Absolutely Everything You Need to Know About the 2019 Formula 1 Season
Haven’t been able to hang with F1 in the offseason? We’ve got you covered.
As soon as the cameras go dark in Abu Dhabi, the kettles switch on in Woking, Enstone, and Milton Keynes, home to McLaren F1, Renault Sport F1, and Red Bull Racing, respectively. In Maranello, Ferrari-branded espresso machines hum to life, and won't shut off until March. These machines brew drinks not meant for break time, but for crunch time: This is development season.
With the first winter testing in Spain under our belt, we've put together this comprehensive preview of the most important offseason stories, the ones that will set the dramatic stage for 2019. First, let's look at the big challenge that every team must face: the new technical regulations.
What's different about the 2019 F1 race car?
Let's start with the front of the car. The front wings are wider, now equal to the two-meter width of the car. There are fewer aerodynamic elements, and secondary structures meant to generate drag-reducing outwash—or the outward redirection of air around the front wheels—are gone. Despite this simplification, the new front wings are reportedly expected to make approximately the same amount of downforce as their predecessors.
The 2019-spec Pirelli tires will have a thinner tread, and are expected to generate peak grip at higher temperatures, and better resist blistering. Tires will no longer be saddled with the byzantine naming system—Super Soft, Hyper Soft, I Can't Believe It's Not Soft. There will still be a full range of track-specific compounds, but it'll apply only three labels to dry-weather tires: Soft, Medium, and Hard. These will change at each race; one weekend's Hard could be another weekend's Soft, etc. Wet and Intermediate tires will remain available as needed, for a maximum of five available tire compounds per weekend.
The blown front axle, another generator of aero outwash, has been axed, along with complex brake ducts, which are simplified in 2019. Further back, barge boards on the leading edge of the car's floor have been reduced in stature to increase space for sponsorship display. The driver's mirrors have been repositioned in the name of visibility, though some teams have found that the mirrors' mounts can be used to redirect airflow.
As for the driver themselves, their minimum weight plus their seat has been increased to 80 kilograms (176 pounds), and drivers that come in under this figure will have ballast applied to their cars, so Kimi can finally quit smoking. Maximum fuel load has been boosted from 105 to 110 kilos (243 lbs) in the hopes that teams will run their engines at maximum power for more of the race.
In the back of the car, rear wings have been made higher, wider, and deeper. Endplates will feature vertical rain lights, but no topside slots to reduce drag. The Drag Reduction System (DRS) opening has been expanded from 65 to 85 millimeters, making DRS more powerful than ever before. DRS zones will be adjusted once the FIA understands how effective its overtaking aid has become.
Commercial rights holder Liberty Media has asked that all teams try to design and operate cars that meet these requirements on a "soft" budget cap of $150 million, a guideline that will run through 2020, before being codified for 2021. There are no known penalties for violating the limit this year or next, though it is expected that larger factory teams will have difficulty limboing under 2021's bar.
How will these changes impact the 2019 F1 season?
Put simply, the 2019 regulations are meant to reduce downforce losses when following another car, making close racing easier. Once a driver has reeled in his opponent, augmented DRS should make passing easier at almost every track.
Whether these changes will actually achieve the desired result of better racing is the subject of debate. Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner isn't pleased with the ruleset, calling its implementation a costly "mistake." Another Red Bull official has complained that adapting to the rules cost the team $17 million, and insinuated that the rules were influenced by reigning champion Mercedes-AMG. But Mercedes's Toto Wolff is also on record doubting the 2019 aero regulations' ability to improve the racing.
Even teams that don't have a dog in the frontrunners' fight, like Racing Point (formerly Force India), aren't sure what to make of the 2019 rules. Racing Point technical director Andy Green has stated that the expected improvement when one car follows another will be "relatively small," and admits that the rule change has hurt his team too. Teams seem certain that the racing won't improve much over 2018, but 2018 has a lot of great racing, so we wouldn't mind more of that.
Winter testing has revealed some great pace. Here's how 2019 could be a historic season.
In January, Scuderia Ferrari hired its fourth team principal in five years, replacing Maurizio Arrivabene for technical director Mattia Binotto amidst allegations that Arrivabene presided over a toxic work environment. Binotto will reportedly have a larger budget at his disposal for 2019 after funding allegedly dipped for the 2018 season.
Despite the reported decrease in funding, Ferrari's development kept pace with Mercedes's for much of 2018, and their respective engines have reached near parity. It's not enough to match one's rival in F1, and Ferrari has reportedly turned to additive manufacturing (or 3-D printing) to create more complex—and presumably effective—cylinder heads and exhaust systems.
