New engines, new tire regulations, new qualifying format – the start of the 2006 Formula 1 season was characterized by dramatic changes to the regulations for both the drivers and the teams. To increase safety in the top class of motor racing even further, less powerful V8 engines are being used and tire changes are again permitted during the races. Overall, everyone involved seems to think that the changes have proven their worth.
From the very beginning, Nico Rosberg did not expect any major changes from the new rules. “The drivers who were quick before will be quick again," said the WilliamsF1 driver before his debut in top-class motor racing. “I don’t really think that Formula 1 will actually get slower."
He’s right. Although the fastest race lap that the newcomer conjured up at the first race of the season on the tarmac in Bahrain was still one second slower than the best time of the previous year, the existing record was easily beaten at just the second race in Malaysia. The reason is clear: although the new V8 engines have about 200HP, less power than the old V10 engines, tire changes are permitted again this season and the softer tires that give better grip on the corners compensate for this loss of power.
“The engines don’t make much difference; it’s actually the new tires that have changed our driving style." said Mark Webber, WilliamsF1 driver. Because of the weaker engines, the drivers arrive at the corners with slightly less speed, so they no longer have to brake as hard and tend to roll much more into the corner. As a result, the car is more stable and exits the corners faster than last year, taking momentum with them onto the straight. Some drivers claimed that this change makes it harder to drive the cars, but that has never been a problem for Nico Rosberg. “Driving at the limit," he said, “is always difficult."
In Formula 1, the priority is always on safety, and that is very apparent from the new regulations. Although the lap times have hardly fallen compared to the 2005 season, the new engine formula has fulfilled all expectations, even from the safety point of view. As a result, the calculations of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) have worked out. The top speed achieved is much lower than previously, and it has been proved that the important factor for safety is not the lap times, but the speed on the straights. According to the experts, 20 kilometres per hour makes a huge difference to the driver’s safety in an accident. Without the new engine regulations, the cars this season would not just be as quick as last year, but – thanks to the new tires – even quicker.
“The FIA pays very careful attention to lap times and top speeds because the safety of the drivers out on the track can only be guaranteed if the cars are traveling at adapted speeds," Dr. Christoph Lauterwasser of the Allianz Center for Technology (AZT) explains. Many of the changes to the regulations, for instance concerning the wings or the engines, aimed at reducing the speed, as this was the only way to ensure the safety of both the drivers and the spectators in the long term. The AZT expert: “Facts that apply to the top class of motor racing should also be taken into account in everyday road traffic: the speed must always suit the road." The new engines will have no influence on the attractiveness of Formula 1 for the fans. On the contrary: the races have become more entertaining than last year, particularly because of the tire changes and the strategic opportunities that they present for the teams.
In fact, the modified qualifying system is the only one of the new regulations that has not yet fulfilled everyone’s hopes. After the songs of praise at the season’s first race in Bahrain, where the teams fought hard for the best starting places for almost the entire qualifying period, the criticism came raining in from all sides in Malaysia. Although few people would seriously question the new knockout system, after their experiences at Sepang, both the drivers and the teams uncovered possibilities for improvements, especially in the final, decisive third of the battle for pole position. However, Mark Webber does not want to dwell on the point. “Of course, qualifying is important," said the Australian, “but the race is still the most important thing."
Allianz Safety Check: Circuit de Catalunya by Mark Webber, WilliamsF1 driver:
“This is the track that we drivers know best from all the test driving. That gives us a feeling of security. Even so, the circuit does have its tricks. It is very difficult aerodynamically and is extremely dependent on the wind, which sometimes turns the search for the right set-up into a lottery. Because the wind often changes very quickly, it certainly can happen that you are suddenly driving with the wrong set-up. You also have to make sure that the extremely high wear on the tires does not become a safety risk."