Thoughts on the 2015 Formula 1 Season

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The technical regulation changes for the coming season are very minimal.

The weight limit has gone up to 701kg (from 691kg) which should mean that the taller drivers (like Nico Hülkenberg) are no longer at so much of a disadvantage, as all cars should now be carrying sufficient ballast to allow for taller drivers.  The centre of gravity will still be higher in the car with a heavier driver, but at least the overall weight will now be the same as their competitors.  This doesn’t however seem to have had any effect on driver selection for the coming season.  Hülkenberg is still without a top line drive, despite his apparent talent.  This may be due to the loss of both Caterham and Marussia, and the loss of available seats for other drivers to move into.  I suppose at least staying with Force India, he is likely to have a competitive Mercedes Power Unit.

Then there is the strange addition to the regulation covering brake discs:

11.3.1 No more than one brake disc is permitted on each wheel which must have the same rotational velocity as the wheel it is connected to.

The underlined part is the new text for this season.  I am not quite sure on who was planning to do what with the brake discs that would mean they rotated at a different speed from the wheel, but it has now been prevented by the regulations.  No doubt this is the result of a speculative enquiry from one team about what they either planned to do themselves, or suspected others of doing, and it has now been specifically excluded.  We will probably never know what caused it, but features like this are why the technical regulations are now 88 pages long, while for the 1934 season the regulation was simply that the car (minus driver, fuel, oil and tyres) should be less than 750kg.

There is a change to the material to be used for the skid blocks that are permitted to prevent the plank under the car from wearing excessively.  For 2015 these must be made of titanium alloy.  While this will see a return to the sparks that were prominent in the 1980s, the reason for the change is safety.  The heavy, hardwearing material that has been used up until now has not only allowed the cars to run closer to the ground, but on the occasion that one of the skid blocks has become dislodged, it has caused punctures to the following cars.  Vettel’s puncture during FP2 at Spa in 2013 is a case in point.

There is also a change to the regulation covering the material that the fuel tank must be constructed from.  This just clarifies where the list of approved materials can be found, and reinforces the fact that the specification quoted is an FIA standard.  This should have no effect on any of the cars competing, but may assist new teams (e.g. Haas) in understanding the regulations.

The most significant change to the regulations covers the bodywork in front of the ‘A-A’ bulkhead.  This effectively removes the option for teams to have the ‘finger’ noses that most teams employed during 2014.  It also removes the option of the Lotus solution, as the bodywork must be symmetrical about the centreline.  So apart from making the cars look better (hopefully), what difference will this make?  Well as the reason teams went for their unattractive 2014 designs was to minimise the blockage of the air from passing under the nose, this clean  airflow being important for generating downforce over the rest of the car.  With the regulations now forcing a greater blockage in the airflow passing between the front wheels, it is likely that the whole of the rest of the car will need to be changed to take account of the relatively minor change at the front end.  This may change the competitive order among the teams, in particular for Red Bull as Adrian Newey has taken a step back to concentrate on America’s Cup Yachts, so he will most likely be spending less time developing the 2015 car.  In addition they have also lost Peter Prodromou to McLaren and he should be able to help the Woking team to move forward aerodynamically even if the Power Unit is still in doubt with their switch to Honda.  With Prodromou only arriving in September, there is a doubt over how much influence he will have been able to have over the cars final aerodynamics as some key decisions may have been taken prior to his arrival.  Mercedes and Ferrari should have fewer changes imposed by the regulations, as their nose designs from 2014 are far closer to meeting the 2015 regulations than the other teams.  However, while Mercedes may be quite happy to develop their 2014 design, the lack of performance of the Ferrari in 2014 may prompt a bigger redesign.

There is one regulation change affecting the Power Unit:

5.6.6 The power unit must achieve the torque demanded by the FIA standard software.

5.6.7 Homologated sensors must be fitted which measure the torque generated at the power unit output shaft and the torques supplied to each driveshaft. These signals must be provided to the ECU.

Whether this indicates that some teams were suspected of using some form of traction control, or the FIA is just reducing the teams options for trying to simulate traction control, I don’t know.  The main area for development is however in the permitted changes to the Power Unit.  The Power Unit is divided into a series of items listed in Appendix 4 to the Technical Regulations:

Appendix 4-1

Appendix 4-2

Each item is weighted between 1 and 3 and each off season a number of the items can be modified.  The total of all the weighted items is 66, and currently only three items are completely frozen:

Upper/lower crankcase – Cylinder bore spacing, deck height, bank stagger.

Crankshaft – Crank throw, main bearing journal diameter, rod bearing journal diameter.

Air valve system – Including compressor, air pressure regulation devices.

These have a total weight of 5, so the weight of the modifiable items is 61 (or 92% of the PU that can be changed over the winter).  However in order to control costs, manufacturers are limited to the changes they can make, so the weight of the items that they can change is 32 (or 48% of the PU).  As can be seen from the list in Appendix 4, these PU are not frozen, however the rate of development is controlled.  The three items that are frozen do not appear to me to be significant in determining the absolute performance of the PU, so it should be possible for any manufacturer to catch and pass Mercedes.  If Ferrari or Renault believe that they have got their design fundamentally wrong, then it may take several years to change all the parts they need.  During pre-season testing however, they could run several different design PU to test which is the best when actually fitted to the car.  The PU’s used during pre-season testing do not need to be homologated.  Unfortunately this is where Ferrari, Renault and particularly Honda are at a major disadvantage.  Whereas Mercedes supply four teams, and could potentially have four different specification PU running at each of the pre-seasons tests to determine which solution is best for the coming season, Ferrari and Renault have limited themselves to two teams each and Honda a single car in pre-season testing.  It is this, rather than the ban on in-season development of the PU that I believe will hamper the others in catching Mercedes.  Both Ferrari and Renault lost a team when Marussia and Caterham went out of business.  Both Power Unit Manufacturers could have stepped in to offer financial help to these struggling teams in order to speed up their PU development, but chose to ask for other ways to spend their money instead.  Honda of course are starting from a clean sheet of paper, so are free to change anything prior to the first race of the 2015 season, so they could really have benefited from a second team running development PU in pre-season testing.  The recently announced freedom for manufacturers to continue to develop their Power Units through the season (subject to them not exceeding the permitted change levels in Appendix 4) should not really have a big impact.  There will be a significant advantage for those that can get their modifications in place before the season starts, as they will be able to use the extra power or efficiency for the entire season.  With only four Power Units allowed (or five if Korea happens), deliberately holding back development will handicap the driver for at least a quarter of the season (five races).

What is noticeable by its absence from the list of PU components is the software used to control the Energy Recovery System.  Modifications to this are therefore allowed in season, and it will be this development where the majority of the gains will have been made during the year.  This could be either to increase the absolute top power produced by the PU, or more likely the efficiency of the PU, so increasing the possibility of the driver being able to drive flat out for the entire race.  Of course they may choose to start with a lighter fuel load instead, as this would take less out of the brakes and tyres at the beginning of the race and leave them in a potentially better situation to challenge strongly at the end of the race when all are on a much closer fuel load.  Whether all teams using a particular PU use the same software, or if they can develop their own is not clear from the regulations.

It is the supply of the ERS that Mercedes were prepared to offer as a compromise to the other manufacturers to try and contain costs by not having unlimited in season development. This makes me think that Mercedes believe that their advantage is not limited to the ERS, but that they think they have an advantage elsewhere.

Next winter, manufacturers can change a further 38% of the PU (a weight of 25), but further items with a weight of 10 will be frozen.  So manufacturers need to be sure that they will not need to change these components in the future:

Upper/lower crankcase – All dimensions including Cylinder bore position relative to legality volume, water core.

Valve drive – Camshafts – From camshaft lobe to gear train. Geometry except lift profile. Includes damping systems linked to camshaft. Exhaust and Inlet.

Valve drive – Gear train down to crankshaft gear included. Position and Geometry. Includes dampers.

Covers – Covers closing the areas in contact with engine oil Cam covers, Cam-timing covers…

Ancillaries drive – From ancillary to power source. Includes position of the ancillaries as far as drive is concerned.

So, in 2015 we can look forward to hopefully more attractive cars, perhaps closer racing as the PU manufacturers make some progress towards catching Mercedes, and perhaps a shakeup in the team order due to changes in the aero design of the cars.

With only nine teams competing this season, all are guaranteed to be in the top ten should they finish the season, so there may not be the competitive pressure for teams struggling at the back of the grid to develop.  We may unfortunately see those teams at the back fall steadily further behind towards the 107% limit, as they reduce costs in order to stay solvent.  While this is bad news for the team(s) concerned, it may prove encouraging for Haas, as they may be able to beat an established team or two on their entry to the series in 2016.

What changes do you see as significant for the new season?

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