Have the new regs worked and how have the teams fought back? 17 Mar 2005
In Formula One racing, where a thousandth of a second can be the margin between success and failure, everything is ultimately quantified by the stopwatch. By this measure the regulation changes made since last season to reduce speeds have already proved themselves a success. In last year's Australian Grand Prix the quickest lap was set by Michael Schumacher with a time of 1m 24.125s. In this year's race Fernando Alonso claimed the fastest lap, with a time of 1m 25.683s, more than 1.5 seconds slower.
By Formula One racing standards, that is a big difference - although not nearly as much as some pundits were predicting we would see. What is not in doubt is that all the teams are working flat-out to re-establish their competitive advantage and to claw back that time difference. If by the end of the season, fastest lap times are not a lot closer to those being set last season, it will be a major surprise.
As always, the teams have quickly adapted to the changes made in the technical regulations. The most visually obvious of these are those relating to aerodynamics, with 2005 cars having to have a higher nose cone and front-wing section plus a new rear diffuser profile and a relocated and far less aggressive rear wing element. Early estimates were that these changes would reduce aerodynamic downforce by anything up to 25 percent, although the pace in Australia suggests the change has been far less than that.
Aero designers have been quick to adapt to the new rules through the adoption of new winglets in positions allowed by the new rules (the McLaren's devil's horns seen in Melbourne a fine example), through detailed tuning of the front wings with careful management of the chord profile, and through the use of more elaborate endplates and vortex generator flaps and channels. These are intended to make the best possible use of the available airflow, making sure that it is directed into the most useful areas as it passes down the body of the car. The most interesting test of the aerodynamicists' skills will come later in the season at lower speed, high-downforce circuits, where the potential aero loss under the new regulations is greater.
We've yet to see the full effect of the changed engine regulations of course - only after this weekend will we know how many teams really have designed powerplants that are capable (as the regulations dictate) of surviving two successive race weekends. But from the performance in Australia it is already clear that the pessimistic projections that cars would be dramatically slowed by de-tuned engines were very wide of the mark.
Engine manufacturers guard their secrets very carefully, but it is believed that changes for most teams have involved a reduction rev limits (the primary wear factor of racing engines) and also a reinforcement of parts of the engine to ensure the sort of longevity required for the 1000 miles (1600 kilometres) or so needed for two race weekends' running. It will be interesting to see if a significant number of cars are affected by engine failure in Malaysia, as this would clearly indicate that manufacturer's have under-estimated the stresses involved.
And, of course, the FIA's recent clarification of the no-replacement rule (following BAR's decision to withdraw both cars in the closing stages of the Australian race) means that mechanical reliability could well become one of the key factors in deciding the championship this year.