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Source: Racer Magazine

F1's regulations are finally delivering what they promised

by Chris Medland | June 11th, 2024

It is somewhat ironic that the 2026 technical regulations were announced last week and became such a big talking point over the Canadian Grand Prix weekend, at a time when the current set of rules are actually doing exactly what they promised to do.

What I would argue was the biggest failing of the 2022 rules was the timing of the cost cap introduction, which came too early for the playing field to change much on a financial front. It's not that there could have been much done in the way of a different approach, but with hindsight that really should have tempered expectations of multiple teams fighting for wins.

New regulations always provide an opportunity for one team to get it more right than anyone else, and the cost cap meant the biggest teams had the best chance. But they also didn't have the unlimited spending power to react to anyone - in this case Red Bull - working out the most effective approach first.

So it's taken longer than expected, but this season has finally started to deliver race weekends where there are a number of different teams in the picture to win races.

While Max Verstappen's championship lead was extended to more than two race victories in Canada on Sunday, he had to work extremely hard for it in a race that could easily have gone the way of Lando Norris or George Russell.

It's not outrageous to suggest McLaren could actually have won the last four races, with Norris just one lap away from being able to try and snatch victory from Verstappen in Imola, and Oscar Piastri also just 0.154s away from a pole position in Monaco that would have almost certainly led to a win with the way that race panned out.

Sure, it's all hypothetical, but it's a sign of how hard Red Bull is being made to work for some of its wins, consistently by McLaren but also very often by Ferrari. And now, potentially, by Mercedes, too.

And while points are so hard to come by for those teams further back behind Aston Martin and RB, this is still happening at a time when every driver was covered by less than 1.2s around a qualifying lap at Imola.

It’s worth noting that we're still at a point in the season where this column could well look like it has aged extremely poorly in the coming weeks, with tracks such as Barcelona likely to play far more to Red Bull's strengths than any of the last three. The last venue that didn't highlight the RB20’s significant weaknesses - China - saw Verstappen win by over 13 seconds after a 25-lap run to the flag after a Safety Car period.

But since then, McLaren has introduced the major upgrade that has led to its far more consistent run, while Ferrari had its own package in Imola that kept it in the fight before Charles Leclerc's win in Monaco. And then the recent Mercedes steps led to it having the fastest car in the dry in Montreal, taking pole position but falling short of converting that into a win amid the changing conditions.

McLaren improved consistency has allowed it to spook Red Bull more frequently this season than in years past. Patrick Vinet/Motorsport Images

Yet Canada showed just how hard teams have to work for their successes now. Not only Red Bull - where Verstappen's win was offset by another DNF for Sergio Perez, who dropped out in Q1 - but also Ferrari, enduring a horror weekend in which neither car reached Q3 or saw the checkered flag.

This is exactly what the new regulations were meant to deliver. One team winning all the time because it does a better job is impressive, but it is so much better when it does that job under the highest pressure. Now, the stakes are so high at many venues that an off-weekend threatens to cost front-runners places in the top 10, let alone on the podium.

Verstappen's latest victory, coupled with Leclerc's failure to finish, has opened up a sizable advantage even before we head to venues where Red Bull will have to be made favorites at this point. But with 15 rounds still to go there will be plenty of opportunities for multiple drivers to take points off the defending champion, even if it's so unlikely to be regular enough to really make a title fight out of the year.

What was most exciting about Canada, though, was the addition of Mercedes to that fight. There are likely to be plenty of far worse weekends for Toto Wolff's team, but it has finally shown how big a threat it can be with a car that it is starting to understand better and better, bringing rapid performance steps as a result.

So now, hopes of a competitive weekend where Verstappen is going to be challenged do not rest on just one competitor, but at least one from three to get things right. At any given track it could be McLaren, or Ferrari, or Mercedes, but it's further reducing the number of times a Sunday morning will start with almost certainty over who is going to be standing on the top step come the end of the race.

You might be asking why F1 is changing the regulations again when everything is trending towards more competitive racing as it is, but the sport always has to evolve, and part of that also involves pegging back the performance levels of the cars to ensure they remain safe and raceable.

As we've seen with the ongoing development of the 2022 rules, the cars rapidly improve - Russell claimed the slowest car this year would now beat last year's dominant Red Bull - and as they do so, they generate performance that makes it harder to follow once again. Resetting the regulations can attempt to address that issue as well as start a brand new development cycle.

And where Russell is also right is in his belief that even if the next generation of car is far slower than the current ones, the most important thing will be that they can race well and there is competition at the front.

It has taken too long in the current cycle to reach this point, but it is clearly being reached, so there are lessons to be learned to help ensure it doesn't take two and a half seasons to get to a similar position after 2026.

Until then, get ready to enjoy even more uncertainty and true fights for wins. (Just maybe not next weekend...)


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