The penultimate preview post is upon us and we can almost smell the unmistakable odour of petrol and burnt rubber as the build-up continues to this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix. This post however is all about the changes to the rules and how they might affect the 2008 season. Unlike previous years, the rule changes don’t seem that big from the outside looking in, but they have affected how the cars will handle and thus may change the way a driver runs a race.
Engine Control Units
At the heart of a Formula One car is its engine, but the power unit is governed by electronics, intended to make it run at its most optimum and prevent the driver from making silly mistakes that may damage the unit. This is the called the engine control unit, or ECU for short. And from 2008, all ECU’s will be same. The reason for making all the units the same is to primarily help the FIA in its policing of the new traction control ban. Last year, the ECU fitted to the cars allowed for greater control during acceleration. If the rear wheels lost traction the ECU would kick in and reduce the power sent to the affected wheel/s, thus allowing greater control of the car, faster acceleration and fewer spins and moments.
The sore point of the standard ECU is that it is made by McLaren Electronic Systems in conjunction with Microsoft. When the news was first announced, I’m sure you could imagine the jokes. But the teams have taken the issue quite seriously, suggesting this gives McLaren an unfair advantage. From a fan’s point of view, the fact that McLaren are involved shouldn’t make too much of a difference, but the fact that traction control has been outlawed will.
We should see more cars smoking away from the grid at the start of the race, we should also see more drivers getting the cars a little out of shape. It’s been a long time since I saw a Formula One car sideways through a corner, and looking at some of the footage from the testing sessions, sideways driving is going to more prevalent this year. This may help with overtaking, but it could also hinder as well. If the lead car gets it wrong under braking (something else the previous ECUs helped with), then the following car will have greater chance at passing. However, if the leading car is looking fine going into the corners, will the following driver want to take the risk and go for a pass?
The gearboxes on all Formula One cars must now last four races. This is all part of the FIA’s cost-cutting measures and follows the two-race engine rule that came into force three years ago. However, as we saw in 2007, most gearboxes last four races without problem, so the only team who might be up the creek without a paddle are Red Bull.
The punishment for changing a gear box (again, Red Bull, listen up) is a five-place grid slot penalty. In other words, if a driver has a fresh ‘box installed in the build-up to the race on Sunday which falls out of his sequence, then he would be starting in his qualifying position less five places. Should a driver get another new gear box in the same weekend, another five places will be docked. However, for drivers who fail to complete a race due to reasons beyond the control of the driver or team, a new gear box may be fitted.
Previously, engines had to last two races, starting from the first race of the season. If a driver has to have his engine changed prior to the race, ten grid slots are deducted form his final qualifying effort. However, while this has been the same since 2005, the FIA have said that the first engine change will go without punishment in 2008. The teams cannot choose when to use this get out of jail free card as it has to be the very first instant of engine replacement. In other words, if Jenson Button’s Honda let’s go in qualifying this Saturday, he won’t receive any punishment for it being replaced.
The engines remain pretty much the same as those used in 2007, thanks to the engine development freeze that came into effect last year. However, the freeze is is now only going to last for five years instead of the previously mooted ten. A new engine will begin development in the meantime to takeover when the time comes. The engines are still restricted to 19,000rpm.
The fuel pumped into the Formula One cars now has to be a minimum of 5.75% biofuel to bring them into line with new road-going cars, that will have this enforced upon them from 2010 onwards.
The area surrounding the drivers head has changed slightly, following the accidents seen in 2007. The head restraints, which curve up from either side of the cockpit and lead up and behind the drivers head, are now higher. This has been implemented to give the driver better head protection in the event that David Coulthard decides to throw his car over someone else, much like the way he did in last years Australian Grand Prix. Although this is probably the biggest change visually to the cars, the new restraints won’t really inhibit the drivers view any more than previously, as the HANS device pretty much obliterated any laterally movement when it came into force in 2001.
The teams may only have two cars built at any one time during the course of a grand prix weekend. This is another part of the FIA’s cost-cutting scheme as they believe it will mean the teams bringing fewer spare parts to races. However, should a crash at the start of a race take both drivers out, but a red flag is shown meaning that both drivers could restart if there was enough time, clearly, both drivers would not be able to restart now.
Once again, the FIA have tweaked with qualifying and altered the final phase slightly. It seems as though they simply cannot cannot get this bit of the weekend right. For 2008, the final phase has been shortened to 10 minutes, but the first part has been extended to 20 minutes. This should hopefully reduce the fuel-burning laps each driver does. Unfortunately, fuel-burning only existed because the teams were forced to start Q3 with the fuel they intended to start the race with. Thus, in order to go as fast as possible, the cars had to be as light as possible. So the teams would fill the cars up and tell the driver to burn as much as possible off in the first 7-10 minutes and then go for it in the final 8-5 minutes. But with a shorter final phase to qualifying this fuel-burning should be limited. The other effect may be shorter first stints in races.
For more information on the rules you can either visit the official Formula One website which has a fairly good breakdown of each major regulation. For the more hardcore among you, the full Sporting & Technical regulations can be downloaded from the FIA website.