Please maintain lane discipline: The rule changes in motorsports

Motorsport – from F1 to MotoGP, rallying and even Formula E – has seen unprecedented rule changes, both technical and sporting, in the decade gone past.

Surging ahead: Lewis Hamilton celebrates with his Mercedes team after securing his sixth World Drivers' Championship at the US Grand Prix in November.   -  AFP

 

The world of motorsport is ever in a state of flux. To rearticulate the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus in this context, “There’s nothing permanent except change.” The rule changes — technical and sporting — that motorsport wrought post 2010 have not only been prodigious, but significant too in underpinning the resolve of the establishment to map out a bright future for the sport.

So, when we take into account the new power plant for Formula One cars in 2014, or the enhancement of engine power and introduction of a larger turbo restrictor for rally cars in 2017, or the launch of CRT (claiming rule team) machines in MotoGP in 2012, we are talking of revolutionary changes in the sport. And at the heart of these seismic changes was motorsport’s resolve to bring some order and improve the performance and safety of the competitors.

Formula One leads the way

When it comes to technology, F1, with its mind-boggling budget (a latest report by Forbes puts the combined budget of the 10 teams at $2.6 billion per annum), simply dwarfs the other branches of motorsport. So, it is widely recognised that rule changes in other forms of motorsport are dictated by the changes in F1.

At the final race of the 2010 season in Abu Dhabi, Sebastian Vettel became F1 champion at just 23 years and 134 days.   -  AFP

 

It took F1, struggling with several issues including dwindling viewership and ever-expanding budgets of the top teams that put the back-markers at an even greater disadvantage, over two decades to put in place measures — in the face of stiff resistance from the big teams — aimed at making the sport a lot more fair for the competitors. In 2009, to help save engine costs, the authorities limited a driver to a maximum of eight engines per season with an additional four units for testing. This, according to reports, helped save up to 50 percent of the cost over the previous season. Besides, to improve the life of the engine, the RPM was cranked down from 19,000 to 18,000. That year, in support of the world environment solutions, FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), the world governing body of motorsport, introduced KERS (kinetic energy recovery system), which harvests the energy released during braking with the help of a flywheel or a battery, gives a driver a boost of 80 horsepower for 6.7 seconds a lap with the push of a button — a gain of up to nearly one second a lap. These changes essentially proved to be a precursor to the key modifications that F1 would witness in the succeeding years.

It’s of relevance that KERS had brought its share of problems. Firstly, the system, coming at a cost of nearly $35 million, put extra pressure on the finances of the teams. Next, there was the major issue of weight: at around 30kg, it proved a little too heavy for the cars. The system was put in cold storage the following season, but reintroduced in 2011 after F1 increased the weight limit of the car to 640kg.

Coinciding with the return of KERS was the introduction of the DRS (drag reduction system), a driver-operated system that helped attain top speeds and facilitated overtaking.

Going green and cutting costs

The changes in F1 rules for the 2014 season were perhaps the biggest and the most extensive in the history of the sport. The idea driving the amendments was the sport’s efforts to reinforce its “green” credentials, in addition to perking up performances and making F1 truly energy efficient.

In a whopping move, the 2.4-litre normally aspirated V8 engines that had been powering F1 cars since 2006 were jettisoned in favour of new 1.6-litre six-cylinder single turbos with energy recovery systems (ERS). The new engine, with additional power boost from the ERS (two motor units that independently harness kinetic energy and heat energy), matched the performance of the scrapped V8s, though there were initial complaints of the power units being relatively muzzled, a far cry from the sound and fury normally associated with the sport. Later, along the way, the teams managed to set right the sound deficiency of the cars to a large extent by reconfiguring the exhausts.

As part of the new rules, a cap was placed on fuel use, which was metered down to 100kg per race. Earlier, in the absence of a fuel limit, a car would consume up to 150kg.

As a cost-cutting measure, the number of engines a driver could use in a season was brought down to five from eight. The power unit comprised the internal combustion engine, the ERS, the turbo and other supplementary units, and any of these parts striking work meant commissioning a sixth engine, which attracted a 10-place grid penalty. However, in the face of severe criticism from teams, who were of the view that the engine system was lop-sided and penalties quite stringent, the rules were revised in 2018 to treat the engine components independently. This meant that a driver was permitted to use up to three each of the internal combustion engines, the MGU-H (motor generator unit – heat) and the turbochargers, and two each of the MGU-K (motor generator unit – kinetic), energy storage and electronic controls.

