I’ve often thought that the look and feel of the modern Formula 1 silhouette plateaued somewhere in the late 1990s.
Yes, they’ve got wider, then slimmer and now wider again. But since 1989, when normally aspirated engines were stipulated in the regulations, they’ve all had airboxes above the roll hoop, they’ve all had a Coke-bottle shape top-down from the sidepods back and they’ve all got two wings at the front and one at the rear. And in fact, since Tyrrell introduced Harvey Postlethwaite and Jean-Claude Migeot’s high-nose concept in 1990 (see below), they’ve all got one of those, too.
I know I’m vastly simplifying today’s complex application of aerodynamic development, particularly around the areas of front wing airflow and how it then relates to bargeboards, winglets, monkey seats and all the various ducts employed to manage air pressure to a competitive advantage.
I also realise that the law of diminishing returns requires gains and improvements to become ever more infinitesimal as understanding of a given science grows increasingly saturated with proven method. But as a basic template, the cars look largely the same, particularly to the layman, as they have for decades.
Big concept change, the kind that tends to lead to futuristic thinking, the likes of which we saw from Renault earlier in the week with its imaginative RS 2027 Vision concept (pic below) during the Shanghai motor show, or those produced by Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes over the past 18 months, have long since become a thing of the past.
I was lucky enough to grow up through a period of rapid evolution in the sport. I was born when wings were still a relatively new concept. So I followed the downforce era, with its elongated sidepods, skirts and fan cars, as the technology was mastered. Then came the turbo era, with 1500bhp qualifying monsters wielded by globally recognised gladiators on super-sticky qualifying tyres and Bernie Ecclestone growing F1 into a world-leading sport. After that came the aerodynamic era, with its huge expense, minimal gains and precision performance, as F1 shifted into digital development and industrialised factories with wind tunnels as standard.
But somewhere along the line, high-concept thinking became stunted.
F1, for all the competing manufacturers’ boasts of complex technical advancements through hybrid, tyre and aerodynamic development, is also ever more conscious of its place in the world. Pioneering, to an extent, has been replaced by protectionism, with a need to fit in not only with the values of its perception of its audience, whether that be through ecological concern or political, but also with an obsession to artificially curate the perfect entertainment package through devices such as the drag reduction system, introduced as an attempt to stimulate a synthetic form of overtaking.
There are some very good reasons for all of this.
The world has become saturated with different ways to occupy a consumer’s time, so F1 has competed by ‘improving the show’, experimenting with ways to close off the opportunities clever engineers seek in order to steal a march on rivals, thereby avoiding dull racing (how’s that one worked out over the past three years?). Experiments, by their nature, go wrong more often than not, and there is a case to be made that F1 is no more or less exciting than it ever had been to the true fan.
Another reason is the vast amount of money it costs the paddock to go racing each season (more than £750 million, at a rough estimate). There is an argument frequently made that if you free up development, so you open the doors to a spending war, potentially killing off a number of teams. But back in the days when he was a team chief, F1’s now sporting boss, Ross Brawn, used to say that if teams have access to money and you limit what they spend it on, they’ll just find other ways to spend it. In other words, the chances are they are going to spend it anyway.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, and the big teams, through their exciting concept designs, appear to think so, too.
When IndyCar, currently enjoying the spotlight as Fernando Alonso embarks on a path trodden by greats such as Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya before him as he attempts to become a grand prix and Indianapolis 500 winner, considered a new chassis concept at the turn of the decade, one to replace its ageing Dallara chassis, it seriously considered Ben Bowlby’s Delta-Wing concept (above).
There’s a part of me that really wished it had opted for that. Here was a car with its narrow front track and spaceship looks that could truly change public perception of what a racing car looked like. Here was a car that captured that childhood wonder that comes with seeing something out of this world and mould-breaking. It could have defined the series with an individual USP that instead has been fighting, unfairly through circumstance, dwindling consumer interest.
So perhaps Formula 1 should spend more time focusing on why those of us who love it, regardless of its faults, fell for it in the first place and try to recapture that wonder moment.
F1 cars are supposed to be fast, and thankfully they are again, but they are also supposed to look and feel like the very edge of technological understanding when perceived by those experiencing it for the first time. I don’t think I’m the only one who thought that when this year’s batch was unveiled to the public, they looked disappointingly, unsurprisingly, similar to that which had gone before.