Flat-out, wheel-to-wheel racing from lights to flag -- that's what most Formula One fans agree this sport should be all about. But anybody who has followed F1 for any length of time knows that is not always the case and, if anything, the racing has got worse since the last reglation change in 2017. Overheating tyres, fuel saving, power unit management and complex aerodynamics have all combined to take the edge off the flat-out formula fans desire. That's not to say good racing isn't possible, 2018 had a handful of classic grands prix, it's just that it is happening against the odds.
But none of this is a secret in Formula One. It is a problem the sport has long been aware of and one that it has now started to put serious resource behind solving. No doubt you will have heard about the changes for 2021 -- when F1 is looking to rip up its rulebook to create a grid of better looking, faster, more raceable cars -- but there are still two full seasons until then and a danger that the problems faced in recent years will only get worse. As a result, a series of targeted tweaks to the regulations were included in the 2019 technical regulations to improve racing. Below is a list of what to look out for as well as what to expect from grand prix racing in this year.
The most consistent complaint from Formula One drivers in recent years is how difficult it is to follow another car at speed. Once one car gets caught in the turbulent wake of another it experiences a loss of downforce, which typically makes the tyres work harder, overheat and contribute to the overall loss of grip. The downward spiral in performance for the following car not only means it will struggle to overtake, but can also result in damage to the tyres that has the potential to destroy a carefully planned race strategy. As a result, drivers often have to curb their aggression for the best overall result and, at times, that will mean backing off to remain a safe two or three seconds behind the car in front.
"One of the keys of car aerodynamics at the moment in F1 is controlling the front wheel wake, the way it interacts with the rest of the car," current Renault -- and former FIA -- technical boss Marcin Budkowski explains. "That's done with complex flow structure management through the front wing, the brake ducts, the bargeboards and the front of the sidepods in general. That's very complex and sensitive to small changes and as a result when you follow another car, you lose control of this and you lose a lot of aerodynamic downforce and stability."
With the problem identified, the FIA has targeted the front wing, brake ducts, bargeboards and rear wing as the key areas for change.
The most visible change to the cars next year will be the front wing. On a 2018 car, the front wing serves two main purposes: 1. To generate downforce at the front of the car and 2. To condition the airflow for the rest of the car. A look at a front wing from one of last year's cars shows the amount of detailing dedicated to the second objective, with a series of flicks and fins aimed at creating flow structures down the sides of the car to help control the turbulence created by the front wheel wake and push it out sideways. That's all well and good for the driver in front who benefits from well-managed, smooth flow of air to the rear of his car, but the following driver encounters that turbulent air behind.
In order to minimise the turbulence created by the front wing and limit its importance as a conditioner for the flow of air to the rest of the car, this year the front wings have been stripped of their vortex-generating fins and made wider so that the endplates sit flush with the width of the front tyres. By regulation, more front wing will be devoted to generating downforce at the front of the car, which in turn should help it when it hits turbulent air.
But, as Budkowski points out, the front wing was working along with brake duct designs and bargeboards to create those all-important flow structures and enhance the performance of the car's underfloor aerodynamics. All of those elements were designed with a clean flow of air in mind to make the car as fast as possible and, therefore, turbulent air also impacted on aero performance at the rear. In order to make the cars less reliant on a clean flow of air, the 2019 regulations also simplify brake duct design while moving the bargeboards forward and making them smaller -- reducing their potential to condition the air flow to the floor and sides of the car.
The dimensions of the rear wing have also been tweaked to limit the effect its wake has on the car behind. While the rest of the changes towards the front of the car are designed to make the car's wake narrower, the higher and wider rear wing is designed to direct the wake from the rear of the car up and over the following car. Combined with a more powerful DRS [drag reduction system], which will see the rear wing open 20mm wider on the following car in overtaking situations, there is reason to be optimistic.
Will it improve racing?
Not everyone is convinced. Renault was among the teams that voted against the changes last year and Budkowski remains sceptical.
"The regulations as they are written now are much more restrictive in what you can do to control all of those flow structures because the front wings are simple, the brake ducts are simple etc," he adds. "So as a result your car works less well in free air and the difference between the way it works between a free-air situation and a following situation is smaller just because you screw it up a bit in free air rather than trying to improve it in cornering.
"On the paper it's the right direction and some of the work that's happening for 2021 is along a similar lines. Whether we think that it's going to be big enough to make a significant change? Let's put it like this: yes, that difference [between the following car and the lead car] is going to be smaller in terms of aerodynamic performance, but whether that is actually going to translate onto the track into easier overtaking and easier following, in our opinion, it's going to be fairly small.
"But if that's not the case and suddenly we have lots of close following and overtaking then great, we will be happy about that. But in the data I see at the moment, I don't see a massive difference."
The FIA has been realistic about what is possible from the 2019 regulation tweaks, but remains resolute that they are entirely necessary to prevent the issues mentioned above getting worse.
"What I would say is that there is a general trend for teams to develop more downforce, which would exacerbate the problem," FIA's single-seater head Nikolas Tombazis said last year. "If we had not intervened, we feel that 2019 would be worse than '18, and '20 would be worse than '19. We now believe that 2019 will be better than '18, but no one is expecting F1 cars to be fighting like touring cars."
Who will benefit most?
All regulation changes present an opportunity for a reshuffle in the competitive order, but such a big division exists between Formula One's top three teams and the midfield that it seems unlikely a major upset will take place. However, with all teams being forced to redesign their aero philosophies from the front wing rearwards, there is a chance that the initial loss in performance will have a bigger impact on the teams at the front, because they had a more refined package under the last regulations.
