Five big rule changes the FIA introduced to reel in dominant F1 teams

Thomas Maher
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel on track racing at the 2011 British Grand Prix. Silverstone, July 2011. rule changes

Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel on track racing at the 2011 British Grand Prix. Silverstone, July 2011.

With Red Bull’s current pace advantage somewhat unknown, there have been accusations of ‘sand-bagging’ levelled at the reigning Champions. But why, if they are disguising their pace, would Red Bull seek to hide their speed?

With accusations coming from the Mercedes camp aimed at Red Bull’s RB19 being considerably faster than what the Milton Keynes-based squad are currently showing, the logic behind the thinking is that Red Bull don’t want to have the FIA make an intervention to try curtailing their speed.

On several occasions in the recent past, rule changes have been made with the aim of shaking up the order or throwing a spanner in the works of a dominant team. Here are some of the most egregious examples of when the FIA made rule changes seemingly aimed at slowing down a dominant team.

Mercedes – FRICS (2014)

With Mercedes absolutely dominating the field at the start of the hybrid era in 2014, there appeared to be no quick and easy solutions to reign in the speed of the Brackley-based team.

While an engine freeze wasn’t in place, the use of an engine ‘token’ system restricted development to the point where Ferrari and Renault simply couldn’t make strides forward on the power unit front.

But one change was made during the 2014 season which seemed to be aimed squarely at the Mercedes team, with the FIA moving to ban the FRICS system utilised efficiently on the W05.

FRICS (Front and Rear Interconnected Suspension) was outlawed in the middle of 2014, with the FIA claiming it fell under the rules of a movable aerodynamic device, with the rule change coming in ahead of the German Grand Prix, round 10 – this was shortly after Charlie Whiting wrote to the teams to explain that, under his interpretation, the system fell foul of the Technical Regulations.

While all the teams had employed FRICS in their designs, with the technology in use for some five years at the time, the W05 was believed to be particularly strong in how it used the suspension system – linking the two sides of the car’s suspension as well as the front and rear and, as a result, all eyes were on Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg at Hockenheim.

A crash for Hamilton in Q1 raised eyebrows, which later turned out to be brake related, but the ban appeared to have little effect on Mercedes’ competitiveness – Rosberg took pole position and dominated the race, while Hamilton climbed back through the field to finish in third.

Red Bull would win the next two races, in Hungary and Belgium, but Mercedes resumed their stranglehold on the sport after the summer break.

With FRICS banned outright, Mercedes’ then-executive director Paddy Lowe explained how the team had to make changes to their 2015 design.

“FRICS was banned in the middle of last year, out of the blue really, so we had to react as best we could around it,” he commented.

“The 2014 car was based around FRICS and it was central to the suspension concept. So, with FRIC illegal in 2015, we took a fresh look for the 2015 car which has been a big topic but there was plenty of time to react to it between Hockenheim and now.”

Renault – Mass damper (2006)

Renault won six of the opening nine races of the 2006 F1 World Championship, only for a mid-season rule change to put the Enstone-based team on the back foot to the extent that eventual Champion Fernando Alonso won just one race in the back nine.

Renault had discovered a device, introduced to their R25 towards the end of 2005, called a mass damper. This was a free-moving weight, suspended within a cylinder, that was positioned inside the nosecone of the car.

This mechanical device was effectively used as a counterweight to keep the front wing pushed as close to the ground as possible, keeping the car settled and allowing for more compliance over the kerbs as a car was launched upward.

Customising the weight as needed for each circuit, the advantage was such that Renault would eventually fit a mass damper to the rear of the R26 as well. But, following a complaint from McLaren as other teams followed suit, the FIA pointed to the same ‘movable aerodynamic device’ section of the rulebook, citing that the primary purpose of the device was not mechanical assistance but being used to improve a car’s aerodynamics.

While stewards at the German Grand Prix interpreted the device as legal as the arguing began, the FIA appealed the decision of their own stewards – Renault choosing not to use mass dampers on their cars as they feared disqualification.

Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella came home in fifth and sixth, while Ferrari stormed to a 1-2 finish. Ferrari would go on to win most of the remaining races, although Renault managed to scrape across the line to win the title the Brazil.

Renault’s Pat Symonds was immediately forthright about how much the mass damper ban had hurt his team – estimating the loss at about two-tenths of a second per lap.

The question is why Renault were reined in. While victorious in 2005, McLaren MP4/20 was frequently a quicker car and, while Fernando Alonso won frequently in 2006 as the reigning Champion, there was nothing resembling ‘dominance’ about Renault’s performance.

Perhaps the politics of the time, with a Jean Todt-led Ferrari trying to return to winning ways after a sub-par 2005, is to blame – Todt being happy to side with the FIA and President Max Mosley on most matters, while the Flavio Briatore-led Renault team were less willing to toe the party line.

Ferrari – Tyre changes banned (2005)

Following on from Ferrari’s utter dominance in 2004, a rather strange rule was introduced for the 2005 season as the FIA evaluated ways to shake things up. With the 2004 cars the fastest ever seen in F1 up to that point (some 2004 track records still stand to this day), some aerodynamics changes were introduced with the ostensible aim of slowing the cars a smidge.

But one particular rule change really caught the eye – that of banning tyre changes during a race, and penalising anyone who did. To that end, drivers had to use one set of tyres to get through qualifying and the entirety of the Grand Prix.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was a remarkably ridiculous rule, with obvious safety concerns – an example being Kimi Raikkonen’s suspension exploding on the final lap of the European Grand Prix after refusing to pit to change a flat-spotted tyre.

But the rule completely put a kybosh on Ferrari’s season. While most of the frontrunners ran on the Michelin tyres, Ferrari were the only team from the front half of the grid to run the Bridgestone tyres – the Japanese manufacturer struggling to create a tyre with the same longevity or performance as the Michelins.

