For the last few years Formula One development has been focused on refining a long-standing baseline design, delivering diminishing returns as teams honed in on very similar concepts.
The biggest gains were found in successful manipulation of airflow around the diffuser to increase rear-end downforce along with some innovative but controversial material approaches to flexing bodywork. But even then, finding a tenth of a second was hard.
In 2014 some of those old opportunities – in particular blown diffusers - have closed but many new ones are likely to open up.
New regulations mean a fresh page, and it is here where the benefit of top innovative designers will make all the difference.
The rulebook confines designers in certain areas, and can be very restrictive, but in this period of evolution there is still much more opportunity to think differently to others and find openings that rivals may not have thought of.
Which means visually, this year’s cars could look very different.
One of the biggest changes at the front is the front wing, which has been reduced by 75mm on each side – a small but significant change.
In recent years, a lot of work has been done on the end plates and outboard flaps on the front wing, with the aim of steering airflow around the outside of the front wheel and quickly turning it back in to fill the hole of air behind the tyre.
This creates two benefits – delivering clean airflow to the underbody and reducing some of the drag caused by the front wheels.
Now this area of the wing will be much further inboard, right in front of the wheel rather than on its outer edge, and that will make it much harder to steer the airflow cleanly around it.
This, therefore, could well be one of the key areas of early aggressive concept development – although teams could well hide their initial solutions until the opening race.
The other big change at the front is on car noses, which are likely to look a bit ridiculous due to a lack of foresight in the rules.
The nose shape is determined by a reference plane at the end of the front chassis, the definition of the front crash structure and a new reference plane at the tip of the nose, which demands bodywork to be located much lower than it was last year.
So far, predictions suggest teams will keep the front chassis high, scooping out the underside and going right up to the maximum permitted height on top. This will go right to the end of the crash structure, but then to meet the regulations they will have to create a narrow drooping nose to the top. If teams do go this way, the cars are going to look rather odd.
Further back, the sidepods will need to become a little wider due to larger crash structure requirements as well as the additional turbo intercooler and battery cooling on top of traditional oil and water radiators.
Any increase in frontal area, however, comes at the cost of additional drag so teams will try to squeeze the sidepods, and therefore cooling, down to the limit. Some big gains could be made by getting this right but it’s a very delicate balance that could also go very wrong – witness Red Bull’s struggles with KERS due to overheating.
At the rear, the beam wing, which sat just above the gearbox, is now banned – and although it appears to be another minor amend, it will make a big difference.
The beam wing created a slotted wing effect between its lower surface and the top of the diffuser, driving air upwards and delivering a resultant downward force at the rear of the car. It also created an air pressure ‘hole’ to help suck air through the diffuser and make it work even harder to deliver downforce.
All that opportunity will now be gone, and so too will the ability to steer exhaust flow down to the diffuser, with the rules requiring a single exhaust that must exit in a very specific place in the centre of the car, high above the rear wheels.
That will have a big impact for now – but the teams soon got round the FIA’s previous plan to stop this (the positioning of exhausts in the sidepods pointing upwards) by using the Coanda effect so it will be interesting to see if any clever designer comes up with a concept to get round the rules once again.
One other change at the rear end is a more effective DRS, which will open 15mm wider than previously in a bid to counteract the loss of KERS overtaking boost now the delivery of electric power is drip-fed rather than on the push of a button.
Finally, drivers will also have to get used to an eight-speed gearbox – the first time ever in F1 – and teams will have to choose their gear ratios at the start and use the same one all year rather than having 30 and selecting seven at each race. That will be a major restriction and dramatically reduces the set-up options available to a driver.
But all of this gives a great opportunity for the design office.
Since the last major rule change, there a new wave of designers has made their way up the ladder. Names like James Allison and Ben Agathangelou (Ferrari), Matt Morris (McLaren), Mike Elliot (Mercedes) and Nick Chester (Lotus) – and these are just a few – are now in key positions but so far have only had limited opportunity to truly show their talents.
The development and growth of new aerodynamic concepts often offers the potential for greatest gains – and the complexities of this ‘black art’ mean the solutions are not always the same for different cars.
Resources are, of course, vital for iterative gain, which is why the top teams are likely to rise to the top once again. But one man – be it a good leader or a clever member of an engineering team - can make a major difference in a situation like this.
Red Bull technical boss Adrian Newey is renowned for his ability to benefit from regulation changes – but he’s not yet been up against some of the younger engineers with this kind of change before.
So if there is any moment that the next Newey will emerge, this is it.