The F1 Development Race Explained

Formula 1 is a competitive sport that is always on the cutting edge of technology. Every single part of every car is uniquely designed for maximum performance, down to the nuts and bolts that hold them together. This means there is a constant development race in Formula 1.

The development race in F1 is the constant competition between the teams to develop the fastest car. In order to improve their performance, the teams need to develop their cars throughout the season by bringing new parts and upgrades that will make their cars perform better.

The development race is one of the most important aspects of a Formula 1 season, and it makes it so unique and more competitive than other branches of motorsport. However, the development race is a complicated topic, and we go into more detail all about it below.

What Is The Development Race In F1?

One thing that makes Formula 1 such a special sport is the fact that all the cars and teams are unique. Each car on the grid not only looks different from its competitors, but it must be unique mechanically and aerodynamically. Teams are not allowed to copy one another or share ideas with other teams.

There is the phase of development that is always ongoing in F1. This usually involves designing the car for the following season for example, and this development continues through the winter until the next season starts. However, the development race is something that is always going on behind the scenes during any given F1 season, with teams trying to improve their current cars where they can.

Formula 1 teams need to develop their cars if they want to catch up to the teams ahead of them. Teams do this by bringing new upgrades to their cars during the season. This will allow them to try to beat their competition throughout the season rather than remaining in the same position all year.

Formula 1 is very much a team sport and each Formula 1 team has hundreds of staff members working full time in their factory to develop their cars. Some teams have more resources and can employ more and better staff than others, and they might be able to get their upgrades done much quicker and more effectively than other teams.

Can The ‘Fastest Car’ Change Throughout The Season?

In theory, then, a team can have the slowest car at the beginning of the season, but if they are able to develop it correctly they could end up closer to the front of the pack. It’s unlikely to happen in such a short space of time, but you do often see some teams improving as the season goes on.

It all depends on how the team upgrades their car. Some teams have excellent engineers who can design a good concept and find an element that works well with their car. This can give them a boost up the grid and help them make it towards the front of the grid.

An example of this was Red Bull in 2009. Throughout the 2009 season, we saw Red Bull overtaking Brawn GP in terms of performance late into the season, even though Brawn won 6 out of the first 7 races that year.

In 2021 we saw an exciting development race between Red Bull and Mercedes where the title of ‘fastest car’ swapped hands throughout the season. Mercedes had the upper hand initially, but Red Bull quickly brought in upgrades to become the faster car. Towards the end of the season Mercedes had the upper hand again, and all in all it was a relatively equal season in terms of the development race.

But are F1 teams free to develop their cars throughout a season?

Can F1 Teams Develop Their Cars During The Season?

F1 teams can develop their cars during the seasons during the season as long as they stay within the regulations. The FIA will always thoroughly inspect each upgraded part that is brought in by teams to ensure that it complies with the regulations.

The teams often use time in between races to upgrade specific parts of their cars and improve their overall performance. However, not all teams will focus on the same areas, and there are often different types of upgrades that are brought by different teams.

Because each team’s car is unique from their competitors’, they are always able to identify different areas that they can improve on. Teams can also learn from their competitors, which is why we often see engineers, and sometimes drivers, inspecting their rivals’ cars to find out what they can try to replicate on their own cars.

This happened in the 2009 season with the double diffuser that Brawn GP famously saw so much success with while most of the other teams caught up. By the end of the season, the performance gap shrunk as other teams started using the double diffuser as well, with Red Bull closing the gap in the constructors’ championship to just 20 points, and Sebastian Vettel trailing Jenson Button by just 11.

Aerodynamic Updates

The first and most common type of update that F1 teams will bring in throughout the season is in the form of aerodynamic upgrades. Aerodynamics plays an incredibly important role in Formula 1, and the slightest change in the shape of the wings or bodywork can have a big influence on the car’s performance.

Changing the aerodynamics of the car is relatively easy. Teams need to design a new shape for their front or rear wing, or their car’s general bodywork. These changes are never huge of course, but small changes make a big difference. Adding tweaks to the design can give the car more downforce or less drag depending on what the team wants to achieve.