Sebastian Loeb and his co-driver Daniel Elena celebrate their nine consecutive World Rally Championship titles in October 2012.   -  Getty Images

 

The new cockpit protection added to the cars received the thumbs up from all over the circuit. Resembling a halo, the protective device helps deflect any debris flying from the car in front. F1 authorities had been discussing this safety device ever since Felipe Massa was knocked unconscious by a spring that had detached from the suspension of Ruben Barrichello’s car in front during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009. Massa had suffered a skull fracture.

F1’s big year in 2021

Formula One buffs expect 2021 to be a watershed year for the sport. With an all-new design philosophy and a cap on the budgets of the team, the sport is set to embark on a new course.

The new changes in the design of F1 cars are mainly aimed at encouraging overtaking. The one major issue a car faces today while attempting a pass is a substantial drop in downforce due to dirty air from the car in front. But with the new design and simplified bodywork, the air is expected to be a lot cleaner and the flow higher. And in cleaner airflow, drivers will have a better chance of overtaking.

With wheel control devices, larger 18-inch rims and superior underbody aerodynamics, the 2021 cars, reports suggest, are streets ahead of the current generation.

Sebastien Ogier and his co-driver Julien Ingrassia celebrate their sixth straight World Rally Championship title in November 2018.   -  Getty Images

 

The spending cap, coming into effect in 2021, is a giant leap for the sport. Reining in the profligacy of the front-running teams has been at the top of the F1 agenda for quite some time now. But up against the powerful lobby of the top-rung teams, the authorities kept hitting a brick wall each time they wanted to pass a law against extravagant budgets. But finally, in a ground-breaking move, a cost cap has been fixed at $175 million per team per season. Though this applies only to on-track operations (it does not include costs such as driver salary and marketing fees), it is expected to end the spending gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and bring about a level playing field.

To save further on costs, configurations of the gearbox have been frozen, while upgrades over race weekends and the number of wind tunnel runs teams can do have also been scaled down.

Easy on the spending

The rule changes for the 2017 World Rally Championship were quite significant. A series of measures were devised to improve both the aerodynamic and mechanical grip of cars. The new rules also helped to ramp up the average stage speeds, making them nearly 20 seconds quicker than the earlier times. Among the changes initiated by the FIA were: an increase in the engine output from 300 bhp to 380 bhp; introduction of a larger turbo restrictor (36mm in place of 33mm); relaxing the rules pertaining to the rear diffuser, which meant more freedom for the manufacturers to develop a wider range of aerodynamic shapes.

To encourage more manufacturers to participate in the championship, the FIA relaxed regulations with regard to homologation. As per the new rule, any production measuring at least 3.9m long qualifies as a world rally car.

Last season, with an eye towards cutting costs, the WRC slashed the total distance of special stages per event to 350km. Earlier it was 500km. Additionally, the teams were allowed not more than 42 days of testing per season.

The authorities also restructured the support categories of the WRC, creating a new class called the World Rally Championship-2 Pro at the expense of the World Rally Championship-3, which was discontinued. The WRC-2 Pro was then thrown open to teams supported by manufacturers.

Set for a hybrid boost

Though very slow off the blocks, it’s now confirmed that the highest class of the WRC will employ hybrid technology in the 2022 season. The FIA has been relentlessly pushing for hybrid engines in the WRC for some years now, but with no success.

FIA president Jean Todt, speaking to the European media, had expressed his disappointment over the attitude of the manufacturers, who were stalling the hybridisation move. “Myself, I’m completely in favour of taking into account the evolution of motoring for rallying. And clearly it is a big frustration for me not to see that rallying has engaged on at least some hybridisation and some new technology,” he said.

“The reason is, I am told by people who are there to run the business, is that manufacturers don’t want (it). They don’t want to change the regulation. They don’t want… it’s always the reason.

“For me, this is completely no position; when I go to motor shows in Frankfurt, Paris, China, Japan, Geneva, I only see new technologies. For me, it’s frustrating to see in an FIA world event they don’t want new technologies.”

