As testing is set to get underway, we look at what 2022 might bring to Formula One
Formula 1 preseason testing will begin next week with what’s billed as a low-key three-day shakedown in Barcelona for the new generation of grand prix cars. The teams will finally gain first real-world impressions of their clean-sheet creations ahead of three more test days in Bahrain next month.
But the true picture of the new competitive order – and whether the pivotal brief has been met to make these cars easier to race – will only emerge at the season opener at the same Middle Eastern venue on 20 March.
F1 has metamorphosed regularly through the World Championship’s 72-year history, but insiders reckon this regeneration is the biggest in nearly 40 years.
In late 1982, motorsport’s governing body, the FIA, pulled the rug on the F1 teams by banning ground-effect aerodynamics and ushering in a new generation of flat-bottomed F1 cars. The move was rushed through on the premise of safety, although the toxic political climate between the FIA and the British teams that had formed the Bernie Ecclestone-led Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA) was a dark undercurrent.
The teams were hurriedly forced to design and build cars to a whole new rulebook in a matter of weeks, most choosing to create heavily revised B-specs of their 1982 machines, shorn of their full-length sidepods.
Typically of the time, Brabham’s Gordon Murray pushed harder, designing from scratch the stunning delta-shaped BT52 – still one of the most beautiful F1 cars. His redeye approach paid off when Nelson Piquet delivered the team a hard-won world title, propelled by BMW’s potent turbocharged four-cylinder.
The teams had much more warning this time, especially as the new era was delayed a year by the pandemic, and, with fitting serendipity, ground effects are back. Motorsport is just about going around in circles? Who said that?
For years, designers, engineers and drivers have talked about the ‘dirty air’ created by surface aerodynamics thwarting F1 cars from following each other closely and making overtaking at times nearly impossible. That’s why the artificial drag reduction system (DRS) was introduced: to ‘help the show’.
Wings and the rear-wing DRS flap are still part of the new F1, but most of the downforce is now created under rather than over the cars, so following and racing closer should be easier. In theory. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
The new rules are a welcome distraction from the still-lingering hangover after the Abu Dhabi GP farce, when Max Verstappen snatched the world title from Lewis Hamilton’s grasp on the last lap of the season, but only after the FIA broke its own sporting rules to empower him to do so.
A shake-up of the competitive order won’t be enough for many fans to forgive or forget, but a fresh narrative sure would be a blessed relief to F1’s show-business promoter. Then again, is it realistic to think a team other than Mercedes-AMG or Red Bull might have a title shot in 2022? Actually, as history tells us, it might be.
Now, there’s a reason why Mercedes has dominated this hybrid era and why Red Bull rose to the challenge of taking it on last year: they’re the best teams of the modern era, by far. Therefore, it seems safe to assume that neither will drop the ball, even if Red Bull faces a daunting transition from Honda works team to brave independent entry.
But then the same assumption was made of McLaren when Hamilton won his first world title in 2008 – and yet he and the team won just two races the following year as a downforce-slashing rules change shook up the order. Back then, out of the ashes of Honda’s F1 withdrawal, Brawn GP emerged powered by customer Mercedes V10s, and with the aid of its ‘silver bullet’ double diffuser, Jenson Button mopped up six of the first seven races to win a shock world title. Mercedes then bought the team and turned it silver.
Could it happen again? Ferrari, McLaren, Alpine and Aston Martin hope so. The equivalent of a double diffuser is a long shot, but the budget cap that teams now wear and strict aerodynamic development restrictions that operate on a sliding scale of success (the more you win, the less wind tunnel and CFD time you get) is F1’s own version of ‘levelling up’.
The midfield teams have a golden opportunity to make up ground on Mercedes and Red Bull – and if at least one of them doesn’t pull it off, the new era might be something of an anti-climax. Although a juicy sequel to the fantastic Hamilton versus Verstappen duel would save the day, assuming that Sir Lewis isn’t driven into disillusioned retirement by his burning sense of injustice. He wouldn’t… would he?
More electric motorsport?
F1 is also preparing for a new generation of powertrain due for introduction in 2026, which might well induce Porsche, Audi or both to enter the grand prix arena. A variation on the hybrid theme is in its final stages as F1 wisely leaves all-electric power to Formula E. But further down the food chain, more electric series are on the way to keep motorsport in tune with the fast-changing automotive zeitgeist.
The latest launch is ERA, an all-electric junior single-seater initiative that will support the sophomore Pure ETCR touring car series (now known as the eTouring Car World Cup). This year is a toe-in-the-water exercise, with a demonstration set for the Pau GP in May ahead of four rounds featuring 10 of the Dome-designed Mitsu-Bachi F110e racers that are powered by a 175bhp motor charged by a 24kWh battery.
To diehards, ERA means English Racing Automobiles and the wonderful cars that took on the might of Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz in the bombastic grands prix of the 1930s. Not quite the same thing, then.
Good week: NASCAR
American stock car racing’s own Next Gen era began successfully with a non-points race at the Roman-amphitheatre-styled Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Ford’s Joey Logano saw off Toyota’s Kyle Busch to take a historic win (in more ways than one).
Bad week: Molly Taylor
The Extreme E champion has lost her drive at Nico Rosberg’s RXR team. Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky, who raced for Jenson Button’s squad last year, is the Australian’s surprise replacement to join four-time World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson.