By on November 11, 2006

4333.jpgToday’s Formula 1 technical regulations are more restrictive than at any time in the sport’s history. In a seemingly never-ending quest to limit performance (to increase “competitiveness”) and cut costs (to encourage investment), the FIA has consistently and continually tightened restrictions on the options available to car designers. Excluding the new-for-2007 engine freeze regulations (a tragedy in itself, and categorically different from earlier regulations), the current rules represent just another iteration of the FIA’s un-winnable war against the very essence of the sport.

The trend of late has been towards creating increasingly specific restrictions. The FIA’s legislators precisely define acceptable form factor, wing heights, layout, weight, engine displacement, drive type and materials. Current F1 rules specify, to the millimeter, the developable areas of the cars’ aerodynamic pieces. Race car designers have responded to the strictures with ever more specialization, creating extreme development within the few remaining avenues.

Even a cursory look at the differences in bodywork between the late 80’s cars and this season’s automotive missiles provides a perfect example of the advancements made to conform/exploit the sport’s legislative framework. Senna and Prost’s McLaren MP4/5 looks positively crude compared with its 2006 contemporary, the MP4/21. While the basic aerodynamic layouts are quite similar, the degree of development evident in the latter is clear evidence of the increasing specificity of the regulations.

Limiting development is of course a natural and necessary part of maintaining a formula series. Assume for a moment that F1 regulations had been frozen in the 70’s. Today we’d likely see 3000hp, turbo-fed engines strapped to ground-effect chassis laden with extremely effective aerodynamic pieces, assisted downforce, and active, computer-controlled suspensions; all controlled via two-way telemetry. 

While technologically exciting, this high-tech, no-holds-barred alternate F1 universe would not create a viable foundation for the sport. Overtaking would be nearly impossible, as braking distances would be dramatically shorter even than they are today. Cornering speeds would also rise spectacularly, necessitating the further separation of the cars from their trackside spectators, significantly damaging the eyewitness experience. 

In such a world, human limitations would likely be the deciding factor in the cars’ performance envelope. For example, today’s F1 pilots are in absolute peak physical condition, enduring intense training regimens and possessing extreme strength and endurance. In the unregulated F1, the rise in cornering speeds would likely produce lateral loads of over 6 Gs, significantly increasing the rigor of completing a race distance and greatly increasing the chances of fatigue-related accidents. Reaction times would need to drop significantly, in tandem with speed increases. The dynamics of today’s F1 vehicles pushes performance right to the ragged edge of the drivers’ potential. Any further demands might finally cross the boundary of control.

But there is one constant in the regulation of F1: no matter how broad, how specific or how restrictive the FIA chooses to write the technical regulations, designers have always succeed in circumventing them, in looking around the regulations, rather than within them. This is the kind of “outside the box” thinking that produced those instantly recognizable (if short-lived) innovative F1 race car designs.

Perhaps the most famous of these was the six-wheel Tyrrell P34. In an effort to decrease frontal area (an essential component of aerodynamic performance), car designer Derek Gardner chose to replace two large-diameter front wheels with four 10-inch diameter wheels. While the P34 had only passing success– with Jody Scheckter piloting it to its only win in the 1976 Swedish GP– it is significant nonetheless. While design problems limited the competitive potential of the P34 and its descendant the P34B, the concept is indicative of the sort of creative design and engineering that the FIA has worked so hard to suppress.

The BT46B, is another example of a truly radical design that lives on in F1 history. Gordon Murray (later of the McLaren F1 road car fame) designed the BT46B for the then Ecclestone-controlled Brabham team, in response to the dominant ground-effect Lotus 79. The BT46B utilized an extremely powerful fan mounted just below the rear wing to extract air from underneath the car, dramatically increasing downforce. The Brabham team of course avoided the “no movable aerodynamic devices” regulation by telling the FIA that the fan’s primary purpose was cooling, rather than downforce enhancement. The so-called “fan car” won its only F1 start, and was banned immediately thereafter.

These designs serve as an exemplum for the sort of innovation that keeps the FIA on their toes.  Surely the cars’ respective designers considered the technical regulations too restrictive, much like their contemporaries today. But these designers fought on, finding a way past the regulations to produce thrilling race cars. And just as the Tyrrell and Brabham emerged despite/because of the FIA’s meddling and its ever more restrictive technical regulations, I predict we haven’t seen the last radical race car design.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!


