Is the FIA really stifling creativity for 2021?

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Mexico, Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguezmx

One of the main complaints aimed at the FIA over the 2021 regulations is that the result will be too prescriptive, resulting in a field of identikit cars . But how and why are the rules becoming so restrictive?

A common complaint leveled at successive Formula 1 regulations is that they stifle creativity, in fact legendary designers like Gordon Murray stated they would not be interested in F1 today, while Red Bull supremo Adrian Newey had to take a sabbatical designing yachts and supercars to recharge his creative juices. But what do they mean? Some idea can be gleaned by looking at how the bodywork rules have affected the shape the cars over the years.

For continuity the wheelbase of all visual representations below was set as 3m, ~300mm longer than the wheelbases of the 80's and ~600mm shorter than current wheelbase lengths. With "donuts" to show the position and size of tyres.

Going back to 1988 the bodywork, or the slightly old fashioned term "coachwork" as it was referred to then, rules were incredibly simple; allowing bodywork up to 1.4m wide between the front and rear axles, up to 500mm wide behind the rear axle, and 1.5m wide ahead of the front wheels. Unlike today bodywork was measured relative to the ground rather than the bottom of the car, so the static ride height with driver and fuel (at scrutineering) had to be accounted for in the design of the car.

The total height allowed was 1m (though the roll hoop could protrude provided it served no aerodynamic function), with the outer portions between the wheels limited to the height of the top surface of the tyres, and the height ahead of the front wheels matched to the height of the front tyre rim. Despite this near total freedom in the regulations the cars produced were relatively simple by modern standards with appendages like the sidepod X-wings only appearing in the late-90's. It is an old adage in F1 that nothing can be unlearned and the progress made in the past 30 years means it would be impossible to safely return to such an open regulation.

1988 FIA bodywork regulations (Left = Upper, Right = Lower)

By 1994 the total width of the car had been reduced from 2.15m to 2m, even though the bodywork width remained 1.4m and did so until 2017, while the rear tyre width had been reduced from 18" to 15". The bodywork regulations were starting to get slightly more complex too, with the maximum height behind the rear axle reduced to 950mm above the ground and the rear overhang length reduced from 600mm to 500mm. The intent being to limit the diffuser and rear wing lengths, thereby downforce.

The width of bodywork ahead of the front wheels was also reduced to 1.4m and a minimum height of 40mm was enforced to raise the front wing and particularly the endplates off the ground. The front bodywork was also made shorter to restrict how far front wings could extend ahead of the front wheels, limiting bodywork wider than 200mm to 900mm ahead of the front axle line, not the 1.2m of the maximum front overhang. The rear wing rule in particular led to some interesting designs at high downforce circuits, with a secondary wing ahead of and above the main wing.

1994 was a dark year by modern standards and mid-season the FIA removed bodywork from behind the rear axle which was wider than 150mm from the car centreline and under a certain height from the ground - thereby significantly reducing the diffuser length.

1994 FIA bodywork regulations (Left = Upper, Right = Lower)

After the high profile accidents of 1994 the FIA also mandated a wooden skid block be placed under the floor, and a 500mm wide, 50mm deep step to be created in the floor from 1995 onward, to limit ground effect and the catastrophic loss of downforce which could be experienced when the ride-height dropped too far, previously bodywork facing the ground had to form a single flat surface between the rear face of the front tyres and front face of the rear tyres. The rules were also becoming considerably more prescriptive with a much smaller box for front and rear wings and much lower bodywork allowed around the rear wheels and engine cover.

Interestingly despite the lowering of the bodywork box around the side-pods of the car the region remained which allowed the afore mentioned X-wings to sprout either side of the cockpit. The rules also mandated a triangular shaped section for the engine air box, a start of the push towards cars having large enough surfaces for sponsorship exposure. The current wording of the front and rear wing endplate rules have the same intent.

1997 FIA bodywork regulations (Left = Upper, Right = Lower)

1998 was seen as a massive rule change, with the introduction of narrow track cars and grooved tyres, but the definition of the regulations for the bodywork between those wheels did not significantly change, though the introduction of 660mm diameter tyres for all four corners, where previously the tyres had diameters of 25" for the front and 26" on the rear, slightly changed the length of boxes where wording mentioned "offsets" from the tyre "faces" (there were also some detail changes regarding bodywork rigidity and aerodynamic influence). The bigger design changes between 1997 and 1998 were more a reaction from the teams to the effect the cars own front tyre wake had on the new narrow track cars.

