F1 2019 season: New regulations, fresh subplots

Pre-season testing has shown that Ferrari are in very good shape, Mercedes look like they’re a step behind their Italian rivals, while Red Bull Racing with the Honda engines have been much more reliable than anyone expected.

Young upstart: Is Charles Leclerc going to be a thorn in Sebastian Vettel’s side at Ferrari this year?   -  Reuters

I’m really looking forward to the new Formula One season. The battle between Ferrari and Mercedes is going to be as hot as ever, with both teams producing what look like very good cars, and Red Bull Racing with their new Honda package also seem to be closer to the fight.

We had a sillier silly season than normal last year, which means that only two teams have retained the same driver line-up. There are plenty of fascinating subplots that are going to unfold as the year goes on such as: Is Charles Leclerc going to be a thorn in Sebastian Vettel’s side? Will Daniel Ricciardo’s gamble to go to Renault prove to be an inspired decision? Can Pierre Gasly step up to the challenge of taking on the phenomenon that is Max Verstappen? How will Robert Kubica’s return go? Can Carlos Sainz fill the large void left by his fellow Spaniard Fernando Alonso at McLaren? Can the rookies Lando Norris, George Russell, Antonio Giovanazzi and Alex Albon establish themselves in F1?

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We’ve also got some new aerodynamic rules for 2019 as well as a 5km increase in the amount of fuel the cars can use during a race. The rule changes for 2019 have been ushered in as a bit of a tester for what’s being seen as a whole new era of Formula 1 in 2021.

It’s become clear that improving the ability to closely follow another car and therefore create overtaking opportunities is one of the biggest things that fans want to see from Formula 1.

At the moment with the bigger and highly complex cars, when a driver follows a competitor closely, they lose about 20 per cent of their downforce — significantly more than the difference between a top car and one at the back of the grid. This also has a big effect on the tyres of the car that’s following and so begins the vicious cycle that creates a lack of overtaking.

Welcome back! Robert Kubica is returning to Formula One racing eight years after a near-fatal accident at the 2011 Ronde di Andora rally.   -  Getty Images

 

Over the past 18 months, F1’s technical group headed by Pat Symonds has together with the FIA been carrying out research into how to shape the future rules from 2021 that would make the cars less aerodynamically sensitive and therefore less problematic for drivers to follow closely.

The changes include simplifying the design of the front wing elements and the endplates, but also making the wings wider, taller and deeper to recoup some of the loss of downforce. The rear wing is also taller and wider with simplified endplates aimed at reducing the negative impact of the turbulent air on the following car. The slot gap in the rear wing with the drag reduction system has been enlarged to increase the effect and improve overtaking. The rules around the barge board have been completely overhauled, which means that they’re now shorter but longer, while the amount of aerodynamic devices around brake ducts has also been limited.

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This hasn’t been universally popular, with several of the teams seeing it as an unnecessarily expensive stop-gap solution that’s been rushed through, but the FIA’s stance is that with the rate of development in F1 today for the top teams, if they didn’t do this, the situation for 2019 in terms of cars following each other would have been a lot worse. This way, at worst, it will be the same as last year and they will hopefully get some direction for 2021.

How much effect will the rules truly have? Well, I don’t think it’s fair to judge it in Melbourne because it’s never been a great track for overtaking, but let’s evaluate it once we’ve done the first four fly-aways on four very different tracks.

I’ve spent a few days at the pre-season test in Barcelona, which is always enjoyable. It’s very important in pre-season testing to look beyond the headline times. The big teams normally don’t fully show their hand with ultra-low-fuel runs in high-power engine modes. In the past, you would see some unexpected headline grabbing times from some of the smaller teams, but nowadays with the amount of information that is available to the teams and the amount of competitor analysis that goes on, it’s quite hard to genuinely shock people.

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Pre-season testing has shown that Ferrari are in very good shape. Mercedes have done their usual trick of not showing their true pace, but with some deeper analysis, it does look like they’re a step behind their Italian rivals. Red Bull Racing with the Honda have been much more reliable than anyone expected and I’ll be fascinated to see where they stack up when we get to qualifying in Melbourne and everyone turns the engines up. Renault seem to be closer to the top-three teams but in between them and the midfield with Alfa Romeo, Haas and Racing Point.

Overall, these are tricky and changing times for F1, but ultimately, what the fans around the world want to see is a hard-fought battle for the World Championship and I think we will have that this year!