As we get ready to welcome some major regulation changes for 2022, it’s worth reflecting on how significant such changes could be in changing the established pecking order within Formula One. Many teams and fans seem to have a sense of optimism about the new rules fundamentally redrawing the competitive order (tongue in cheek references to “El Plan” or “Der Plan” are common, for example), but how likely are such significant changes? Let’s see what recent history indicates.
Here I have looked back at 5 of the last major regulation changes in F1 history. There appears to be no accepted definition of what constitutes a “major” regulation change, but for this article I will look at the 1998, 2005, 2009, 2014 and 2017 seasons. All of these featured significant changes (typically to the aerodynamics, although significant tyre and engine changes also feature).
Championship winners after rule changes
First let’s have a brief summary of how the constructors championship winners have done after regulation changes:
Every championship winning team has taken a tumble after a rule change, typically down to the upper midfield. The number of wins is quite revealing, demonstrating just how far the previous championship winning team fell in 1998, 2005 and 2009. The main oddity is that Mercedes were able to continue with their championship success following on from 2016, but even then they faced a much sterner challenge to retain the title.
Of the 4 times a championship winning team stumbled, only Ferrari (after 2005) managed to recover quickly. Their swift recovery was aided by the controversial tyre changes being reversed for the following year.
By contrast, the evidence from other rule changes suggests that a championship winning team often suffers lasting or even permanent damage from major rule changes. Williams were the dominant team of the early-mid 1990s, winning 5 of the last 6 constructors titles before the 1998 rule changes. Since then they have never won a championship and only once come remotely close.
The 2009 rule changes had similar consequences for Ferrari, who had won 8 of the previous 10 constructors titles but have not won since. McLaren won the drivers championship in 2008 with Hamilton, and are also waiting for their first title since the 2009 rule changes. Red Bull meanwhile, are still waiting for their first constructors title of the hybrid era despite winning 4 in a row before the 2014 rule changes.
In summary, if Red Bull and Mercedes do not hit the ground running in 2022, they may be unable to fully catch up for years, if ever. The good news is that the last two rule changes have seen the previous champions preserve their success better, but we shall have to see if this is a trend or a mere coincidence.
Now let’s see how the winners after the rules were implemented did in the season before the rule changes:
Here the results are a bit more mixed. In the cases of 1998, 2005 and 2014 the successful teams have all leapt up from the upper midfield/lower front end. People often refer to Honda’s funding when discussing Brawn GP’s success, but even without the withdrawal of Honda, their lack of testing/funds and last minute engine change it would have been an unprecedented leap up the order.
What about the field in general?
The following graphs are a bit messy, but are meant to illustrate the amount of movement going on within each rule change. The left half of each graph represents the years before the rule change, whereas the right hand side represents the year of the rule change itself.
As an example let’s Look at the first graph in the top-left. It has many flat lines in the left half (1996-1997) of the graph. This indicates that team form was relatively stable with stable regulations. The more choppy diagonal lines on the right half of the graph (1997-1998) indicate that, in the case of 1998 at least, there were more changes in the order once the new rules were brought in.
Note that several team changes occurred during these years. I have done my best to reflect this accurately in the data. Brawn GP, for example, are seen as a direct continuation of Honda. For 2007 I have added McLaren’s DSQ back in, as the aim of the graphs was to visually represent the form of teams.
For 1997, the first 7 teams finished in exactly the same order as in 1996. For 1998, almost every single team changed championship position, although the changes are mostly just one or two positions.
The lower half of the grid is extremely stable from 2003-2004, with some significant movement in the upper half. This continued for 2005, with slightly larger levels of movement.
There is some change across 2007-2008, with a lot of movement in the lower midfield, However, no rule changes in recent memory shook up the order like 2009, with Brawn (Honda) and Red Bull leaping up the field whilst Toro Rosso and Renault plummeted. This is the only rule change to totally reshuffle the order, with the change being strongest in the first half of 2009 before the previously successful Ferrari and McLaren began to recover ground.
