In the first year under the new regulations, Formula 1 engineers and designers are grappling with a radically different set of constraints. Interestingly, we saw a few very different approaches in the beginning of the season, with teams adopting wholly divergent philosophies in reaction to the new rules.
We’ve put together a brief review of the developments, particularly aerodynamic developments, that the major teams have undergone and offered odds on each team.
Don’t forget to check out our earlier odds on the biggest storylines that will dominate the offseason and next year.
Ferrari came into the 2017 season with a jewel of a car that was capable of both winning races and attracting controversy. After winning the first race (in Australia) Ferrari’s car garnered attention from other teams and FIA regulators, the former of which took exception to some of the more innovative technologies employed, calling them illegal. Of particular concern, an element of Ferrari’s floor structure appeared to flap quite vigorously while loaded, and while defenders of the Maranello factory claimed that it was simply overly fragile, some believed that it qualified as a “movable aerodynamic device” and is as such illegal. Since Baku, they’ve had to strengthen that section of their floor, using a small metal clip as a brace.
They’ve also had to abandon the switching system on the blown axle that was so beneficial. That too attracted the ire of other teams and regulators and Ferrari is now running a fixed blown axle system.
In a positive direction, Ferrari’s updated its front wing dramatically. It now features a more complex curve on the leading edge, one that can better exploit the Y250 vortex that goes on to interact with the floor. Ferrari was struggling to control that vortex, and this wing should remedy those woes.
Altogether, Ferrari has built an agile, versatile car that can compete in a wide range of conditions and consistently perform near its maximum. It can’t put down the pace of the Mercedes, but then again, the Mercedes itself can only do that in very specific conditions.
Odds Kimi Raikkonen wins a race in 2017: 8/11
Odds Sebastian Vettel wins 2017 Drivers’ Championship: 11/9
Occasionally the Mercedes cars feel like a look into Formula 1’s future. Intricate, multi-element designs festoon the W08, and a few of its aerodynamic elements have literally not been seen before on a Formula 1 car. Most of Mercedes’s developments have been incremental rather than revolutionary; it’s hard to get overly excited about the re-positioning of a wing mirror or the addition of a few winglets to the rear crash structure. Some, however, have been entirely novel, particularly the new narrow nose with a “cape” structure.
That cape is designed to wrangle the same Y250 vortex that Ferrari addressed with its new wing, albeit with a much more radical solution. While the Ferrari represents a refinement of the front wing, the Mercedes is more like the invention of a small diffuser for the front. While all teams run some form of element in that space, the cape is wholly different from the slender turning vanes found under the nose of most cars, and is an exciting new development.
A lot of Mercedes’s development efforts, and on-track struggles, stem from the decision to build a car with a wheelbase 10cm longer than their closest competitors. With the wider tires for 2017, there’s more turbulence towards the rear of the car, causing the centre of aerodynamic pressure and the centre of gravity of the car to be misaligned. Extending the wheelbase of the car only extends this difference, leading to a car that (while extremely fast on fast circuits) can be unstable in difficult conditions. Nowhere was this more apparent than at Monaco, where the Mercedes struggled all weekend, and at the Hungaroring, where the team was unable to best Ferrari despite Sebastian Vettel’s car suffering from a steering issue for the bulk of the race.
The Mercedes will continue to be the fastest car on the fastest tracks until at least the end of 2017. The Drivers’ Championship will be decided by Mercedes’s ability to adapt the W08 to the tighter, trickier circuits left on the schedule.
Odds another team introduces a “cape” by the end of the 2017 season: 2/3
Odds Mercedes wins at Singapore in 2017: 3/2
Red Bull has struggled all season to pursue their strategy because the suspension system that was so crucial to its implementation was effectively banned by the preseason suspension clarification. They’ve therefore been on the back foot since late February, and it was only at Spain (with the introduction of new bargeboards) that the team started making up ground.
They tried their best to manage expectations and downplay the significance of the update package they brought to the Hungaroring, but the car’s performance (if not its results) was testament enough. The new sidepods should improve engine cooling and thus performance, and improvements to the floor should dramatically improve the RB13’s performance. The changes have so far impressed the drivers; Max Verstappen thought the package was a step-change and likened it to a “B-Spec” car.
Much is made of the simplicity of the RB13, but it could be the case that the simplicity is the result not of team philosophy but of circumstances: the team is having to come from behind in development and has not yet reached the levels of complexity achieved by Ferrari or Mercedes. As the team settles into the RB13, look for more intricate designs to find their way onto the car.
Odds Max Verstappen wins a race in 2017: 7/3
Odds Red Bull wins a second race in 2017: 1/1
The McLaren-Honda team are struggling, although not primarily with aerodynamic performance. In their case, it’s the power unit, which has proved so unreliable over the last 18 months and led to Fernando Alonso considering retirement. Apparently things have taken a turn for the better. With Honda changing their development approach and (reportedly) seeking input from engine specialists Ilmor, the power unit is reaching competitive levels of performance and reliability. The team’s impressive 6th and 10th-place finishes at the Hungarian Grand Prix should encourage their fans, but the Woking factory is still a long way from their aspirations.
We can’t really aerodynamically evaluate an underpowered car — there are too many changes designers have to make just to compensate for that weakness — but the McLaren-Honda at least looks sound. In particular, some improvements they’ve made to the rear of the floor and the extremities of the diffuser to accommodate the wide tires and high rake of the 2017 car seem interesting. Brighter days are ahead for McLaren-Honda, particularly if they can retain the services of Fernando Alonso through the depths of their slump.
Odds McLaren-Honda wins a dry race in 2017: 12/1
Odds McLaren-Honda scores a podium in 2017: 8/1