Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.
On a conference call with team bosses, the FIA and Formula One on Thursday, the sport reached a unanimous agreement to delay 2021's major rules revamp by a year due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, F1 fans will have to wait another 12 months for the closer racing promised by the new technical regulations and make do with two seasons (or possibly just one and a half) of the current rules.
Below, we look at the implications for the teams and the sport over the next 12 months.
Why were the 2021 regulations delayed?
The 2021 regulations promised to be the biggest technical overhaul in the sport's history. The rules were set to completely change the look of the cars and in doing so rethink the way downforce is created to make wheel-to-wheel racing easier. Tied into the new rules were cost-saving measures and standardised parts that aimed to create a level playing field and a new era of F1.
But given the extensive disruption the coronavirus pandemic has caused to F1's 2020 season (not to mention the wider world), it's easy to understand why such a major project has been delayed 12 months. The cost, man-hours and production capability required to make sure an all-new car designed to all-new regulations was delivered on time was already looking like a stretch for some of F1's smaller teams, but following the coronavirus disruption it was verging on the impossible.
As things stand, F1 teams are already guaranteed to lose a week of factory time under revised summer shutdown regulations.
The Dutch Grand Prix is likely to be a candidate for a rescheduled date in the original summer break due to its proximity to Spa-Francorchamps, where the summer break was due to end on Aug. 25. but government-imposed shutdowns could see that stretch to multiple weeks or even months. That the plan to postpone the 2021 regulations received unanimous support shows that the sport has recognised the need to adapt to ensure its survival.
But the technical regulations were only one side of the 2021 rules overhaul. The other revolutionary idea (for F1, at least) was the introduction of a budget cap, which is still set to go ahead next year. The new financial regulations will limit teams to spending $175 million on the design, development and production of the car, while other aspects such as driver salary and marketing are kept separate. That cap will still be in place next year even though the rest of the rules package is on hold.
Funnily enough, the delay of the technical regulations actually helps lessen one of the major concerns about the entire 2021 rules package. There was a worry that the top teams would benefit from unlimited spending this year in the buildup to 2021, only to see that advantage frozen under the budget cap when racing got underway under the new regulations. Of course, spending on the new rules is still unlimited this year, but the extra year of development under budget cap regulations for the entire grid should help level the playing field a tiny bit by 2022.
The other benefit of delaying the rules is that it will allow Pirelli an extra year of tyre development before moving to all-new low-profile tyres. A series of tests with mule cars were already underway, but more track time can only be a good thing as F1's sole tyre supplier deals with the massive challenge of developing completely new constructions for heavier cars.
While there are several details of the postponed regulations to work through, the elephant in the room remains the lack of commercial deals between the sport and the teams. Collectively known as the Concorde Agreement, the contracts that commit the teams to the sport commercially are due to run out at the end of 2020 and have not yet been renewed for 2021. Drafts have been going back and forth for several months, but the changing situation and financial uncertainties this year are only likely to add a new dimension to those negotiations. The delay in the 2021 technical regulations doesn't really change that, but it is still a major issue for F1 to address this year.
Why are teams not allowed to develop a new chassis for 2021?
In order to reduce costs further, teams have agreed to use their current 2020 chassis again in 2021. This eliminates the cost of chassis overhauls for a single year of competition in 2021, which may have been unpalatable for some of the smaller teams that had already dedicated resources to the original 2021 regulations (now the 2022 regs) and do not have the capacity to build another car in tandem. Essentially, it means teams will continue to work on two cars simultaneously rather than three.
It is not unheard of for teams to carry over chassis designs from year to year, and smaller outfits, such as the old Force India team, have often sought to do it whenever possible to save costs. In fact, Renault is believed to be running a heavily modified version of last year's chassis this year, so it will end up running a similar design for three years straight.
For teams that may not have been happy with how preseason testing panned out (read Ferrari), the thought of being stuck with the same chassis design for two seasons may not be desirable. However, keeping the same chassis does not mean that the aerodynamics -- the main performance driver in F1 -- can't be updated and so we should still see significant development over the two years.
Arguably the team with the most to lose is McLaren, as it is due to switch from Renault power to Mercedes in 2021. Assuming that deal remains in place, it will have to adapt its whole package to a different engine, which is likely to result in a compromise in performance. The only positive is that it has experience in adapting an old chassis to a new engine as it did the same with the MP4-29 at the end of 2014, when it first ran with Honda power at a postseason test. The only downside is that the MP4-29H/1X1 (as it was known) managed just six untimed laps in two days.
Over the coming weeks and months, F1 and the teams will also discuss freezing other components between 2020 and 2021. That could include gearboxes, which were due to be frozen under the rules overhaul anyway, further restricting cost and focusing development to the eventual 2022 regulations.
What will the 2020 season look like?
One key agreement from Thursday's teleconference was that teams have granted F1 and the FIA freedom to reorganise the calendar as they see fit.
"At the meeting there was full support for the plans to reschedule as many of the postponed races as possible as soon as it is safe to do so," F1 CEO Chase Carey said. "Formula One and the FIA will now work to finalise a revised 2020 calendar and will consult with the teams, but as agreed at the meeting the revised calendar will not require their formal approval.
"This will give us the necessary flexibility to agree revised timings with affected race promoters and to be ready to start racing at the right moment."
The next stage is trying to predict when and where it will be safe to go racing. All races up to and including the Monaco Grand Prix at the end of May have been postponed or cancelled, meaning the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is currently the first race from the original schedule still in place.
While Azerbaijan has only 36 active cases of Covid-19 at the time of this writing, it could be at the lower part of an exponential curve of infections and might still prove to be an unsuitable location to go racing in by early June. On the other hand, if the virus can be successfully contained by the Azeris, it raises the question of whether it would be sensible for a large number of Europeans to visit the country and potentially bring cases of the virus with them.
As a result, F1 will now be working with race promoters to assess all options. That could mean ripping up the calendar and starting again, although it would make sense to keep as many races in their original dates as possible to avoid ticket refunds, complications for fans who have already made travel plans and the rescheduling of the huge logistical jigsaw puzzle that moves F1's freight around the world.
While initial plans to fit more races into the calendar focused on moving the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to later in December, there is now talk of extending the calendar into January 2021. Given that the teams will not be developing new chassis for 2021, there will be less of a need for a winter break and, as long as the climate in the places where F1 races allows, there is no obvious reason a delayed season start can't be eased by a delayed finale.
However, don't expect to see a revised calendar until long-term forecasting of the spread of the virus is more accurate.