13 Comments on “F1 History Pt. 3: Les Regles De Jeux...”

  • avatar

    I already read about that Brabham several times but strangly enough this is the first time I actually see a picture of it. Great stuff.

    Nowadays new developments are mostly banned the minute the FIA finds out about them…unless it’s Ferrari they would be putting at a disadvantage. For instance:

    Collector tank: BAR Honda got a 2 race ban for it, everybody knew Ferrari had been using it for (championship winning) years, but the FIA saw no reason to check the Ferrari as well…

    Mass dampers: Designed to eliminate vibrations, perfected by Renault, also tried by Ferrari but they couldn’t master it. FIA knew about it more then a year yet decided to ban it only after Ferrari had ditched their efforts and complained about it to the FIA.

    Flex wings: You could see the Ferrari front wing moving on TV, which isn’t allowed, yet the FIA tolerated it and finally the solution was that Ferrari covered the wing-nose connection so you couldn’t so clearly SEE that the wing still moved, but of course it did.

    The list goes on…

    Some people have already suggested that Ferrari should stick some FIA stickers on the rear wing.

  • avatar


    What about the passive front wheel driveline/differential to prevent lockup under heavy braking/turn in. I remember that being banned recently.

  • avatar
    Matthew Potena

    Many teams besides Ferrari had flexible wings. BMW-Sauber were instructed to stiffen their rear wing in the middle of 2006, as it flexed (some said much more than the Ferrari wing ever did). Also Renault’s frint wing was/is flexible. Do I agree that there was some meddling by the FIA? Yes. But also remember that the entire reasoning for the rules introduced in 2005 was to stop the continual winning by Ferrari. Personally I think the FIA should drastically cut the wing size (and any underbody diffuser size) and then get out of the (rule modifying) way. With an 80% loss of the aerodynamic downforce, it wouldn’t matter how powerfull the engines were, they couldnt put their power down, thus a much smaller difference between the haves and the have nots.

  • avatar

    It was McLaren who complained to the FIA about the mass dampers, not Ferrari. Sorry, conspiracy theorists…

    How many of the rule tweaks at the end of the 2002 and 2004 seasons were designed to favour Ferrari, by the way?

    As for the Brabham fan car, apparently it was never officially banned. Bernie Ecclestone agreed to withdraw the car immediately after that first race on condition that the team would not be disqualified and stripped of victory.

  • avatar


    Until M. Schumacher (and Jean Todt and Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne and…) arrived Ferrari hadn’t won anything since 1978. I guess the FIA wasn’t too interested in “helping” Ferrari back then, huh?

    Oh, btw, please do conveniently ignore all the recent changes that were specifically aimed at Ferrari… otherwise it doesn’t help your argument.

  • avatar


    To my recollection the collector tank on the BAR itself was not illegal. It was the fact that when they pumped out the rest of the fuel in the BAR’s collector, the car weighed less than the FIA weight limit of 600 kilos.

    See reference:

    Specifically the quote from Max Mosley:
    “The system as such is not illegal. What is illegal is not pumping the fuel out when asked to and then having a car that is under 600 kilos when they have pumped it out.”

  • avatar
    Mitch Yelverton

    The FIA’s rulings this season have certainly provided fodder for the conspiracy theorists. While the politics of the changes is the subject of a future post, what is interesting is how the flexi wings were discovered.

    The wings were not, in fact, noticed in television coverage first – the teams carry on a significant amount of espionage against the other teams. In this case, there were track-side spies, equipped with microphones, that recorded the sound of the ferrari at full clip. Upon analysis of these clips, the engineers noticed that the ferrari’s delta-v in revs was a non-linear function. The only explanation for this was that the aerodynamic profile of the car was changing.

  • avatar

    I used to find F1 exciting due to the cutting edge technology, which ultimately finds it way into cars for the “normal” folks like myself. I find all the restrictions taking the enjoyment away from the sport, and will likely cause me to follow the teams less and less. I also find the loss of Michelin a huge blow to the sport, another example of over regulation. A warning to the FIA, over regulation leads to boredom which leads to fewer fans. Heck, champ cars have never looked so good!

