This year sees another season of relatively stable rule changes in Formula One – but two minor tweaks to the regulations could prove key to making the field even tighter in 2013.
At the start of last year there was much said about the stable rules making any changes in the F1 order unlikely. After Red Bull dominated 2011, the blown diffuser ban and some different tyres were thought not major enough to put them off their stride.
Instead, the season started with seven different winners in seven races and Red Bull were suddenly on the back foot because the loss of that blown diffuser advantage was actually far more significant for them than their rivals.
This season's 'minor' rule changes include increased stringency on roll structure crash testing; a ban on active double-DRS devices and changes to the way DRS is used; and a more stringent front wing flex test.
At the end of last season, it's fair to say that Red Bull were starting to dominate again – with Sebastian Vettel taking four wins, one second and one third in the final seven races.
Their performance boost came from the successful integration of a rear diffuser design that optimised a new powerful double DRS system. By using that system throughout qualifying in as many places around the track as possible, Vettel as able to secure strong grid positions – starting from the front two rows of the grid in six of those final seven races (including three poles) – and go on to control the race.
The key to Red Bull's success has always been qualifying well and managing races, and on certain occasions that system allowed them to do that once again. It was by no means the dominance of 2011, but it was certainly getting there.
In 2013, all double-DRS designs that are activated when a hole in the rear-wing endplate is uncovered – which includes the Red Bull system – have been banned and also the unrestrained use of DRS in qualifying has been scrapped, with drivers now only allowed to operate the system in the one or two specific places selected by the race director, as has been the case in races since its introduction.
The rules do, however, allow 'passive' DRS systems, which work on the principal of an airflow switch that causes air to flow in one direction at certain speeds then change direction to be fed into a different location when the airflow regime changes. Lotus and Mercedes already tried them in 2012, and Red Bull will likely be working on their own version to kick off with in 2013.
The other key advantage that Red Bull has always led the way with is flexible front wings.
Officially, front wings are not allowed to flex because if they did they would then become movable aerodynamic devices – but the FIA can only ban this activity if the parts do not pass their tests. This is a long-running game between the rule makers and the designers, and so far it appears the designers are winning, with Red Bull cleverly designing parts that pass the tests but still flex under different conditions.
To try and combat this, from this year the 102kg load applied to the front wing will now be applied in two off-centre locations rather than just one – and if that stops this clever manipulation of the rules it's another change that will hinder Red Bull.
Meanwhile, the rest of the teams who have not made such advancements in these areas will gain – so while the changes may appear minor, it does appear they could hurt Red Bull again unless they can innovate quickly and come up with another way to stay out in front...