As Adrian Newey said many years ago, “the spirit of regulation does not exist”. Yet, thanks to a combination of the 2022 regulations and governance mechanisms in F1, there are now indeed.
This year’s set of rules aims to address key issues plaguing Grand Prix cars during what could loosely be described as the aero era, with improved ‘racing ability’ as a founding principle. . Formula 1 managing director of motorsport Ross Brawn has argued convincingly that one of the great virtues of the new system is that innovations steer the development of F1 cars in a direction contrary to goals that can be suppressed. .
F1’s technical regulations have evolved into something of a Frankenstein’s monster over the years, a patchwork created by the back and forth of innovation and regulation. The 2022 rules are the first time there has been a complete overhaul of the rules designed and refined not only to make them easy to follow by reducing turbulence, but also to produce a set of rules that work for F1 at the moment. scale in the sense of tackling a wide range of issues rather than tackling one specific area. The hope is that the cars are the product of joint thinking and early indications are that the makers have at least done a solid job.
Under the governance structures established in 2020, there is room for immediate changes to the rules provided the FIA, F1 and the teams collectively vote with a so-called ‘super-majority’ of 28 out of 30 votes. The FIA and F1 vote as a bloc. It therefore takes eight out of 10 teams to impose an immediate change, whereas before it required unanimity.
Unanimity was only possible in exceptional circumstances since such changes would usually prevent a team or a minority of teams from executing a design deemed beneficial in terms of performance. Turkeys don’t usually vote for Christmas – although in F1 there has sometimes been greater pressure to achieve this effect.
What Brawn argues is that this new system gives the FIA and F1 the mechanism to fine-tune the rules and ensure the cars don’t stray from the mission of the rules. In short, it is to improve running.
While this is a different take on what we’ve seen historically, it’s not entirely accurate to suggest that the so-called spirit of the settlement was entirely ethereal prior to this year. It has been quoted often and has even had some practical applications.
For example, Charlie Whiting has used it on occasion to justify regulatory clarifications based on a conflict with the intent of the rules. After all, changing the regulations might have required unanimity, but a technical directive is another matter.
The argument for such cases was simple. If there is an unintended ambiguity in the regulations creating an opportunity to exploit, then you can rightly correct it to close it.
However, this has its limits. It’s one thing to clarify a written rule to close such interpretations if there is a linguistic error that opens the door to something. Indeed, the logic is “we wrote it to achieve this exact purpose, it wasn’t quite right, so we’ll fix it to prevent liberties being taken”.
It is necessary to have such a system simply because no set of rules is perfect. There is always room for interpretations, linguistic gymnastics and semantic trickery to get you by and no one can predict everything. With regulations as complex as those of modern Grand Prix racing, there is no alternative.
But F1’s argument about the intent of the regulations is broader than that. The example above is for a situation where a specific rule is written to state something and there is an interpretation or loophole allowing you to circumvent the specific intent.
However, what Brawn is talking about is what you might call the general intent of the rules. It’s not about whether the ‘x’ part is meant to be a thing and if someone has found an efficient way to turn it into the ‘y’ part with a completely different function, it’s about whether if a direction is defined that proves problematic.
Article 3.2 of the technical regulation codifies certain aspects. Article 3.2.2 includes a version of the primary purpose rule which reads: “the aerodynamic influence of any component of the car which is not considered bodywork must be incidental to its primary function Any design aimed at maximizing such aerodynamic influence is prohibited.”
There is also a broader rule at the start of section 3.2, which states: “An important purpose of the regulation of section 3 [aerodynamic regulations] is to allow cars to race as closely as possible, ensuring that the loss of aerodynamic performance of one car following another car is kept to a minimum”. The rule then clarifies that the FIA may request “relevant information” to verify this.
All these concepts are therefore integrated into the regulations. However, they are not absolute. The principle of being able to make changes to protect the spirit of the regulations exists and the mechanism exists, but there is no system or specific way to measure or enforce it.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. There is a certain mania for regulating every aspect of F1, driven by an honest desire for clarity. But the reality is never so clear, it’s full of gray areas and nuances and it requires a certain amount of wiggle room which, if done correctly, should ensure that F1’s rules work as hoped. This requires a steady hand and a strong head in control of making these decisions, especially as decision makers will be at the heart of an unstable political maelstrom.
FIA single-seater technical matters officer Nikolas Tombazis stresses that this rule is about “correcting” the rules rather than deeming the cars illegal.
“The specific reference to intent in the rules is to give some sort of high morale if something went off the tracks,” Tombazis said when asked by The Race about the scope of that.
“It’s to be able to discuss with the F1 commission and say ‘look that was the intention, we must not forget it, we have a moral imperative to act on it’. That does not mean that this car is illegal because it uses a wake that we don’t like or something, because that would have been quite a slippery slope.
“If we started trying to assess the wake of a car to assess whether it’s legal, that would be a pretty dangerous position and very uncomfortable too, because we would have to kind of do simulations and try to assess things. , then the engineers need certain certainties on what to operate.
“So it’s mainly to underline the intent and to give us the position to discuss openly and clearly with the teams and then the F1 commission if we feel things have gone astray for whatever reason.”
What Tombazis is saying makes perfect sense. But just because it’s not a way to exclude a competitor doesn’t mean it can’t be used to de facto make a car illegal. The design of Mercedes mirrors is controversial and there are no regulations against it, but if a fix were to be made before the Bahrain GP weekend, it would amount to much the same and force a change.
The rules refer specifically to cars’ ability to track, but racing ability can be considered a broader church. The rules were also intended to ensure that the competitive spread is narrower, so you could possibly argue that designs that confer a big advantage run counter to the intent of the regulations.
It would also be a slippery slope, but it’s a slope that has to be walked on given that the governance mechanism that Brawn is talking about can be used regardless of what the regulations say. If a situation arises in the future where a team is miles ahead, it would not be surprising to see such mechanisms used to correct this – even though this is absolutely not the intention of F1 and the FIA. After all, if one team dominates, it probably won’t be too difficult to have eight of their rivals on their side.
Teams will be testing the flexibility of this system as we speak. After all, it is their job to seek every competitive advantage, so logically they will try to do so. The layout of the Mercedes mirrors is among the targets that are under discussion.
The result is that there is now a spirit of regulation. And beyond that, a mechanism that could allow the FIA/F1 and a majority (but not all) of the teams to make changes to the rules. It’s a question of exactly how it’s used – and to what extent.
There is currently no indication that it will be overused or abused. But the mechanism now exists for a more interventionist approach. Hopefully it will be put to good use as F1 dances a tightrope to ensure it is a fair, close and exciting sporting competition.