Ferrari would see out the season as distant spectators to the Renault vs. McLaren title fight, with defending Champion Michael Schumacher’s sole win coming courtesy of the infamously disastrous United States Grand Prix as the Michelin runners were unable to compete.

With Ferrari toppled from the top after five consecutive titles, the rule was removed for 2006. Immediately, Ferrari and Bridgestone joined back in the title fight.

Williams – Active suspension (1994)

Patrick Head and Adrian Newey’s FW14B was an evolvement of 1991’s FW14, with the design being altered to incorporate a Frank Dernie-developed active suspension system.

Despite the car not being a fully optimised package, Nigel Mansell used it to devastating effect to win the title with nine victories and a points score of almost double anybody else.

Having had the FW15 ready in the wings from the late summer of 1992, the 1993 car was designed from the get-go to utilise the active suspension, as well as incorporating ABS, traction control, semi-automatic and fully-automatic transmission.

Alain Prost, returning from a year out of the sport, romped to the 1993 title before promptly retiring again just as the FIA intervened to shake things up for 1994. The governing body outright banned active suspension, as well as the continuously-variable transmission Williams had been testing in the lead-up to the new season.

ABS, traction control, and launch control were also all banned, with the cars effectively forced into being ‘passive’ cars after being designed around being ‘active’. Williams were hit particularly hard, with the FW16 proving cumbersome and tricky – even in the hands of new signing, three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna.

The events of 1994 are well-documented, as Senna would die as a result of a crash at the wheel of the FW16 at the San Marino Grand Prix. With Benetton and Michael Schumacher falling foul of the FIA for various transgressions throughout the year, Damon Hill would take a grieving Williams team through to a title showdown in Adelaide but would lose out due to a collision with Schumacher.

Red Bull – Blown diffuser ban (2011)

A particularly complicated piece of technology was utilised to great effect by Red Bull, again under Adrian Newey, after the arrival of double diffusers in 2009.

Moving the exhaust down towards the floor and funnelling the exhaust output over the diffusers, Red Bull were able to keep their diffuser sealed for a greater portion of the lap. However, this move was taken to extremes by the addition of off-throttle gas blowing over the diffuser.

Through clever engine mapping, Red Bull and Renault were able to unlock short-term lap-time gain (ie. over a qualifying lap) by using a technique called ‘hot-blowing’. This involved mapping the torque in order to keep gas flowing over the diffuser, even while the driver was off-throttle, thus ensuring downforce was continuously generated throughout all phases of a corner.

Sebastian Vettel, in particular, proved particularly adept at adjusting to the unique driving method and confidence the system required of its driver, taking the 2010 title and storming to the 2011 title.

The FIA attempted to introduce the ban at the 2011 British Grand Prix, with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso beating Vettel to claim his only win of the year, but the ban was lifted for the remainder of the season before being applied properly for 2012.

The reason for the faffing about was due to the fact the teams simply couldn’t come to an agreement about the mid-season change.

With different teams and manufacturers using different engine mapping, the FIA ban had sought to ban engine maps simulating throttle conditions of more than 10%. However, Renault couldn’t run their engines reliably at that setting, seeking and gaining an exemption to allow them to run up to 50% of full throttle on the mapping.

With the Mercedes-powered teams protesting this, Horner revealed Mercedes teams had also sought an exemption due to pressures rising within the crank case. The FIA would revoke Renault’s concessions, but keep Mercedes’ in place – the matter ended up going before the sport’s Technical Working Group with Charlie Whiting.

With team and technical bosses unable to come to an agreement, and the Ferrari-powered teams refusing to sign an agreement to go back to a Valencia-specification of the rule, the FIA gave up on trying to ban exhaust-blown diffusers mid-season and introduced the ban the following year.

While Red Bull would go on to win in 2012 as well, their advantage was vastly smaller, as Newey explained how the change hit their car hard.

“It’s pretty much as we feared before the season started,” Newey told Autosport in 2012.

“Having explored exhaust-blowing technology quite heavily for two seasons and then having that taken away together with other changes like the front wing flexibility [test rules], hurt us quite a lot. Probably [it hurt us] more than other people because we had been exploiting it for longer. It has taken a while to try to understand what we need to do and to recover.”

Honourable mention

Mercedes – DAS and floor rule changes (2021)

Mercedes’ W11 proved the class of the field in 2020, with the car featuring a revolutionary bit of kit in the form of ‘DAS’ – a ‘Dual-Axis Steering’ system which allowed Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to change the toe angle of the front wheels by pulling or pushing on the steering wheel while going down straights.

The system caught the eye of the world during pre-season testing and, while Mercedes claimed the system made little difference to their outright speed, it certainly was no hindrance as both drivers used it throughout the season.

While the system was ruled legal after alarm bells were sounded by other teams, the FIA moved to ban it outright by rewording the Sporting Regulations for 2021.

With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting in early 2020, steps were taken to ease the financial pressure on the teams as a result of reduced sponsorship, viewership, and racing activity. To that end, the 2020 cars were carried forward on into 2021, with the FIA introducing a token system which teams could cash in to make changes to their 2021 designs.

While the technical rules remained largely static, with the exemption of the ban on DAS, Mercedes’ design was also hurt by aerodynamic rule changes aimed at reducing the potency of the floor to reduce downforce levels.

The rule change ended up hurting the low-rake design philosophies the most, with Mercedes and Racing Point being particularly hard hit.

On the other side, high-rake designs such as Red Bull’s RB16B ended up making a clear step forward on rear stability. The season proved a cat-and-mouse hunt throughout, with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen having various ebbs and flows – the gap between the W12 and the RB16B proving circuit-dependent as opposed to the clear advantage Mercedes had had in 2020.