Ferrari will reportedly change its pistons' construction to steel, adding an extra kilogram of weight, but this should help them withstand seven whole race weekends. Likewise, the added durability will make the pistons more resistant to knock, or detonation, helping the team run leaner, more fuel-efficient engine mappings. Autobild reports that these engine mappings will improve drivability, making exits from slow corners easier, and that updated fuel and oil from the Scuderia's petrochemical sponsor Shell will free up more horsepower potential.
To go with the updated engine, Ferrari has reportedly pursued an ultra-efficient cooling system in a bid to narrow its side pods, reducing drag. Not only will the new SF90 car be narrow, it'll also reportedly be longer, the wheelbase again extending to improve rear-end packaging and weight distribution. In the rear, hydraulically-controlled rear suspension will allow Ferrari to raise the rear end at low speeds to boost downforce, but hunker it back down at higher speeds to cut drag. 3-D printed parts will reportedly make up some of the SF90's crash structure, though for what benefit is not yet certain. Its Red Bull-like matte finish was confirmed by Ferrari to be lighter than a traditional paint finish, and should allow more favorable placement of ballast.
Haas F1 Team
Seemingly by virtue of its relative newness to the F1 grid, American upstart Haas managed to dodge media attention for most of the offseason. Little technical information has percolated out from the now energy drink-sponsored team, which has rebranded itself Rich Energy Haas. Technical analyses post-reveal have suggested that the VF-19 may retain some of its predecessor's outwash capabilities with specially-designed wheels, meant to channel air through their rim instead of the hubs.
With its Ferrari power unit, Haas demonstrated with stellar pace in early 2018 that it's a team worth taking seriously. Clearly, it's new title sponsor considers it capable of taking on—and beating—the mighty energy drink and sporting empire that is Red Bull.
"We are confident we will beat Red Bull in many races this year," said Rich Energy CEO William Storey to Autoweek.
Alfa Romeo Sauber Racing
Say goodbye to the Sauber name. For the 2019 season, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles-owned Alfa Romeo has full billing. This Italian automaker has a long (if sparse) history with F1 and pre-F1 Grand Prix racing, and once counted a young Scuderia Ferrari among its customers. Today, the relationship has flipped, and Alfa Romeo will use Ferrari engines.
As Sauber, Alfa Romeo Racing recovered an unprecedented level of performance in 2018, scoring more points than it had in its previous four years combined. Even development king Force India was wowed by the team's blistering rate of development, which managed to reduce its gap to the front-running teams by almost twice what the next-closest team managed. Despite its meteoric rise in 2018, Sauber made an early switch to an aggressive 2019 development plan, which used leading teams like Mercedes and Ferrari as benchmarks to beat.
To break into the leading class of teams, Gazzetta reports, Alfa Romeo's ex-Ferrari designer Simone Resta has loaded this year's Alfa with radical innovations, which could either help the team find speed in places other teams haven't looked, or result in a disaster of a car. Returning driver Kimi Räikkönen, who started his F1 career with Sauber, is optimistic that the more likely of these two possibilities is the former.
"They have all the tools, they have a great wind tunnel and they have everything to build a great car," Räikkönen told Motorsport. "We have a Ferrari engine, so we know what we are going to get. I don't see any reason why we cannot do a good job out of it. We will see next year."
Scuderia Toro Rosso-Honda
From the pained McLaren-Honda partnership, Honda's V6 garnered a reputation for unreliability and weak power output. It partially shed this reputation in 2018 with Pierre Gasly's achievement of P4 at the Bahrain Grand Prix, the best finish for a Honda-powered car in the hybrid V6 era.
Honda didn't reinvent its engine architecture for 2019 they way it did for 2017, and as a result will stick with its current "concept" for the third straight year. Sloshing around inside the engine will be a reformulated oil mix, accompanied by a bettered fuel, both the product of STR-Honda's petrochemical sponsor Exxon-Mobil. Contrary to McLaren's demand for minimalistic packaging, STR and its bigger sister Red Bull Racing have reportedly demanded that Honda maximize power, dimensions be damned, claiming that STR and RBR's designers can accommodate any engine shape thrown their way. Reliability is of little concern as well, with Max Verstappen telling SkySports he'd rather have a quick car that sometimes blows up than one that's consistently slow.
