In recent times performance development in Formula 1 is becoming ever more difficult as the technical regulations become more restrictive, and as the financial cost and resource caps have come into existence.
However, even though it might not be as clearly visible as it might have been in the past, innovation isn’t just possible still in F1, it is alive and kicking, just in different guises than what we are used to.
Innovation is inherent to the definition of F1
If you were to ask me what I thought Formula 1’s greatest innovation was, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer the monocoque chassis because it was such a lateral concept at the time, but also so effective that not only is it still used in an evolved manner to this day in all forms of open wheel racing at the highest level, but the concept was also adopted by global automotive OEM’s and used as a design fundamental in the modern road-going vehicle.
The very existence of the F1 Constructors Championship validates the need to innovate in F1, and throughout the decades since its inception, a multitude of innovations, both major and minor, have permeated the boundaries of the sport to have a significant influence on the general automotive engineering field.
Many features on the modern road-going car were derived from technologies that had their infancy as innovations in F1, and the very need for innovation to be successful in the sport has often been one of the primary rationales behind OEMs entering the sport in some capacity in the first instance.
That need to find the types of new ideas, methods and resources that might result in competitive advantage is not only the very essence of what the Constructors was founded on, and the need to do so is just as important now as it ever has been, but it is also the fundamental differentiator when benchmarking F1 against other elite level open wheel competitions and motorsports in general.
Engineers will always find a way to innovate
Contrary to a technical regime that is continually converging performance in F1 towards parity in the pursuance of a championship with a higher probability of a more diverse competitive spread, and financial and resource restrictions designed to limit the ability to innovate to find a competitive advantage, to their credit, teams still find a way.
In the past during times of more open and liberal technical frameworks F1 designers and engineers have innovated in a manner that was generally more tangible from the perspective of the fan standing on the side of the circuit, or watching on television, but as the technical regulations and other introduced regulative restrictions have clamped down over time, teams still do innovate, but the results haven’t been so palpable, but nevertheless, they do exist.
The manner in which F1 teams innovate in 2022 has changed significantly to times past, and the innovative focus is no longer so centrically biased directly to the car performance development itself, but rather to the processes and resources required, driving much-needed efficiency and fast-tracked results in a highly competitive and dynamic engineering field with ever-tightening financial and time restrictions.
We can conjure up images of drivers in the loop simulators and wind tunnel test cells, but we shouldn’t be so naïve as to think for one second that we know what those images might actually really look like because all we have ever seen is the generic imagery they want us to see, for the reality is that the types of technologies that the teams really use in these areas are so highly evolved and bespoke that anyone that accesses them are essentially vetted to a degree similar to being allowed access to knowledge of national importance.
There are very good reasons why F1 tunnel aerodynamicists and simulator technical staff go on extended gardening leave when they ever decide to change teams.
This is typical of the type of indirect innovation that the current F1 environment is precipitating.
New ways of innovating
For the 2021 season the FIA introduced a financial cost cap for the first time in the history of the sport, and it is this area which will probably be one of the main focuses of innovation in F1 in the immediate future as teams look for ways to spend money in an efficient manner whilst maximising the cost benefit impact that it has on on-track performance development.
A part of this innovation process might also involve F1 teams diversifying into industry sectors outside of F1, using those external activities to better define and refine the processes for their F1 pursuits whilst outside of the F1 cost cap.
Without innovation F1 will no longer be F1
Both F1 World Championships are about winning in bespoke designs, and it this aspect of F1 that needs to be closely guarded and sustained, otherwise F1 will no longer be what it is, and rather just another generic spec series.
Regardless of how restrictive the F1 technical regulations are, so long as F1 is contested in unique designs, the need to innovate will aways exist, but the fear is that as those regulations become more prescriptive as time goes by the need to innovate to provide performance advantage becomes more important, whilst the ability to do so becomes more restricted.
Perhaps the sport is now at a juncture with the existence of cost and resource capping, introduced to ensure a more sustainable business model so that technical and other restrictions, such as those for in-season F1 testing, are relaxed somewhat within those caps so that innovation isn’t quashed altogether, and that F1 is allowed to be what it always has been, a centre of engineering excellence.