Why limit performance?
Imagine Formula one without any restrictions by the FIA whatsoever so that engineers may go their own way. Consider the performance of a wide bodied car with wide slicks running the relatively sophisticated yet unrestricted wings of the mid 1980s, with late 1970s ground effects and side skirts (and maybe even a rear fan!), in conjunction with a fully developed 1.5 litre turbo engine, active suspension, interactive telemetry and the other computer enhancements of the 1990s.
Potentially the most lethal combination of technologies would be ground effect and active suspension. The former relies on a very low but consistent even ride height to be maintained by the suspension in order for the air pressure effect to suck the car down onto the road. The latter is designed to produce a very low yet consistent even ride height to maximise the performance of the car's aerodynamics. The combination of the two would be more than just a sum of its parts. Straight-line speed would not necessarily increase, but the gains in cornering speeds would be tremendous and incredibly dangerous. The cars would barely have to brake before turning into a fast corner like the Parabolica at Monza.
It sounds great in principle but in reality it would be completely undriveable, and even Gilles Villeneuve would be intimidated by the performance. To even attempt to drive such a car, drivers would have to wear airforce-style pressure suits to avoid blacking out in 6 or 7 G-force corners. They would probably also have to take amphetamines to improve their reflexes and reaction times. Special tracks would have to be built to accommodate the cars. These tracks would have to have the relatively simple design and layout of modern tracks, with only 12-16 corners, but with the immense length of the great tracks of the past to allow the cars to reach their potential in terms of cornering speeds.
The speeds and the danger to drivers and spectators would be overwhelming. The consequences of a car cornering at more than 300km/h and crashing would be catastrophic.
The brain is the limit
The reason for having such strict technical regulations in F1 is to deliberately limit performance, not to make the racing boring to watch or to participate in, but to make it safe for everyone involved. The real limit of performance in F1 is the human brain and body, which at this point in time cannot be tuned, retuned, modified, turbo-charged, strengthened with the honeycomb construction of composite materials, or otherwise sped up and improved to any significant extent.
The F1 technical regulations encourage the achievement of excellence in one area of car performance at a time. This allows F1 to be the pinnacle of car design and technology, thus making it the testing ground of choice of the major car manufacturers, while at the same time keeping a limit on what can be achieved so that performance gains are explored and tested gradually and safely. Once a performance peak or plateau is achieved, it is deliberately limited or banned, with the technology being passed on to other sectors of car design and production, so that F1 can move on to explore the next area of performance excellence.
As F1 has periodically been the testing ground of multinational car companies, new regulations are instated frequently to curb the inventiveness of engineers and the companies involved. As technology progresses, cars can potentially become ever faster if no additional rules were in place, a possibility that would severely diminish the current levels of driver safety.
The most recent development in F1 regulations however is the urge to keep the sport relevant to road car technology. To prevent it from becoming an aerodynamic development race with no benefit for production cars, the FIA has recently begun to push for a more environmentally friendly set of rules, encouraging more efficient ways of propulsion. As a result, turbo engines are back, engine capacities are reduced and KERS has an increased potential.
Combining the FIA research projects and input from the technical working group, ever evolving rules must ensure that F1 has a future as a sport and as a technical exercise in the face of growing governmental regulations of emissions and other environmental concerns.
None of this may however limit the spectacle or the charisma of F1. Its place at the pinnacle of automotive, and advanced technological materials and electronics, development, is not in dispute. Neither is its reputation as the most innovative, stylish and sophisticated form of racing.