However, the aerodynamics of the car as a whole have to work together and it needs to produce a clean stream of airflow over the car. This is why a team can’t simply copy what another team is doing with their aerodynamics as it could mess with their car’s overall balance.

Red Bull faced this challenge with their pull rod suspension design at the rear in 2009 making the double diffuser tricky to integrate. They got there in the end of course, but it wasn’t a case of just copying Brawn’s design.

Instead, a team can take inspiration from others, but in the end they will need to adapt the idea to their own car in order to make it work. A car that is unbalanced will become slower than it was before, so getting these kinds of upgrades right is key, otherwise they’re actually downgrades.

Mechanical Updates

Sometimes teams have to bring upgrades for the internal mechanical elements of their cars. This does not happen as often as aerodynamic updates as it takes a lot more time to design and produce them. However, sometimes teams have got elements on their car that simply do not work, and they need changed.

McLaren for example, at the start of the 2022 season, had brakes that kept overheating, negatively impacting their performance. They had to focus all of their development on their brakes in order to find a way to keep them cool, which in turn would improve their performance.

Circuit Specific Updates

Each Formula 1 circuit is unique and has different characteristics and needs. Some circuits have a big focus on power and top speed, while others have more slow, technical corners. F1 teams don’t use exactly the same cars at different types of circuits, which is why they sometimes dedicate upgrade packages to specific circuits.

For example, Monaco is where the teams will bring in a high downforce package. With a slower circuit that has many tight corners, the teams need to have more downforce and grip in order to go faster over the course of the lap. This is where they will bring in larger wings that can produce maximum downforce.

On the other hand, teams will use a completely different setup at faster circuits like Spa and Monza. Downforce is less important here, and the real gains are made on the straights. The teams will then bring upgrade packages with skinnier wings to create less drag and reach higher top speeds.

Teams don’t bring these major packages to every circuit though, and it’s often the most radically different circuits like Monza and Monaco that will have their own dedicated upgrade packages. Teams will also often focus on bringing updates towards the end of the season as they push to beat their competition.

As with all of the different updates teams can bring to their cars as part of the development race, teams must abide by strict rules and technical regulations. But some types of updates that may not normally be allowed can be permitted if they are for the purpose of reliability and not performance.

Reliability Updates

Some cars can start the season with serious reliability issues. When new cars are built, they only have a 100-kilometer shakedown to test their car before preseason testing begins. This is only one-third of a race distance, and it’s not enough to identify any key reliability issues that the car might have.

Shortly before the season starts the team will have their first opportunity to identify any issues with 3-6 days of preseason testing. However, because this is so close to the start of the season, there’s often not enough time to bring reliability upgrades to the first race of the season.

Reliability is crucial in Formula 1. A car might be fast, but if it can’t finish the race it won’t score any points. Teams may need to adapt their designs and bring in new updates to help their car become more reliable, and there are several options in reliability development depending on the issue that the team is facing.

For example, some teams might find that their engines and brakes are overheating too much, and they will have to adapt their cars to direct more cool air into the air intakes. Perhaps the car is too fragile when going over kerbs and bumps, causing shockwaves that damage the mechanical components inside the car.

Whatever it is, a team of engineers will need to figure out what the solution is and send out an upgrade package as soon as possible. But this takes time to put together, and they will also need to speak with the FIA to ensure it is legal. Plus, these upgrades don’t always work as they were intended.

Updates Aren’t Always Good

While you would expect an update to improve the performance of the car, they don’t always do that. Sometimes a team can bring in an update that gives the car worse performance than it had before, and this can be frustrating for both the drivers and the teams as it feels like a big step in the wrong direction.

While teams often improve their car’s performance with in-season updates, there is a chance that it could go wrong. Upgrades are brought in based on ideas and they are tested in simulators. The first time that the team will be able to truly gauge the performance of the upgrades is when it is fitted to the car and sent out on track during the first practice session of the weekend.

