Will F1 cars in 2021 look as good as the concept drawings?

Ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix, Formula One went public with its vision for the future. We’d known for some time that the sport was taregting a complete overhaul for 2021, but it wasn’t until a presentation by F1’s head of motorsport Ross Brawn that it was possible to visualise it.

With the help of a graphic designer, F1’s technical department offered a glimpse of the future with a series of sketches of a developing design idea. Brawn explained that the primary purpose of the new car would be to encourage wheel-to-wheel racing, but that it was also being developed with aesthetics in mind.

“I see no reason why we can’t have exciting looking cars,” he said. “It frustrates me when a car in a video game looks better than a car racing out on the track.

“That’s not to say we play total homage to what would look great in a video game, it has to be a great racing car, but there’s no doubt that it needs to excite fans.”

However, it did not escape anyone’s notice that Formula One will not have full control over the final designs of the cars. With the help of the FIA, a set of regulations is due to be presented to the teams at the end of 2019 but from that point onwards aesthetics will take a back seat and the full focus of the designs will be on performance.

“It’ll look like nothing what’s been painted,” Force India technical director Andy Green said when asked for his opinion of the concept car. “They’re just concepts, they’re drawings — I have no idea if that’s what they will end up looking like.

“I’m not that fussed with how they look, it’s how they perform that I’m interested in. They’re just artistic impressions of what the car might look like.

“To me, the car at the front of the grid is normally the best looking car.”

You only have to go back to 2014 to see the potential for unintended consequences when it comes to writing regulations. Back then, a new rule was introduced to mandate lower noses for safety reasons but it resulted in a variety of bizarre appendages on the front of cars.

Essentially, the FIA’s technical regulations sets out dimensions that the teams can work within, but the sort of details that make the 2021 concept cars look so attractive — or the sorts of details that could potentially ruin that look — are hard to police. Williams chief technical officer Paddy Lowe explained that the problem stems from the way the rules are written.

“I think aesthetics are an important element and they do need to try and guide it in some way,” Lowe said. “But unless they have thought of something to get round it, ultimately you have to define some boxes in which we are allowed to put bodywork and then we will put the best possible bodywork we can invent into those boxes.

“So it will be difficult to make the cars look exactly like they have been drawn for that reason. But I don’t suppose we want the cars to look identical anyway. We’ll see how it turns out.”

In order to iron out some of the more glaring errors in the regulations, Formula One is working with the teams to test concepts and ideas. The main focus at the moment is simulating how the aerodynamics of one car will affect those of the one following behind, but as the rules are defined they will also look to the teams to point out obvious loopholes or irregularities.

“All 10 teams are working towards finding the best solution they can for 2021, and so there are regular reviews with all of the teams.” Brawn explained. “The teams have a limitation on the amount of aerodynamic testing they’re allowed to do, but the FIA have granted them some extra time to work specifically on this project.

“So there’s a great incentive for every team to put in the effort to find the best solution they can. I’m pleased to say that the solutions are pretty aligned. What they’re finding from the models we’re sharing is pretty similar to what we’re finding as well, which is encouraging.”

Renault’s new technical boss Marcin Budkowski knows what it’s like from both sides of the regulatory fence. In his previous job he headed up the FIA’s technical department and would often be responsible for writing regulations to prevent teams going to extremes.

“It’s difficult having been on the side that was writing regulations, I know it’s a difficult thing to do in a tight way,” he said. “It’s not really my problem anymore, but we [the teams] are contributing to those regulations and we want them to be as tight as possible and that’s why we are contributing.

“At some point they are going to be published and then it’s a game of who makes the best season of them. At the moment our intention is to make the best regulations for the sport. That’s the advantage when you start things early enough, you can approach them with slightly less self-interest and a bit more vision for the sport.

“When you get closer to the line everybody starts looking at each other and thinking should I say this or not. But we are still at a very collaborative phase and very open phase. How long is it going to last? At some point next year people are going to start to try to get a head start.”

In 2009 a new set of regulations saw a number of teams, including Brawn GP, take advantage of a loophole around the rear of the car to develop what became known as the double diffuser. Although it was clearly against the intention of the regulations, and offered a game-changing boost in performance, politics in the sport at the time meant the double diffuser was not immediately outlawed. But Lowe believes there is always a risk involved if a team tries to gain an advanatge by not flagging a loophole before the regulations are finalised.

“What you don’t want to do is design something and depend on it for performance and then find the next March that you are told to stop doing it. That would mean there is a massive risk that you lose a winter’s worth of development, so people generally want to stay within a certain set of boundaries.”

He is also hoepful that F1’s new technical department will be able to react to any parts of the regulations that result in unintended consequences.

“I think it’s good news that Formula One has got a permanent staff dealing with that subject. I think that will improve the ability to track what’s happening and close down on unwanted side-effects much more quickly should they occur.”

Brawn admits the rules might not be perfect for the first season of competition in 2021, but is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

“I’m not going to pretend from day one that we will have the perfect solution, certainly from the aesthetics, because try as hard as we can we cannot anticipate every move the teams will make,” he said. “We may well find that, rather like the double diffuser, which was never considered when the rules were made, that there could be some unintended consequences — so we are going to do our best to arrive at a set of regulations that are as unambiguous as possible.

“But there is no guarantee and I think the key thing is to be able to respond quickly when we see things that happen that are unintended. We are quite encouraged with the cooperation with the teams at the moment but that will change of course at some point in the future when they move into a competitive mode rather than a cooperative mode.”