The 2014 rule changes were dominated by the hybrid engines, with teams that had the Mercedes engine generally improving, and the rest of the field falling back. The level of change is comparable to the other previous rule changes.
2017 featured very little movement up/down the grid with the order actually being more stable than in the previous year of relatively continuous rules. As with the changes in 1998, there is a clear distinction between “big teams” and “smaller teams”, with no team in the bottom 5 able to progress up to the top 5, and no team in the top 5 falling back into the bottom 5.
It’s clear that the amount of reshuffling varies significantly with each rule change, and not necessarily in a predictable way. 2009 featured a significant upheaval of the grid order, whereas 2017 did not. Whilst it might be tempting to assume that this was because the 2017 rule changes were thought of as less significant, this is not how they were viewed at the time.
The pie-charts below summarise the data from the 5 graphs, showing how frequently teams move up/down the order and how many positions are gained/lost.
In years before major rule changes, teams rarely make significant moves up or down the grid across 1 year. In fact half of the time a team will finish in the same position as the previous year.
For years with rule changes, there is more scope for significant grid movement. Dramatic movements (more than 3 places) go from being unheard of to merely unlikely. It’s worth noting that minimal movement is still the most common outcome though, with changes of 1 place or fewer still occurring 60% of the time (down from 79% when there are no major rule changes).
Do Teams Follow Simple Trends?
It would be nice to see if improvements in form could be predicted based on previous performances. For example, could Mercedes dominance (or at least championship success) be predicted from the improvements they made in 2013? From just looking at the data, the answer is “no”. Whilst their are other examples that support this case (e.g. Renault’s improved form in 2004 before winning both titles in 2005), the reality is far more nuanced.
There are many counter examples of teams seemingly on an upwards swing, only to fall back due to rule changes. The best example of this is Toro Rosso enjoying their most successful season in 2008 before their least successful season in 2009. Meanwhile, 2009 title winners Brawn remained languishing in 9th place in 2008 (as Honda), and fellow title challengers Red Bull actually fell back in 2008 before their leap up the order.
Those looking closely behind the scenes in 2009 may have noticed that both Honda/Brawn and Red Bull had made major hiring in the years prior (Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey respectively). They had also underperformed significantly in 2008, making an improvement likely. Meanwhile, Toro Rosso had lost their star driver (Vettel) and had over performed in 2008, making a fallback likely. These things tend to become clear in hindsight, but a title challenge for either Red Bull or Honda in 2009 would have seen as unlikely during the 2008 season.
Predictions for F1 2022
It’s clear that there are some general trends in the data, but nothing approaching a hard and fast rule on how a team’s form will change between 2021 and 2022.
The trends suggest that Mercedes and Red Bull are likely to have less successful years, possibly falling back to the upper midfield. Mercedes managed to buck this trend in the 2017 rule changes, although they had a much larger buffer in 2016 to aid them.
On paper, most of the rest of the grid has the potential to improve, and all will be aiming for more going into testing. The chances of Alpine or Aston Martin leaping up the order are slim, and realistically a successful season would feature regular podiums, rather than wins.
Haas have several reasons to be more optimistic for 2022, and they will surely improve. However, the data suggests that the chances of them consistently scoring points are still slim. Not only are triumphant rises up the grid unlikely even with rule changes, but they’re particularly unlikely for teams at the back of the grid with small budgets.
Rule Change Trends
- The previous championship winners typically falls from the top after a major rule change, with Mercedes in 2017 being the exception.
- In addition, rule changes often cause long term damage to the prospects of the most successful team(s) of the era if they’re unable to have instant success.
- Rule changes do provide more opportunity for the order to be shaken up, but the most likely result for a given team is that their position does not significantly improve.
- This is especially true for teams at the lower end of the grid. Force India’s improvement from 10th in 2008 to 9th in 2009 is the biggest success story for a team that were 10th or lower.
- The amount of reordering of the grid varies with each rule change and can be unpredictable.
- Looking at past form trends to assess future form is generally unreliable, even if it can be understood with hindsight.