With the 2022 season now in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to start getting excited about Formula 1 in 2023.
The first year of Formula 1’s revolutionary new ruleset may have resulted in a less interesting championship battle than 2021, with Max Verstappen and Red Bull romping their way to both titles, but there’s plenty of grounds for optimism in the years ahead.
Most of this optimism comes from the largely stable regulations. While the winter of 2021/22 saw the formbook torn up due to the switch to a ground-effect formula, the rules remain broadly the same for 2023.
Aside from tweaks being made to the floor regulations in order to negate the effects of porpoising, the teams are able to further pursue avenues they’ve identified as potentially yielding huge amounts of performance. If any teams made a mistake with their initial designs in 2022, 2023 represents the opportunity to start over with a new concept – perhaps by following in the footsteps of another team’s existing idea, if they so wanted.
This means there are a huge amount of question marks for the new season. While Red Bull’s RB18 was the class of the field in 2022, do the team see that concept as being the one to pursue and sink further time into? Might Ferrari, whose F1-75 was the standard when it came to single-lap pace, commit further to their design and emerge on top? Or could Mercedes’ unusual sidepod-less W13 be the base upon which Brackley unleash a honed and refined weapon for next season? The possibility is there that any team could show up with something unique, having scrapped their 2022 base.
What seems certain is that, with a stable rulebook, the process of convergence on the fastest design will begin. Put simply, the gains found by teams through design tweaking become ever smaller. While a team can steal a march in the first year of a new rulebook, stable regulations, by their nature, result in an ever-lowering ceiling for gains. Mercedes, for example, may have struggled with their W13 in the first year, but the team made the argument that they saw a higher ceiling for development over the coming years.
F1 is also entering its second year of the current engine freeze, meaning no performance-based hardware development is permitted. Teams are able to make changes to the power units, but only in the name of reliability, or through software tweaks.
Nothing much is changing on the tyre front either, although Pirelli are set to bring tyre compounds aimed at increasing front-end grip in a bid to reduce the inherent understeer encountered by the heavier cars under the new rules.
All-in-all, 2023 is a reset of the chessboard, with the teams coming back to the table with far more knowledge and data than they had at the same point last season.
Tightening budget cap and aero restrictions will play their part
2023 will be the third year of the Financial Regulations, with the budget cap set to tighten to $135 million (before inflation-related adjustments are introduced) to restrict each team’s car and performance-related spending to this figure.
The teams are already getting used to this new restriction that rewards ingenuity, rather than financial splurging, meaning even the bigger teams can’t just spend their way out of trouble.
As the budget cap rules mature, the inherent financial advantage the bigger teams have enjoyed in recent years will slowly equalise with the smaller teams behind them, even if momentum has kept the likes of Red Bull, Ferrari, and Mercedes at the very top to start off.
Added to the difficulties facing the bigger teams is that the Aerodynamic Testing Rules restrict the amount of wind tunnel and CFD time they are permitted. This means that Constructors’ Champions Red Bull get the least amount of time to use these tools to help correlate their simulations, Ferrari get marginally more, Mercedes get a little more than that, and so on and so forth throughout the field.
Red Bull’s problems are even worse for 2023, with their Minor Overspend Breach of the 2021 budget cap meaning they’ve been hit with a further aero testing restriction – this could have a significant impact on the in-season development of the RB19.
However, the fact that Red Bull’s overspending breach (as well as Aston Martin’s and Williams’ more minor transgressions) from 2021 took so long to be rooted out means that it’s never quite possible to fully put a championship season behind us for months. The FIA’s analysis of the 2022 spending will be carried out in early 2023, with any overspending likely to meet with even harsher penalties.
Where can F1 still find ways to improve?
While 2022 was a minor stumbling block in terms of on-track competition, the pieces are all in place to help ensure that competition should close up – something which could result in a phenomenal year of racing, given how the new regulations clearly helped with direct wheel-to-wheel combat.
But there are still areas of frustration that the sport can look to find better solutions. For instance, the issue of track limits was borderline ludicrous on occasion in 2022. While new Race Directors Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas removed any inconsistency in terms of defining track limits by simply making the white line the edge of the circuit, the nature of some circuits and driver visibility resulted in numerous drivers picking up penalties (think back to the ridiculous situation at the Austrian Grand Prix).
One solution to this would be to simply introduce gravel traps or grass but, given the clear reluctance to do so at most venues, even a thin strip of the same to separate the track from a tarmac escape area would be enough to slow the cars enough to negate any advantage of exploiting the limits.
With the rulebook being tightened up by the FIA in the wake of the fallout from the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, one key weakness that needs addressing is that of red/yellow flags being caused in qualifying.
A prime example of this is the now-infamous Sergio Perez crash at Monaco on the final runs in Q3, when the Mexican lost control at Portier and slid off backwards into the barrier. Unintentional or otherwise, Perez’s crash had the effect of securing him third place on the grid ahead of Max Verstappen – a position he consolidated into a win the following day.
There were plenty of such incidents throughout 2022, with Perez’s perhaps the most eye-catching, and it prompted Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz to comment that intentional incidents occur even more frequently than the media suspects. Whether fair or unfair on the individual driver involved, it’s perhaps time to introduce a firm and simple rule: bring out a red or yellow flag in a segment of qualifying, and your times in that segment are deleted.
Another qualifying tweak could be to prevent a driver with a grid penalty from taking part in the relevant part of qualifying. Not necessarily applying this rule to those with a five or ten-place grid penalty, but rather those who are already confirmed as starting from the back of the grid or from the pitlane. After all, in a championship battle, should a back-of-the-grid starter be allowed progress into Q3 where they have no task other than to help their teammate (or, intentionally or otherwise, hinder a rival)?
Can Max Verstappen strike again?
While there is the possibility of Red Bull hitting a stumbling block, particularly once 2023 in-season development comes into play, all the signs are there that the Milton Keynes-based team struck gold with their first attempt at the new regulations.
With both Ferrari and Mercedes having key performance weaknesses to address, Red Bull’s big advantage in 2022 means they can concentrate on unlocking further performance over the winter.
But, even if Red Bull do show up with the quickest car package again in 2023, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to romp to a similarly dominant championship win – the way the regulations have been set up specifically targets to hamstring a leading team (even before the imposition of further punishment!).
The winter break gives Mercedes the chance to right the wrongs of their 2022 design, and gives Ferrari the chance to regroup under new team boss Frederic Vasseur. And what of the likes of Alpine, Aston Martin, and McLaren – might any of the supporting cast be able to take that step forward into the limelight?
2022 is now behind us, but F1 looks to be in a hugely healthy state as we gear up to do it all again: it’s only a few weeks until the F1 2023 car launches get underway, before the attention turns to testing and the season beginning in Bahrain.
From all of us at PlanetF1.com, have a very healthy and happy New Year – we look forward to sharing F1 2023 with you all!