The manufacturers, however, have now had a change of heart. They have been providing inputs to the FIA technical team, which is working on implementing hybrid solutions in two years’ time.

Bringing the teams closer on the track

In what was widely seen as a major overhaul in MotoGP in recent times, the establishment, in 2016, put in place rules to negate the advantages the factory teams held over smaller outfits. The smaller teams were given allowances such as unlimited testing and in-season engine development, apart from a dozen engines per season, while the two big factory teams, Yamaha and Honda, were limited to less testing and seven engines per season. And their engine development work couldn’t stretch beyond pre-season testing.

In its push for fairer racing, MotoGP outlawed the special electronic devices used solely by the top teams, replacing them with a new ECU (electronic control unit) for all the competitors.

The CRT machines that took positions at the starting grid of the 2012 season were a trailblazer to the rule changes in 2016. Reeling under falling grid numbers in the wake of a financial crunch, the CRT initiative, put forth by Dorna Sports, the owner of MotoGP’s commercial rights, allowed independent teams to participate in the series. With CRT helping to fill up the grid, the MotoGP establishment’s next task was to give the independent riders a chance to match the factory teams. This led to concessions for CRTs like more engines and fuel per season.

Looking ahead

The current contract between Dorna Sports and the manufacturers will terminate in 2021, but they are already preparing a fresh agreement. According to the website GPOne.com, under the new deal, the number of races could go up from 20 to 22.

The possibility of new manufacturers joining the existing ones – Ducati, Aprilia, KTM, Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha – looks bright.

Formula E: the future of racing?

Formula E has come quite some distance since its inception in 2014. If its weak, muffled exhaust notes and indolent speeds are the main grievances against this all-electric racing series, one has to look at the massive improvement Formula E has made with its Gen-2 car. Unlike the earlier generation of Formula E cars, whose batteries didn’t last long (a driver would start a race in one car, and after its battery ran out, he would switch to another car and finish the race), the Gen-2 car comes with better power to complete a race that lasts 45 minutes. Driven by a 250Kw motor, Gen-2 is also capable of hitting tops speeds of 280km per hour. Now that’s the kind of progress any fledgling racing series would be proud of.

Speaking to ESPN, Alejandro Agag, the founder and chairman of the Formula E series, says, “...in year five, we are going to change the system from two cars to one car to do the whole race. This will show how much the technology has improved and how much we have achieved in this short period of time in terms of energy density and in terms of technology development that can then be used in the cars people drive every day.

“I think that is the big success of Formula E, to continue to be a laboratory in terms of the development of technology in order to showcase to the public that electric cars are going longer and are going faster every year.”

You never know, in a few years from now, Formula E could develop cars that could generate over 700 bhp, which is very close to the output of a Formula One car.

With emissions from street cars causing environmental problems in most cities around the world, many governments are planning to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles, and promote electric vehicles that would ensure cleaner air and greener cities. This predisposition to electric vehicles augurs well for Formula E.

The biggest advantage Formula E enjoys is the patronage it receives from the manufacturers. The manufacturer teams involved in the all-electric series are much more than in Formula One. And this is where the game starts to get a bit serious.

All in the family: Eight-time world champion — across three classes — Marc Marquez (right) with his younger brother Alex, a two-time world champion across two classes. Alex will be joining his brother at Respol Honda for the 2020 MotoGP season.   -  AFP

 

The Formula E cars are largely standardised, with room left for the team engineers to work on only the power train, aerodynamics and software. This keeps team spending down, which is a major attraction for the manufacturers. Besides, with street cars set to go electric in the near future, Formula E provides the ideal platform for the manufacturers to develop and showcase their electric power units.

Will Formula One then lose its relevance to Formula E?

Not really. Though the profile of Formula E has risen steadily, it will take a long, long time for the series to reach where F1 is today. With its robust, mean machines driven by a dazzling array of star drivers, F1 will continue to dominate the world of motorsport.

No doubt, Formula E will be the point of reference for the emerging electric vehicle industry, but car makers are in no hurry to junk hybrid engines, which they believe can be developed to drastically reduce their carbon footprint. And one of F1’s principal goals is to achieve “net zero emissions” by 2030.