Is there a closer gap to Red Bull this year?The intensity of last year’s title run-in and the need to plan for radical change in 2014 is putting intense pressure on F1 design offices this season – but how will resource management affect racing in 2013?
A typical F1 development programme will see the car conceptualised in around March or April, or even earlier, by a separate team of designers to those who are working on the existing car. Once the outline design is done, that team then carries out a period of detail development before members of the design team working on the existing car move across to start focus on the following year’s machine.
Typically, a team that is not in contention for the title will start fully focusing its resources on developing their car for the following year not long after the middle of the season, giving them the best opportunity to hit the ground running.
This means not only moving more staff onto the following year’s programme but also prioritising resources such as wind-tunnel time (as this is limited by the Resource Restriction Agreement), wind tunnel model manufacture, CFD usage, quality control, etc.
In 2012, the championship was so closely contested throughout the field that very few teams, whether they were battling for the title or for 10th place, gave up the development challenge until late in the season because every extra position in the table nets more prize money.
Of the top teams, only Mercedes really pulled back on their development early having found themselves in a position where they could neither go up nor down in the championship table. The rest fought hard to the end.
On top of that, because the 2014 rules are so radically different to what currently exists - a new 1.6l turbo engine will change vehicle packaging and there are also key aerodynamic changes - the teams also had to put resources into developing their 2014 car in 2012, some an entire year earlier than they would normally begin to develop a car.
Back in 2009, McLaren blamed their disastrous start on the development push needed to secure the title for Lewis Hamilton in 2008. This year, Adrian Newey has already admitted the 2012 title run-in cost Red Bull time on their 2013 campaign and suggested this winter has been an even more hectic than usual in Milton Keynes.
Fortunately, the relatively stable rules between 2012 and 2013 may give teams a bit of a get-out, as much of the car will be evolutionary – but as mentioned last week, there are still some significant factors that will change and could cause some teams problems.
The cars that will come out at launch this month and next, then, will almost certainly be less close to the ‘finished article’ than normal - and pre-season testing development will be intense as teams put all their resources into finalising their initial 2013 designs right up to the start of the first race (expect development parts still to be coming right through Friday practice in Australia).
After that, however, there is another conundrum.
The 2014 rules herald a new design cycle in F1, as they are likely to form the basis for the next four or even six seasons of car designs – and that means it is vital to get the concept right from day one.
Right from the start this year, teams will face a difficult decision on how to split their resources to develop two cars in tandem to enable them to be competitive in 2013 and avoid being left behind when the new design cycle comes into play in 2014.
Ferrari announced in December that they will use separate design co-ordinators for their 2013 and 2014 campaigns, with Simone Resta leading 2013, Fabio Montecchi leading 2014, and chief designer Nikolas Tombazis overseeing both. That is an approach that most teams will take – and some, in fact, have been already doing it for some time.
Mercedes, for example, set up an entire design focus team for their 2014 car back in February 2012, with its own leader and a skeleton staff (still of a size that not long ago would have been the same as the lead design team!) working on developing layout concepts. That has since changed a little, due to a design office reshuffle, but you would expect most other lead teams to have done the same.
In fact, that new design cycle is so important that it could even lead to the 2013’s title race being hampered by a lack of focus.
If a team that sees that it cannot be competitive early on, it will be very tempting to admit defeat early and shift all focus onto 2014 – so if teams do apply that kind of resource management, then this year’s championship could quite easily just turn into a one-horse race...