Why people should be angry about F1’s ground effect regulations and how they have failed

Ross Brawn, ex-managing director of Formula 1, promised big things ahead the 2022 F1 season

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As the new era of Formula 1 dawned by welcoming ground effect designs, ex-managing director Ross Brawn made two bold statements about the latest regulations in the top class of open-wheel motorsport: Midfield teams will win races, and F1 will stop any team with gaining an advantage via a “silver bullet”. So far, neither of those have happened leaving fans angry.

A counter criticism often levied is “F1 has always been about dominance, get over it,” but that argument is no longer valid. It lost validity when Liberty Media and the FIA made a clear, conscious point of changing the rules specifically to end this sort of thing.

That is actually different compared to earlier regulations changes that had a strategic target in mind (turbo-hybrids) or were to simply shake things up (2009 and /2017), 2022 was about improving the product and show, not conforming to the developing road car markets. 

With the new rules, there are major failings that were perhaps not really that hard to see, although hindsight gives everyone 20/20 vision…

Nobody cares about the battle for third

Sports fans want to see moments, they want to see memories. It’s why title fights such as Ayrton Senna vs Alain Prost or 2008 between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa are so revered and recalled so often, even if the racing between cars wasn’t actually that good, for example, like 2021.

So, when F1 promises grandiose things such as midfield cars fighting for wins, only for one driver to win 36 out of 46 races (just below four out of every five) people are right to be annoyed.

Sure, maybe there is an exceptional fight behind Red Bull as Alex Albon would tell you, but who is actually tuning in on a Sunday to focus on two drivers fighting over fifth when the leader is 22 seconds up the road?

Max Verstappen of Red Bull leads the field at the start of the 2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Max Verstappen of Red Bull leads the field at the start of the 2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

The same teams are still on top

Since the start of 2022, Red Bull have won 40 out of 46 prior to the 2024 Australian Grand Prix and the only other two winning teams in that time, Mercedes and Ferrari, are historically anything but midfield teams.

So as far as wins are concerned, the picture is the same as ever. The three teams with historically the biggest budgets, historically the best personnel and historically the best infrastructure were 1-2-3 in the standings at the end of 2023, as per usual, far from the race-winning free-for-all the ex-managing director of F1 actually promised.

And whilst it is a fact that the racing is better as the grid sees smaller gaps from last to first, the cars can follow better and there are more overtakes per race on average than the previous generation of cars, to put it simply, nobody actually cares about that.

Even McLaren and Aston Martin, the two teams who stepped forwards in 2023, appear to lack that final edge to challenge Ferrari and Mercedes across a season, even though they have state-of-the-art equipment. That’s despite the Silver Arrows running a brand new car concept with a broken simulator, as per Toto Wolff.  

Cost cap only works without dominance

The cost cap aimed to do two things. Prevent the big teams from simply spending their way to championships and to force all teams to be financially sustainable and profitable so that smaller teams such as Williams and Haas aren’t risking their futures.

It’s done one of those things, Williams were profitable in 2023 but that’s a sensitive area too as they went to great lengths to explain that adding Andretti-Cadillac (or any 11th team for that matter) to the grid would swiftly kick them back into the red.

The one crucial limitation is that the cost-cap was always going to restrictive if one team got any kind of substantial advantage in the early days of the new regulations and guess what? That dominance happened within six months.

Red Bull and Max Verstappen now enjoy a gap of approximately four tenths per lap, but the issue is that nobody can actually eat into it because they aren’t actually allowed to spend enough to do it.  

That means teams are relying on computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and wind tunnel differences to be able to try to cut the deficit but if they can’t do it essentially from the start of the season, they have no chance. Nada. Zero.

That doesn’t mean that the cost-cap is actually a bad idea. It’s not. The big teams shouldn’t be allowed to drop millions more than the ones at the back.

F1 just needed to hold off it for a few years and introduce it as soon as it seemed like there wasn’t anyone sauntering off into the sunset, so comfortably in the lead that they can do fastest lap pit stops for little more than recreation as Verstappen did at the 2023 Austrian GP.

Extra wind tunnel time doesn’t even matter

Teams cannot close up any gaps in infrastructure, even if they have the money to do so. It’s not a good look if one of the teams the cost-cap was supposed to help, Williams, publicly comes out to slam the regulations as restrictive.

But that’s what their team principal, James Vowles, did when he declared that the outfit cannot even upgrade computer logging systems due to the $45m cap on annual capital expenditure (capex).

Logan Sargeant corners on the first day of 2024 F1 pre-season testing | @WilliamsRacing/X.com

Capex refers to the money spent to improve your business. For example, if you ran a lemonade stand and bought a blender to produce more lemonade. This would fall under capex as it’s not something you need to make lemonade, but it helps make things better.

If teams are not even allowed to spend to improve their facilities, then what hope do they have to catch someone like Red Bull in the long-term? Even the extra CFD and wind tunnel time becomes worthless when they don’t have the resources to actually use them and aren’t allowed to get them…

Of course, there is also the added irony in the fact that Red Bull began the cost-cap era by breaching the regulations with a £5.6m overspend in 2021 which they attributed to catering costs and presuming they would receive a tax credit from HMRC, which they didn’t get.

That leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many fans to do this date, and it didn’t get the rules off to a good start as the rules only appear to become worse and worse as Verstappen continues to win, win and win again.

As far as the actual on-track racing is concerned, the rules have worked but in terms of opening up opportunities for the grid to haul themselves into title fights, there is still a long way to go to achieve perfection.

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