Should F1 be tempted by form over function in 2021?

A concept 2021 F1 car.

One of the more interesting stories to emerge from the Singapore Grand Prix came not from the track but from the press conference room, where F1 motorsport boss Ross Brawn previewed the sport’s direction for aerodynamics post-2020.

The 2021 season is shaping up as a technical, sporting and commercial watershed for the sport, but as the date has drawn closer, the ideas for change have grown little clearer — until, that is, Ross Brawn presented some concept drawings illustrating the current thinking.

The designs aren’t a world away from the current generation of cars but take cues from the array of F1 concepts released over the years to deliver something visually bold and exciting.

“The aesthetics of the car for me is very important,” Brawn said in Singapore. “I think everyone agrees we want great looking Formula One cars.”

More to the point, though, the regulations are being written to improve the quality of racing. Brawn and his team of in-house designers are undertaking research to codify aerodynamic concepts that won’t lose performance when following other cars, enabling closer racing.

“The current cars lose, once they go within two or three car lengths, up to 50 per cent of their performance, which is why when drivers are on the same tyres of the same age they struggle to race each other at some tracks,” Brawn explained.

“At the moment we’ve got [concept] designs which only lose 20 per cent — so they [keep] 80 per cent of their performance … so a substantial improvement.

“I’m pretty optimistic that we’re going to produce some great looking cars that are going to be able to race each other much more effectively than they were in the past.”

It sounds like a win-win — but, as with all things in Formula One, presenting there are complications.

“I was asking our engineers what they thought about it,” Ferrari principal Maurizio Arrivabene said later in the day. “In their opinion … it looks like an old Champ Car.”

So the designs aren’t to everyone’s liking, but more important than Arrivabene’s caustic comparison to the defunct mid-2000s American racing series was the reply from Force India technical director Andy Green.

“I come from a technical side; I’m not interested in the styling side of it,” said the Englishman. “It’ll look nothing like what’s been painted.”

Those hoping for F1 to take a clean leap into the future of the presented designs should take Green’s summary seriously, because the real thing is unlikely to look as good as the design as the idea on paper.

Formula One’s recent history is a particularly good indicator of how dramatically the sport’s real-life cars can diverge from the best intentions of the regulator.

Beginning with 2009, the first concerted effort by the sport and the teams to create regulations that would enable closer racing ended in acrimony and arbitration when some teams struck upon the double-diffuser loophole that delivered big boosts to performance contrary to the intended design philosophy.

Brawn GP — ironically run by the man now hoping to prevent the same occurrence — was the big winner, taking home both championships.

Then we could consider the 2012 regulation changes designed to lower the front of the car’s nose. It did so, but in the process created the ugly step where the monocoque met the nose cone. Further tweaks only reduced the severity of the step in 2013.

Eradication of the step in 2014 brought with it another unintended side-effect — some of the most horrific front noses ever designed, each with an unsightly appendage protruding from the front. It took another season to reduce the protrusions to smaller stubs.

But the design controversies served only to distract from the fact that the attempt to cruel downforce through the 2009 rules changes had largely failed, with teams clawing back most of the lost downforce

In 2017 the rules were heavily revised, but despite the headline F1 had planned for “faster cars and thrilling races”, they really only delivered on the former, with thrilling races coming about through circumstance rather than design.

So although Formula One is undertaking research more significant than ever before in the quest to rewrite its technical regulations, the bottom line is that once the rules are published, they are completely out of the control of the governing body and the commercial rights holder, never mind the graphic designer.

This is because the regulations in Formula One are only so prescriptive — they’re written to allow teams a certain degree of freedom, which is the foundation of the constructors championship.

“Ultimately [the rules] define some boxes in which we’re allowed to put bodywork, and then we’ll put the best possible bodywork we can invent into those boxes,” Williams chief technical officer Paddy Lowe explained. “It will be difficult to make the cars look exactly like they’ve drawn for that reason.”

Though of course there is another way.

“We see in other forms of racing that is achievable, but they are often categories with fixed designs so everyone races the same car, so you don’t have the extremes of design that we have in Formula One,” Brawn said.

“Formula Two cars, for instance, lose less performance when they’re racing together. The new IndyCar is quite good in that respect, and we’ve been sharing some information with IndyCar on their experiences.”

And so the sport strikes on that great philosophical debate of balancing the delivery of the spectacle promised by its car concept with the maintenance of the design freedom underpinning the constructors championship. The former comes at the cost of pushing the sport closer towards a spec racing series; the latter yields little improvement in the competitive outlook.

In other words, where does F1 sit in terms of form over function? There’s no easy answer, but time’s running out to decide.