The facts from the season so far are very clear: this is indeed the fastest world championship that we have ever seen. However, that was to be expected. After all, the objective was always to evolve aerodynamics, with more than 20% extra downforce compared to 2016, as well as wider tyres to guarantee faster cornering speeds. The end goal was to achieve lap times around five seconds faster than two years ago, when the decision to undertake this technical revolution was rubber-stamped. It was moment of history: only when turbocharging came along in the second half of 1970s have the Formula 1® rules changed so drastically with the specific intention of increasing speed.
Many of the regulatory decisions taken over the last two decades have been designed with exactly the opposite effect: that of slowing cars down to enhance safety. And that’s worked well: today’s cars are clearly safer than they have ever been before. As for this year though, it’s another target entirely. The latest generation of Formula 1® cars are visibly faster, more aggressive, and more difficult to drive: the extra downforce through corners means that a more aggressive driving style can be adopted. In the big fast corners and the braking areas at the end of the straights, human factors make a major difference once more.
At the Spanish Grand Prix, on a hugely demanding Barcelona track with a wide range of technical challenges, this resulted in a thrilling race. The hard-fought battle between Lewis Hamilton (who went on to win) and Sebastian Vettel will go down in history as one of the most pugnacious duels ever seen in F1®. And there were similar stories in Australia, China and Bahrain. Now we move on to the jewel in Formula 1®’s crown, Monaco, for hostilities to recommence between Ferrari and Mercedes.
Vettel leads the championship with a small advantage over Hamilton: only the two of them have managed to rack up a pair of victories each this year. Two world champions, fighting tooth and nail for the sport’s top prize: exactly what we all want to see. And with such powerful cars capable of delivering massive performance even in the most challenging places, the top drivers have a certain advantage. When they know that they can push at their hardest, even right on the limit of what’s possible, the championship fight becomes even more enthralling.
Because this is the stuff that true champions are made of: the higher the performance, the better they get. And this year, the speeds are truly phenomenal. Right from the very first race of the year, the step forward compared to 2016 was very high. At Melbourne, the first race of the year, pole position was 4.1 seconds quicker than that of two years ago: the year in which the new regulations were formulated. The same pole position improvement was seen in China, while the improvement in Bahrain and Russia was 3.8 and 3.9 seconds respectively. In Spain, the increase compared to 2015 was even bigger: five and a half seconds. Looking at the entire picture so far, lap times have been lowered by an average of 6.5% – rendering any more detailed examples of how the cars have become quicker largely redundant. And don’t forget that technical development has only just begun this year: Spain was merely the fifth of 20 races on the calendar and there is a lot more progress still to be made. But now on to Monaco, where the main characteristics are the lowest average speed of the entire season, and also the slowest corner seen all year: the re-baptised Fairmont Hairpin, which was formerly called the Loews Hairpin and before then the Station Hairpin. There’s only one big technical priority in the principality, which is generating the maximum possible downforce even at reasonably modest speeds. As a result, the cars tend to sprout all forms of aerodynamic appendices in Monaco: including deflectors and extra wings. But we should also be able to see how the wider tyres (25% wider compared to a year ago) influence cornering behaviour. Road-holding will be better and traction will improve because of the new tyres, leading to higher speeds. Given that Monaco is all about one corner after another, then overall lap times should be considerably lower. So, this year basically centres around the need for speed: more and more speed. That’s not going to change in the near future. Not even in the tight and twisty confines of Monaco.