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The 2009 Season Preview: Part One - All Change Please 20 Mar 2009

Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F60. Formula One Testing, Day Three, Barcelona, Spain, 11 March 2009. KERS Isolation sticker on the car of Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) McLaren MP4/23 Formula One Testing, Jerez, Spain, Wednesday 10 December 2008  
  
Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Force India VJM02. Formula One Testing, Day Four, Barcelona, Spain, 12 March 2009.  
  
Renault R29 rear wing detail Formula One Testing, Jerez, Spain, Day Two, 10 February 2009. A model of the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on display at the Chinese Grand Prix.
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Chinese Grand Prix, Practice Day, Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China, Friday, 17 October 2008

Few Formula One seasons have been quite so keenly anticipated as this one. Major changes to the regulations, aimed at enhancing the show by promoting more overtaking opportunities while at the same time reducing costs, have given everyone a dramatic new set of challenges.

The most significant changes relate to aerodynamics, with smaller rear wings and wider front wings which, for the first time since 1969, may be adjusted by the driver, twice per lap. This is a direct result of intensive research done last year by Formula One’s Overtaking Working Group’s into ways of generating passing opportunities.

Hand-in-glove with that goes KERS, the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems which can give drivers up to an additional 85 horsepower for 6.6 seconds a lap, available via a steering-wheel mounted ‘boost button’ - a sort of environmentally friendly ‘push-to-pass’ aid, if you like.

Then there is the much-welcomed return to slick tyres, a ban on testing once the season has started, and the requirement that engines have to cover twice the mileage that they were allowed in 2008.

Engineers have thus had to adjust to fundamental changes in four key areas at once.

So profound are the aerodynamic changes that everyone has had to start again, almost from scratch, and there have been some highly innovative interpretations of the rules in areas such as diffuser design, in the case of Toyota and Williams, and in suspension layout, as in the case of the Red Bull RB5 which sees a Formula One car revert to rear pullrods for the first time in more than a decade. Variety is clearly still a spice of F1 life as everyone explores fresh avenues of design.

KERS represents largely uncharted territory, while giving F1 a crucial green edge to its activities. The sport will once again become the invaluable crucible in which such technology is developed at a far faster and more innovative rate than could ever be the case in the road car world, and will thus be hugely beneficial in shaping the next generation of economical passenger cars.

While it offers a calculable performance advantage, KERS also presents significant problems with packaging, especially as the units so clearly affect a car’s crucial weight distribution. Then there is the issue of deploying KERS, which has an effect on a car’s handling and balance at critical times during each lap.

Formula One cars have a minimum weight of 605 kg, including the driver. Teams can easily build cars lighter than that these days, and the difference between the actual weight and that minimum is made up with ballast. This, naturally, is positioned at various points on the car to achieve the optimum effect. Traditionally, this has put heavier drivers at a disadvantage, as they have less ballast with which to balance out the car. With KERS the problem is exacerbated by the weight of the system, and the fact that it has to be mounted towards the rear of the car, thus complicating weight distribution.

It is far from a clear-cut issue whether KERS will be advantageous everywhere, and several teams are deferring the introduction of their systems until they feel they have their basic 2009 packages sufficiently sorted. The most aggressive, however, such as BMW Sauber, may well use it from the outset.

“This has been a huge challenge, one which we have taken on with great drive and determination,” admits their team principal Dr Mario Theissen, arguably KERS’ greatest proponent after FIA president Max Mosley who introduced the idea. “When I look back at how far we have come in such a short space of time, it really is very impressive. Here, Formula One has taken on the role of technology accelerator for series production cars of the future."

While purists will applaud the return of slick tyres, they also present some significant challenges as far as balancing the cars are concerned. Getting rid of the grooves that have been a feature since 1997 has increased the area of the narrower front tyre by a greater percentage than the wider rear and that has had the effect of reducing understeer and increasing oversteer. Making Bridgestone’s control tyres last over long race stints will be a key factor in winning.

Small wonder that Ferrari’s chief track engineer Luca Baldiserri was moved to comment: “We’ve never seen such a revolution in F1…” Nobody disagrees.

Thus the scene is set for another gripping season in which so much will remain unpredictable until the first few races have been run. And which will welcome yet another exciting new venue when the finale is held at the bespoke Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, on November 1. Who will be crowned world champion by then is anyone’s guess...