The F1 rules get a radical shake-up this year. History tells us that when that happens, one team usually nails the new rules better than anyone else and dominates at least the early part of the season.
But F1 testing so far suggests that the top teams are actually quite close on performance, and the season might not be such a one-sided affair.
1998: The last big rules change
The last time F1 saw a rules change on anything like the scale we have this year was 1998. Grooved tyres replaced slicks, and the cars were made 200mm narrower.
At the last race of 1997 the top three qualifier set identical lap times to within one thousandth of a second of each other. But McLaren turned up at the first race of 1998 and wiped the floor with their rivals:
1998 Australian Grand Prix top five finishers
1. Mika H?â?ñkkinen, McLaren-Mercedes 1:31’45.996
2. David Coulthard, McLaren-Mercedes +0.702
3. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Williams-Mecachrome -1 Lap
4. Eddie Irvine, Ferrari -1 Lap
5. Jacques Villeneuve, Williams-Mecachrome -1 Lap
Will we see this kind of domination at Melbourne in two weeks’ time?
Read more: Biggest change to the F1 rules since?óÔé¼?ª
Testing hints at a close 2009
So far no one team has been consistently at the top of the testing times. There is a growing perception that BMW, Ferrari and Toyota have built the quickest cars, but no one team is vastly quicker than the others.
Red Bull captured headlines when Sebastian Vettel lapped Jerez 1.3s faster than anyone else on the first day of last weeks’ test at Jerez. But it emerged the time was set on a one-lap flier, when everyone else did long runs. The RB5, designed by Adrian Newey (who of course was also behind McLaren’s 1998 MP4-13), has some noticeably different design approaches to its rivals, but hasn’t shown a clear performance advantage at any time other than this one day.
The impression of a fairly close F1 pack in 2009 goes against some initial expectations. Vee8 last year argued KERS would ruin great racing – and he could yet be right – but so far it doesn’t seem to be the case.
The 2009 regulations have given the designers new areas to exploit. But they have also taken a lot away. Huge areas of the cars that used to be covered with downforce-producing or flow-conditioning winglets are now flat. There is less opportunity for designers to get things right or wrong. Purists may lament F1’s slow transformation into a spec series but as car design becomes more constrained car performance must inevitably become closer.
So perhaps 2009 won’t see a single team dominating as many of us expected. We could be in for a close season’s racing.
On the other hand, now I’ve written that, someone’s bound to stick their final aero spec on and go two seconds quicker than everyone else…
More on the F1 rules for 2009
- How the F1 rules changes for 2009 are meant to improve racing (part 1/3)
- How the F1 rules changes for 2009 are meant to improve racing (part 2/3)
- How the F1 rules changes for 2009 are meant to improve racing (part 3/3)
- How new engine rules will affect strategy