1998 FIA bodywork regulations (Left = Upper, Right = Lower)

By the mid 2000's the rules had closed the loophole which allowed the X-wings, extending the maximum sidepod height right up to the front edge. The bodywork around the engine cover had also changed, allowing scope for the sharkfins which became omnipresent by 2008.

Through the 2000's the front wing box became ever higher, to reduce the efficacy of the front wing, while the rear wing box moved further forward, to force a change of the downforce balance - the centre of gravity is also now fixed to prescribe a particular downforce balance. The rules were also becoming increasingly more complex, specifying a maximum number of elements in the rear wing volume, and a minimum projected area for the rear wing endplates. Some changes, like the ever-increasing cockpit surround height, cannot be seen in the bodywork boxes (as they are shrouded within) but the predominant shape of the rules volume, especially the underside for the floor, was unchanged from the mid-90's through to 2008.

2006 FIA bodywork regulations (Left = Upper, Right = Lower)

The big rule change in 2009 saw a return to slick tyres, with a slightly narrower front tyre. The rules also introduced the Y250 neutral section and a wider front wing - after the overtaking research group in 2007 saw the centre of the front wing as being most significantly affected by an upstream vehicle. The rules raised the rear wing with a narrower span to increase wake upwash, and significantly changed the rules for the floor, shortening and reducing the height of the rear diffuser, but moving the start of it's ramp rearwards. Between the front and rear axles the body volume was similar to previous iterations, with a bigger exclusion zone around the front wheels, but a second volume was added to remove sharp bodywork edges (the R75 volume) which considerably simplified the car form.

Through 2009 to 2011 the nose cone heights became ever higher, eventually matching the height of the lip of the cockpit, after the Liuzzi-Schumacher crash in Abu Dhabi 2010 the FIA decided to lower the nose height to 500mm, which resulted in some ungainly designs in 2012 and 2013 as teams tried to maximise the height of their monocoques while obeying the nose height rule. After the debacle of the 2014 nose designs the FIA decided to enforce a sloped shape to the top of the nose, this is first example of the FIA trying to regulate aesthetics after a safety measure resulted in ugly designs.

2009 FIA bodywork regulations (Left = Upper, Right = Lower)

Since 2017 the regulation boxes started to look more like a Danish block toy model of an F1 car, where previous rules have been a bit more open. The summation of all the safety and performance regulation changes made in the preceding years means the current formula appears to be incredibly prescriptive, with the actual wording of the rules going into ever greater detail as to what is allowed, particularly within the front wing box.

However, the cars of 2017/18 and 19 have been some of the most diverse in recent times, with the sidepods inlets of the Ferrari, or the nose concept of Racing Point, the air intake solution of Alfa Romeo, or the narrow nose and "traditional" sidepods of the Mercedes being easily identifiable. Even the 2019 front wing rule change, which were assumed would create a near spec part, have produced a diverse range of designs through the field.

2019 FIA bodywork regulations (Left = Upper, Right = Lower)

Looking to the past shows us how and why F1 regulations have become so prescriptive today, various safety improvements and performance limiting measures have affected where the FIA allow bodywork, so what does this mean for 2021? Team bosses have again been complaining that the draft regulations for 2021 will make the cars too similar, but the rules since 2017 have been the most prescriptive ever and there has still been scope for differences in design. In the case of 2021 the FIA and Liberty are very keen that their research into overtaking has the desired effect for on track action so are trying to limit areas where teams could "break" those rules and have a negative effect, like the double diffuser in 2009. The FIA have also been historically wary of "ground effect" aerodynamics and will seek to limit any performance the teams can extract from the new twin-tunneled underbody.

On the other side teams will want to maintain any performance advantage they currently have, and the tenders for spec brakes/gear cassettes/fuel pumps have already been scrapped, as well as a $25m increase in the proposed budget cap with a number of exclusions for key personnel. Team bosses also want the largest surface area possible on the top surfaces of the cars to increase sponsorship revenue.

All the pushing and pulling draws a direct comparison to the dreaded "Brexit", where the UK has had to try and find some common ground in negotiations with 27 European nations, in this case Liberty have had to seek the support of teams, as well as all the other stakeholders of F1 (the FIA/circuit promoters...etc); as for the outcome? We'll have to wait until November 2nd to find out.