‘He’s Gotta Get a Penalty For That!’

Every year, the rules that govern Formula One are given a good going over at the Place de la Concorde, and the FIA usually make a few changes. For 2012, they’ve done just that; a few. The coming season will feature similar cars and similar regulations, but a little change was necessary.

The Sporting Regulations have been updated as per usual for the upcoming year, but this time the rules they’ve added make good sense, and should, on the whole, make everything a little clearer. It has been a rule for a good few years that the drivers are only allowed one move off-line in order to defend their position, but article 20.3, one of the new ones, makes it so that the driver fundamentally has to stay there. Before, they were allowed to move back to take the racing line; now they have to ‘leave at least one car width between his own car and the edge of the track on the approach to the corner.’ That should prevent a few of the naughty moves that have been done this year, but weren’t illegal because you can’t break a rule that hasn’t been written. The wording of 20.3 did get me thinking, however, about what would happen if Danica Patrick popped over to do a bit of F1 or if Alice Powell was given a shot at the big time – would the rule apply to them? As a result, 20.4 has had a small change, but the simple reason for that is it used to include moving off the line, but that’s been dealt with. It now is just about moves that ‘hinder other drivers’, like crowding them to beyond the edge of the track, such as Schumacher did in Monza or Vettel in Japan.

The other important change to the sporting rules is an addition to 20.2. This article defines the race track and its usage, especially escape roads. The difference to last year is the addition of one sentence – ‘A driver may not deliberately leave the track without justifiable reason.’ It’s there to stop the drivers from cutting bits of the track to save time, but mainly, I suspect, in qualifying, in order to avoid a repeat of Vettel in Korea where he skipped part of the circuit in the final part of qualifying so that he could save time to get another lap in. There were other changes to the regulations for 2012, such as limiting the race to four hours from lights to flag if the race is suspended, and allowing lapped cars to unlap themselves behind the safety car (if it’s safe to do so, of course), but that’s fundamentally it. Most of the rules this year are the same as last year, although one or two have had a small rewrite.

I think my favourite rule in the Sporting Regulations (and yes, I am aware that having a favourite rule makes me a bore and an anorak) is 20.1, which demands that ‘The driver must drive the car alone and unaided.’ Do you remember when you were younger and you had a little drive around a deserted car park, where you did the steering and your dad did the pedals? I like to think that this is why the rule was written, to stop the drivers from doing this in their F1 cars. It probably isn’t, but it’s a nice thought. But enough of the sporting rules, as there are one or two new technical regulations to cast an eye over.

The cars that roll out to compete in 2012 will be fundamentally an evolution of their predecessors, as the rules are very much the same. The only major change is the outlawing of blown diffusors. Over the past year or two, the teams have been blowing the hot exhaust gasses under the car into the diffusor, which increases the downforce the car can produce without adding bigger wings that would massively increase the drag produced. The effect is created when the engine is working, so it was more effective on the straights than the corners, until the engineers started playing with the engine maps. The engine would continue to blow out the hot exhaust gas even when the driver was not on the throttle, which he wouldn’t be in the middle of a corner, giving him more downforce when he needs it the most. Renault went for a front-exiting exhaust in 2011, meaning that the gasses exited the car further forwards than most, allowing it to travel further under the floor and have a greater effect on the diffusor. It was all very clever, but along with the F-Duct, the double diffuser, and many others, it has been banned. It’s getting to the point where you can come up with a brilliant idea, run for a year, before it becomes illegal. You start to wonder how the great Colin Chapman would do with all these restrictions in place. It might as well be identikit cars. Other than this, all the cars have to pass the FIA crash tests before they are allowed to go out testing, although this is found in the sporting regulations. I still struggle to believe it has taken this long to bring that rule in.

There are other changes, but those are the main ones. The question remains, how will they impact the coming season? The simple answer is, we just don’t know, and we will have to wait and see. There are, however, a few things we can pick out. Firstly, the cars that relied on the blown diffusor in 2011 more than their competitors, such as Renault and Red Bull, will lose some of their advantages, whereas McLaren had trouble with the system from the word go. It will affect most teams, but some more so than others. They will have to work hard to find the time back elsewhere. On a sporting side, I fully expect to hear more radio messages like the one we heard from Jenson Button at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix, asking for penalties, and I also suspect we’ll see more given. Although that is necessary in order to regulate the sport for fairness and safety, it isn’t what the fans want to see. Provided the penalties are given in the race, rather than after it, we can’t complain too much.

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