It was the aftermath of the 2021 Styrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg. Max Verstappen had finished in P1, 35.7 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton in 2nd place. And while the Orange army was elated that things were going their way, the more neutral fans of the sport were slightly disillusioned. Had we just traded one team’s dominance for another?
The rear downforce regulations a misguided attempt at bringing the field closer? It was hard not to feel that way, especially since Red Bull hit five consecutive race wins at the end of the next race. However, the sentiment had changed by the end of the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Red Bull was banking on the new Mercedes ICEs to shed some power in the final three races after one of the most dominant Grand Prix performances by a Formula One driver, given the context of that weekend. So will there be such a change in tide this season?
The daunting engine freeze
While many teams made it seem like last season was the only time to make concessions on in-season development to be competitive in the new regulations era, the reality is quite different. Teams are still being cautious with their in-season development in 2022.
This is because they are subject to budget caps at a time when an engine development freeze is being instituted until the end of 2025. But what makes these circumstances even trickier to navigate is that the engine freeze will be implemented in phases.
As of 1st March 2022, teams can no longer upgrade the ICEs, MGU-Hs, turbos, exhaust systems, fuel and engine oil specifications. Furthermore, after 1st September 2022, they will also no longer be able to upgrade the MGU-Ks, energy stores and control electronics. Teams must submit their final designs for the one permitted specification change to be made.
This means that every team that has plans of developing different aspects of their car throughout the season will have to continuously assess the gains made by their opponents before committing all their tokens to an area of the car that might not pay off significantly.
There’s also the issue of gathering data throughout the season. Some circuits are power-hungry, while others are downforce-hungry. In addition, some circuits are very hot, while others are at high altitudes. As a result, it is hard to fully know just how much strain each Grand Prix will put on the power unit (PU) until you cross the checkered flag or retire the car.
And seeing as the calendar is a little more shuffled in terms of venues, dates and formats this time, it might take longer to completely analyze engine performance vs. reliability data.
So basically, teams that hope to turn up their engines to the max in the closing stage of the season may not have all the answers they need just in time to execute that strategy successfully. Additionally, the introduction of E10 fuel will only bring more headaches.
This cuts performance by roughly 20hp and has implications on cooling and the channeling of fuel into the engine as the fuel load reduces during a race. Some teams have already blinked, as a recent report indicates that Ferrari unlocked an extra 5hp for the Australian Grand Prix.
Aerodynamics and other setup concepts
While aero is a tough one to get right, it’s one of the areas we see teams tinker with as the season progresses. Tiny changes in the shapes, edges and angles of front wings, floors, sidepods and the now-defunct bargeboards were quite fun to follow in earlier seasons.
While a specific team’s aero philosophy emerges as the superior one in each era and others try to replicate it, those predicting the same for this season might be wrong. The Ferrari looks quite different from the rest, but the rest are also noticeably different from each other.
And before we cover an assortment of circuits that form a representative sample of the aero demands, we might not see evident gravitation by teams toward one aero philosophy.
This “let each team do their own thing” attitude has already manifested in moves such as Alfa Romeo’s decision to build its own gearbox and rear suspension instead of using Ferrari’s. Aston Martin’s Lawrence Stroll isn’t going through the trouble of setting up a 400,000 square feet factory and wind tunnel campus just to manage another pink Mercedes shopping move.
This season is yet to become the kind where we say, “whoever wins in the first season of new regulations will dominate the entire era.” Massive credit to Ross Brawn and the entire team behind these new regulations and the sprint races, they are living up to the hype so far.
Aijuka Duncan Ngabirano is a motorsport junkie with a passion for storytelling through various media, and hodling crypto.