather half-hearted application of Bernie Ecclestone’s Olympic-style medal system proposed last autumn, has been decidedly mixed.  Thirteen times in the 59-history of the championship the new regulations would have seen a different (although, to be fair, no less deserving) title winner.   Two of those – 1981 and 1983 – would have deprived Nelson Piquet of the crown when he was driving for the Brabham team owned by… Bernie Ecclestone.  My personal feeling is that it will most likely make scant difference to the championship as a spectacle or as a contest.  However, should one driver win the first 9 races and have the thing wrapped up by mid-summer – or one driver win 6 races and crash out of all the others, yet still beating a rival who won five times and finished 2nd the other 12 – expect to see hurried and rather bashful changes to the rules next year.

On the technical side, cars have been tweaked with a view to cost-cutting and improving the quality of the on-track action.  Each driver is now limited to just 12 engines – now detuned from 19,000 rpm to 18,000 – all year, eight for all practice, qualifying and racing and four additional units for testing.  However, how they use their ration is up to them, adding an extra tactical spice.  Continuing in the recent trend of long-life components, several bits of the drivetrain of the car will now be expected to last up to six events.  Finally, the daft-looking grooved slick tyre era of 1998-2008 is now at an end, with full-slick tyres making a welcome return to the sport.

On track, the cars have been radically simplified, with nearly all aerodynamic tweaks and fiddly bits outlawed with a view to reducing the negative impact of following another car closely on handling.  To this end, the dimensions of the front wing have also been significantly increased, whilst rear downforce is reduced by smaller, higher rear wings and simplified and raised underbody diffusers.  The initial aesthetic effect of all of these alterations is undeniably strange, although like always, one soon becomes accustomed to it.  Perhaps the most pleasing aspect is that, due to the biggest raft of changes since ground effect was banned for the 1983 season, each team’s car actually looks fairly distinctive from its rivals, as the designers all try to get to grips with their new parameters.

Finally, there are two important changes to assist the drivers to race their rivals.  Front wings will now be driver-adjustable from the cockpit – up to 6 degrees twice per lap – which should counteract the understeer caused by following a rival’s car too closely.  Also, Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) are now permitted.  These store up energy created by braking in a battery.  This energy can then be used to boost a car’s power by up to 80 bhp for 6.7 seconds per lap.  These 6.7 need not be consecutive, and the clever drivers will time their use of the boost button to extract maximum performance from their engine and top speed.

Altogether, these technical changes are the most fundamental seen in a quarter of a century.  They should, at the very least, add an extra dimension to the skill of driving the cars, which is always a positive thing.  However, early indications seem to also suggest that, for the first time in the 15 years I have been following the sport, changes put in place to improve the chances of cars being able to race one another on track may actually have worked, Nick Heidfeld reporting that he has found it easier to follow other cars closely without as much detrimental effect on his own handling as the previous generation of cars would have produced.    Fingers, and toes, are therefore crossed for the new-look cars to produce some new-look racing.

Tomorrow, we start our team and driver guide to the new season with a look at Force India Mercedes and Brawn GP Mercedes.

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