  • avatar

    If I had a lot of money, I’d start my own racing series. What I propose would be a nearly no rules F1, Nascar, and Top Fuel racing.

    Why some rules? If you brought an F1 car to a Nascar race…. would it still be a “Nascar” race?

    Top Fuel unlimited rules:

    No weight limits, tire limits, engine limits. It just has to be a rail car like we all know rail cars to be.

    Nascar and F1: Same rules as above.

    I think it would be a lot of fun. We’d run these races in the “off seasons”. Year round racing. One season it’s driver vs driver, the next; let the best machine win. I think a lot of technical innovation would result from this.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Well, the trickle-down theory of technology from F1 is, so it seems, the reason we are now seeing even SUVs with paddle-shifters. I am just finishing up a week with the 2007 Infiniti G35-S sedan and it has paddle shifters, off the back of the steering wheel hub, that look akin to the ears of a character in “Lord of the Rings.” Where will it end, I wonder? When we get a Hyundai Accent or KIA Rio-5 with paddle shifters, what then will auto makers look to F1 to pull down to lesser machines?

  • avatar

    The problem with the FIA’s rules strategy is that teams are forced to spend insane amounts of money (24/7 aero programs) to find a miniscule advantage within the rules. Since winning is what counts, teams will spend whatever money they can get thier hands on to do so. I’ve never heard of a team turning down a sponsorhip because they couldn’t find a place to spend the money.

    The computer technology is staggering. And it’s almost impossible to police. For example, let’s look at a traction control ban. If a team programs their engine management system to limit torque in the first 3 gears to a level that corresponds to the tires’ traction limits, is that “traction control”? Are e-diffs that appotion torque based on steering wheel angle “stability control”?

    F1’s rules should be very open, i.e., they should only specify maximum engine displacement, maximum wing area, and crash requirements to protect the drivers.

    Personally, I think the best way to limit power would be to require mechanically driven valvetrains. That would eliminate pneumatic valve actuation and significantly lower revs.

    NASCAR is going to go the way of Trans-Am with The Car of Tomorrow. Do fans really think that Jeff Gordon’s “Monte Carlo SS” has anything at all in common with the POS Monte at the dealer?

    Then again, NASCAR sells the drivers and not the cars. I’m amazed that the manufacturers still pour money into it. It didn’t help Taurus sales, nor Fusions, nor Monte Carlos, nor Chagers.

  • avatar
    Jim H

    I guess it all depends on the purpose of the F1 race: is it to further technology by pushing the limits of what can be done…or is it to simply master the rules already in place?

    Here’s an example: Why is do pro-sports have banned substances? Is it for the safety of the players, their fans, or simply a new facet to the game that is already much farther evolved physically than folks thought. Let’s look at football: Who would expect a kicker to have 4% body fat and can bench press 300lbs…even though he’s just a bloody kicker? Some guys can hand check beyond the 5 yards, while others can’t. Some offensive players can practically push their defender to the turf and not get a flag…while a defender barely touches a guy and he gets the yellow hanky. Physically, the football stars are already freaks of nature…why even limit them from banned substances?

  • avatar

    Hence the appeal of NASCAR: the driver has something to do with it.

    FI trajectory is similar to that of the jet plane. It hit its peak in the 1970s.

    The wave of the future is now small drones. – They could build faster fighters but no man could fly them – not to mention the fact that drones cost something like 1% of a fighter and if they get blown up, you don’t also lose $1,000,000 worth of trained pilot.

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • stuki: As long as the Fed keeps printing money, CA can print theirs as well. They’ll just continue to call them...
  • stuki: And then there are people who believe in Santa Claus. And, perhaps more relevantly, science fiction.
  • SunnyvaleCA: >>> I presume you’re in a red state; you will miss the world’s sixth largest economy, which...
  • maui_zaui: The more I look at the G70’s front end, the more I see a gussied up Elantra Sport. I know it’s...
  • RHD: More than two years later, and they still haven’t fixed it…

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote


  • Contributors

  • Matthew Guy, Canada
  • Ronnie Schreiber, United States
  • Bozi Tatarevic, United States
  • Chris Tonn, United States
  • Corey Lewis, United States
  • Mark Baruth, United States
  • Moderators

  • Adam Tonge, United States
  • Corey Lewis, United States