The 2022 F1 season returned this month in much the same way as the extraordinary 2021 season ended, with racing under floodlights in the Middle East. But much has changed since the dramatic climax to the 2021 season in Abu Dhabi. In particular, new Sporting, Technical, and Financial Regulations were deployed for the first time in Bahrain earlier this month. These changes included implementing the recommendations set out in the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile’s investigation report into the final laps of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which was published during the Bahrain GP weekend (see, Report to the World Motor Sport Council dated 19 March 2022 (the “Report”).
So what are the key changes to look out for this season?
The cars look very different
The FIA has introduced a brand new set of Technical Regulations in an effort to promote more overtaking and more competitive races. Many of these changes relate to aerodynamics. In recent seasons, F1 cars have struggled to overtake, which has been attributed to a loss of downforce caused by driving in the ‘dirty’ air produced by the car in front. F1 cars in 2022 have re-shaped front and rear wings, new floors designed to produce more downforce, and bigger wheels, which it is hoped will allow cars behind to overtake more easily. Based on the first two races of the season, it appears to be working.
The FIA has changed the safety car rules
The controversial finale to the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was linked to the safety car rules in the 2021 Formula 1 Sporting Regulations, namely whether or not all lapped cars had to un-lap themselves before normal racing was allowed to resume. The FIA has now changed the rules in the 2022 Sporting Regulations to make it clear that "all" lapped cars must un-lap themselves before a restart after a safety car period. The old wording was “any cars” and this change appears designed to avoid any room for debate should a safety car once again be deployed at the end of a race.
Further, software has been developed for the 2022 season to automate the process of communicating which cars must un-lap themselves (to replace the old manual process).
The FIA has restructured the race director role
The F1 race director is F1’s version of a referee. Michael Masi was the race director from 2019 to 2021, and was in charge of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. He has since been replaced, and the FIA has chosen to share the role of race director between two individuals: (1) Eduardo Freitas, former race director in the World Endurance Championship; and (2) Niels Wittich, former race director in the DTM German Touring Car Championship. Both Freitas and Wittich will alternate and be assisted by Herbie Blash, former deputy race director, who will now adopt the role of permanent senior advisor to race directors. The Report confirms that this move was implemented to “reduce the workload of the race director and allow them to focus on their key functions, including managing and controlling the race”.
In a further move to safeguard the decision-making process, direct radio communications between the teams and the race director during the race have been removed in order “to protect the race director from any pressure and allow him to take decisions peacefully”, and “without unnecessary disruption and distractions”, although teams are still able to ask questions to the race director provided they are made in accordance with “a well-defined and non-intrusive process”.
The FIA has introduced a new form of VAR-style decision making
The FIA has also introduced a Virtual Race Control Room (“VRCR”), which is set to be similar to the Video Assistance Referee (VAR) system in football. The aim is to assist the race director in the decision-making process and to apply the relevant regulations accurately. According to the FIA President, Mohammed ben Sulayem, the FIA will use the “most modern technological tools” to support the race director. The VRCR will be located in the FIA’s Geneva office and there will be real-time connection with the race director at the track. It will be interesting to see how the VRCR process works in practice, and whether it can provide quick and accurate decision-making.
What happens next?
The new rules were put to the test for the first time this month. Whilst they may have some 'teething issues' (if the introduction of VAR is anything to go by), the FIA’s reforms appear to be broadly welcomed by the teams and appeared, from the outside at least, to have been implemented smoothly during the Bahrain and Saudi Arabian Grands Prix. It will, however, be intriguing to see how the new rules perform under racing pressure during the course of the season.