F1: Regulation changes may turn Formula One 2014 into Wacky Races
Nico Rosberg blowout makes him first victim of rules that could tip F1 on its head for drivers
The fireworks have already started. Nico Rosberg ended this week's three-day test in Bahrain in need of a lavatory. The churning stomach had nothing to do with anything he had eaten but a blowout at 200mph.
Rosberg was testing Pirelli's 2014 tyres. The accident led to the premature end of running for Mercedes and a reflective tweet: "Just spun at full speed 320km/h on Bahrain straight because my tyre blew up without warning. Thanks to that need to get some toilet paper now."
Messy, and according to Jenson Button, it's going to get even more chaotic as Formula One processes the most radical regulation changes in a generation. Gone are the V8 2.4 gas guzzlers, to be replaced by a power train fired by 1.6 turbo engines enhanced by greater fuel efficiency and electrical power, and housed in a chassis that must accommodate extensive aerodynamic revisions.
With design templates turned upside down, you wonder why the governing body bothered with the double points gimmick at the last race. If anything is going to prevent Sebastian Vettel making it five titles in a row, it is the technical uncertainty engulfing the sport.
The teams reconvene in Jerez next month to try to make sense of their new cars at the first test of 2014. After a stint in McLaren's simulator in Woking, Button can hardly wait. "Winter testing is going to be hilarious in Jerez," he said. "It will be cold, the tyres aren't going to work, the cars probably won't work either, and when you do get a lap it is probably going to feel weird because you are running higher gears.
"It is a very different way of driving and you have to forget a lot of what you have learnt in terms of driveability, the engine, the power output and the way you put the power down. It is so, so different."
Button is referring to the new power train, described by the Red Bull designer Adrian Newey as a monster. It includes for the first time in Formula One a second electronic motor, generating added power via an energy recovery system 10 times greater in capacity than the old Kers device, that will hike the torque massively. The slightest tickle of the accelerator feeds instant power through to the tyres, all of which needs managing.
The big idea is to make the cars more relevant to the road car market. The new engines are up to 40 per cent more fuel-efficient. The new aero regulations are designed to slow the cars by reducing downforce. The front and rear wings have thus been reduced in size, the nose lowered and the exhaust outlet raised to reduce the influence of blown waste gases on aerodynamic performance. The cars will also be 50 kilos heavier to accommodate the second electronic motor, which will further warp the vehicles' behaviour.
"No one knows how they will perform until the first race next year," Button said. "It is going to be tricky because we do have a lot more torque with the engine. There will be a lot less downforce as there will be no [exhaust] blowing. It is going to be very tough to get to grips with it. There is a lot to learn for all of us, even the experienced drivers, and it is exciting."
Not least for the potential of the regulatory curve balls to throw up a different kind of contest in 2014. Equivalent changes in the recent past, for example 2009 when Brawn made best use of the innovative double diffuser to give Button his only World Championship, and in 1994 when Benetton adapted quickest to the removal of electronic driver aids, launching Michael Schumacher to the first of his seven world titles, changed the complexion entirely.
What Formula One cannot tolerate is the same driver winning eight races on the bounce, which was the fate of this year's championship. This is not a criticism of the excellent Vettel. Far from it. The same would hold were Button, Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso to be the lucky boy driving the best-in-class car. The game is up in any sport if outcomes are known before the whistle blows.
The shake-up is expected to reintroduce a component missing for too long, the random failure. According to Gary Anderson, a former technical director at Jordan and Jaguar, now a BBC pundit, reliability will be the defining issue in the opening races.
"The new power units are extremely complex and teams are making no secret of the fact that reliability is a major concern. Building a 1.6-litre V6 turbo should bring no major problems, but the new engine is much more reliant on electrical power for its performance, so there will be no more winning with a broken energy-recovery system, as Red Bull have done several times over the last few years.
"Packaging is also a major problem. The engine is shorter but the battery pack is much bigger, and the additional motor on the turbo has to withstand operating temperatures of 400-700C. I expect there will be times next season, especially early on, when we and the TV cameras will be searching the track for cars still running."
Marvellous. There is no sport quite like Formula One when it gets it right, as demonstrated at Silverstone in July when disintegrating rubber turned the British Grand Prix into an episode of Wacky Races. With the potential for sustained mayhem in 2014, Button recommends that you book early to avoid disappointment, even for testing.
"You want to be out on circuit at the tricky corners, even turn 2/3 [at Jerez] will be tough to get the power down. You need a throttle pedal that is a metre long to control the torque." Pass the Andrex.
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