The problem with this is that it can be difficult to measure how the new upgrades are affecting the car, as it could simply be the fact that the upgrades did not suit the circuit. This can send the team even further in the wrong direction.

Can F1 Teams Develop Their Engine During A Season?

F1 teams can develop their engines throughout the season, and they can bring different upgrades as long as the engines remain legal. However, during an engine freeze, teams are unable to update their engines unless it is purely for reliability reasons.

Teams can also upgrade their ERS systems by improving their battery and energy recovery systems as long as they abide by strict rules. Teams will often develop their engines as much as legally possible since the engines are such a crucial part of a Formula 1 car and can make the difference between dominating the sport and being up to a second a lap slower.

The Engine Freeze

Teams aren’t always allowed to develop their engines though. There are some scenarios where an engine freeze will be implemented. This has happened several times in the past, with the most recent engine freeze starting on the 1st of March 2022.

During an engine, freeze teams are not allowed to upgrade their engines’ performance or improve them in any way. This rule can be implemented for several reasons, but the most recent engine freeze was brought in to prevent teams from spending unnecessarily on developing their engines, making it easier for them to stay within the strict budget cap.

The engine freeze will be enforced until the start of the 2026 season, when the engine regulations will change once again. Until then, we’re unlikely to see massive changes in the current pecking order when it comes to engine performance.

Development After Big Regulation Changes

Formula 1 goes through phases and every so often there is a major regulation overhaul, such as the most recent one that we saw in 2022. These regulation changes are an incredibly exciting time for the sport as they can completely shake up the grid and allow new teams to come to the front.

The strict rulebook in Formula 1 does allow for different interpretations, which is why we see such radically different designs. Some teams will get it right, while others can get it badly wrong. Many teams don’t know where they stand before the season starts, so they’re often keeping an eye on what other teams are doing.

Why It’s Crucial To Get New Regulations Right

When there’s a rule change, one team will always produce the best car and set the benchmark. There’s also the chance that other teams might produce a car that simply is not fast. This could easily send a team straight to the back of the grid, even if they have been competitive in recent seasons.

It’s not because the team of engineers is not good at what they do, as it’s simply because they went in the wrong design direction, which is easy to do when you don’t know what to expect with your new cars and have nothing to compare with. Luckily, engineers are allowed to develop their cars throughout the season, and there is still a chance that the team can get back on the right track.

Exploiting Loopholes

With big regulations overhauls come rules that have loopholes in them. Formula 1 engineers are some of the best in the world, and they will be studying every aspect of the rulebook in order to find a way to build the fastest car on the grid.

Sometimes it means that they bend the rules a little bit. In some cases, such as the double diffuser and the blown diffuser situations in 2009 and the early 2010s, it’s about who can bend the rules the most and get away with it. It certainly helps to be the first team to discover a loophole, but developing it is far more important.

Once a team discovers a loophole in the rules it’s likely that other teams will be quick to copy them and adapt the loophole to their own cars. If the team that discovered the loophole does not develop it and improve it, the other teams will quickly catch up and overtake them with their design.

What Are Development Tokens In F1?

The 2022 regulation overhaul was initially planned for the 2021 season. However, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the regulation changes back a season. Teams did not want to develop their cars between 2020 and 2021 as they were mainly focusing on the massive rule changes that were on their way.

However, the FIA implemented the token system to ensure that the 2021 cars would not be identical to the 2020 season. Each team was given two tokens to spend, and they had to choose a specific area on the car that they would be allowed to develop for the 2021 season. Different areas of the car had different token values.

Many teams did not spend their tokens and chose to focus their efforts on their 2022 cars. Other teams chose to improve their aerodynamic design and engines. The aim of the token system was to essentially prevent the 2021 cars from being exactly the same as the 2020 cars, but this system is not normally used in F1.

Final Thoughts

The F1 development race is the competition between the teams during a season as they try to improve their current cars. They need to abide by strict rules, but the development race allows teams to alter their cars in an effort to improve their performance and outcompete their rivals.

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