"My personal opinion on this is that the bigger teams would have lost more performance because by definition they had a quicker car and a more optimised car," Budkowski says. "Everything was more in tune and more optimised.
"So they will have made a bigger step back but they are also better equipped to recover because they are bigger structures with more resources and also because of the understanding that they had to allow them to get to that previous level. They still have it so they can use it to try to improve the performance.
"So it's difficult to say who's made the bigger step back and who has made the bigger step forward. My feeling is that it will probably have closed a little bit the gap between the top teams and the midfield because the regulations are more restrictive than they were before because there's less available performance.
"Whether it will do it straight away or not, that's difficult to say and whether some people will have done a better job than others, that could influence the pecking order as well."
Will we see flat-out racing?
During races, team radio channels are often flooded with information about tyre wear and fuel usage. Both are seen as barriers for drivers going flat-out during a race and both have been partially addressed ahead of the 2019 season.
In reality, fuel and tyres will always be a consideration in motor racing and the concept of flat-out racing is somewhat misguided and unattainable. If there is an advantage to underfuelling a car at the start of the race to make it lighter, engineers will factor in fuel saving later in the race to compensate. Equally, tyres are consumable by their very nature and controlling that consumption is a skill in any form of racing.
But in 2019 the regulations have been framed to reduce the extremes of fuel saving and tyre saving we occasionally saw in 2018. First off, the maximum amount of fuel allowed over the race has been increased from 105kg to 110kg. That should mean that there is no longer any need for drivers to lift and coast at circuits where cars are routinely limited by fuel consumption, such as the two season-openers in Melbourne and Bahrain. However, there is no requirement for teams to increase the size of their fuel tank, something that will require some pretty serious repackaging around the middle of the car, and it remains to be seen if all cars will feature a larger fuel cell.
"There were a number of races, even last year, where people were not taking 105 kilos and they were taking even less because of the disadvantage of carrying more fuel and making the car slower," Budkowski says. "So it's always a compromise between the quantity of fuel you start with, because you can push harder in the race but it will slow you down in terms of weight. But there was a number of races where even at 105 kilos, fuelling completely the tank, wouldn't allow you to race properly and the amount of fuel saving that teams had to do during the race was very significant.
"Couple this with some tyre saving and obviously there was a number of races where the drivers were really managing the pace rather than pushing the car. The steps that have been taken in terms of increasing the fuel capacity should allow, at these specific races, the drivers to push as hard as they want to push.
"At the end of the day what makes the disadvantage [of the 110 kilo tank] is that you carry a bigger fuel cell, which is a bit heavier and your chassis is a bit longer, so that can be a decision for the people who make these choices. What I can say is that for a number of races it will be useful to have 110."
Embracing one-stop races
In 2018 Pirelli set out to invoke more pit stops in races by opting for increasingly aggressive (soft) tyre compound choices. The theory was that making the tyres more prone to degradation would induce more pit stops, but more often than not a one-stop race was still possible if the driver managed their tyres in the first stint. Anybody that bucked the trend and tried to do a faster two stop to emerge ahead by the end of the race would run the risk of getting stuck in traffic with the potential to lose time. As a result, races became increasingly predictable and relatively slow-paced, with a few well-timed push laps around pit stops to try to gain or keep a position. In 2019, Pirelli wants to take a different approach by embracing the one-stop race and allowing drivers to push.
"We saw in 2018 most of the races were a one stop," Pirelli's head of racing Mario Isola explained. "The only result is that we went softer and softer and teams were managing the pace more and more. So is it good that we continue with this approach or should we just accept that we have one-stop races but maybe we go one step harder and teams can push, and drivers can push? If you ask me my personal opinion, this is the better direction to go in.
"We accept that we have one-stop races but at least we give the opportunity to drivers to push. In 2019 we will have a new aero package. It's not clear if it is making a big difference or not -- if you speak to the teams somebody is saying that it is a difference, somebody is saying in a couple of races it'll be the same, they're the experts -- so we're just collecting the feedback. They will have more fuel, 5kg, that means they can manage a little bit less the fuel.
"We know that in some races they had to manage the fuel as it was not enough to finish the race. So we have to consider all the package, with more fuel they can push more and at this point it's probably better to give them more consistent tyres and they push and fight on track instead of overcut, undercut and trying to make tricks during the pit stop. The pit stop is part of the race but I think that in this sport everybody likes overtaking on track rather than when the car is in the pit lane."
The most obvious physical change to the tyres in 2019 is the new naming and colouring system, but technically there are some changes too. Part of the reason why drivers were unable to push in 2018 was blistering on the rubber. The problem was clear as early as pre-season testing and Pirelli took the unusual step of making the tread of the tyre thinner at the Spanish, French and British Grands Prix to combat it. All three races were due to take place on re-laid tracks and the smoother surface simply didn't result in as much physical wear as before. With more rubber remaining on the tyre, it retained more heat, resulting in the rubber blistering on the softer compounds. In 2019 all tyres will be made with the thinner gauge rubber to try to combat blistering at all venues, allowing drivers to push harder.
"If I compare just the reduction in tread thickness, that is one of the new characteristics we decided to implement in the new tyres," Isola added. "This reduction was reducing the blister massively in Barcelona, in Paul Ricard and in Silverstone and in Barcelona we had a clear comparison made by all the teams as they had the in-season test the week after.
"In Silverstone we were there for our tyre development test, we compared the normal version with the reduced one and it was clear that the normal one was going to blister a lot and the reduced one was a lot better."