In toiling throughout the winter, Honda hopes that its 2019-spec engine will be the third-best come race day in Melbourne, leaving Renault last. Honda will reportedly get its wish, its updated engine reportedly down 30 horsepower on Mercedes and Ferrari, less than Renault's 40 hp deficit. Dr. Helmut Marko was quoted in October as expectant of a lesser handicap, down 10 hp on the leading engines, though this source may have made a translation error. Like the leading Mercedes and Ferrari power units, Honda's 2019 engine will reportedly feature a maximum-power "party mode," or qualifying mode.
Chassis-side, STR-Honda's STR14 will be as closely based on RBR's RB15 as is permissible, in a model akin to that used by Haas and Ferrari. Development of the STR14 is expected to drop off more sharply than past cars, with technical director James Key at last leaving for McLaren some time this season, according to Autosport.
As for the RB15...
Aston Martin Red Bull Racing(-Honda)
... Team personnel can't agree on how competitive the car will be. STR-Honda's Franz Tost enthusiastically states that "the engine is ready," and says that he expects the RB15 to be capable of winning races. Dr. Helmut Marko seemingly agrees, expressing a desire to shoot for the title in 2019, but team principal Christian Horner offers a more conservative projection for the season, and advises to treat 2019 as a building year—RBR expects to blow through five engines to the rest of the grid's three.
As previously mentioned, Horner is antagonistic about the 2019 aero regulations' ability to allow cars to race more closely together. But this—plus his doubt about the team's ability to pursue the title—does not necessarily mean that Horner expects the RB15 to be a junk chassis, like the RB11 was. Adrian Newey, the ace aerodynamicist behind RBR's historically great chassis, has been "reinvigorated" by a visit to Honda's engine facility, which convinced him that effort put into making the RB15 a competitive car wouldn't be wasted. As such, Newey has been "heavily involved" in the car's design.
Only a handful of details have come out, with many of the RB15's finer details hidden until testing begins in earnest. A longer wheelbase and shorter "rake," or lower angle of the car's floor, will reportedly bring the RB15 closer in line with low-rake pioneer Mercedes. RBR will also reportedly copy Mercedes's perforated wheel design, which allows finer control of the tire's temperature, and may prevent blistering or graining.
Renault Sport F1
Despite achieving fourth in the WCC in 2018, the Renault R.S.18 was handicapped by reported aerodynamic instability and significant power deficits, estimated to be more than 20 hp in race trim and as much as 54 in qualifying. All together, this meant that Renault was reportedly 1.5 percent off the leaders' pace in 2018, and Renault's target with the R.S.19 is to halve that gap.
Executive director Marcin Budkowski explains that Renault's goal for 2019 is reeling in the top teams, though it doesn't expect to count itself among them yet. Instead, Renault plans to invest in a team structure that will pay off in 2020 and beyond, when the looming 2021 budget cap will force big spenders like Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull to downsize. The Enstone-based team has streamlined itself around this $150 million USD limit, with team principal Cyril Abiteboul telling Auto Motor und Sport that the team spends approximately 40 percent of what Mercedes does in a season.
This doesn't mean Renault will be a small operation; it has swelled to a reported 800-plus employees, more than double what it was in 2016. The team has also made massive investments into its prototyping, manufacturing, and testing equipment, which should approximately halve the amount of time it takes for a part to go from computer screen to reality. All of these structural upgrades are meant to ready Renault for podium-worthy performance in 2020, and race wins in 2021. Keeping Renault's morale up in the interim will be the eternally smiling, feedback-generous Daniel Ricciardo, around whom the team will rally.
Among Renault's perennial problems is its engine, which still lacks power or reliability, as demonstrated in 2018. Though loosely based on 2018's "spec C" power unit, 2019's power plant will be reportedly composed of an almost entirely new combustion engine, which will be paired with a more reliable MGU-K. Output will reportedly leap by about 50 hp, making the winter 2019 upgrade the Renault power unit's biggest in the V6 era. But reliability concerns remain; Motorsport Italy alleges that Renault's turbocharger bearings hold up poorly to vibration, making turbo failures just as likely as they have been in the past.
Renault's R.S.19 chassis will reportedly differ from its 2018 predecessor just as much as its engine does, and share only a common power steering system. Though Renault revealed photos of what it claims to be the R.S.19 on Tuesday, the team reportedly ran out of time to assemble and display the real R.S.19 that day, and instead touted an R.S.18 with 2019-spec wings as its new car.
McLaren F1 Team
After years of pointing its finger at Honda for its poor performances, McLaren ditched the Japanese automaker's engines for the 2018 season, and expected to immediately tussle with the best of the Renault-powered teams, Red Bull. Instead, McLaren was humbled by a car that was the second-slowest for much of the season, its drivers spending more time staring at the back of the Honda-powered Toro Rossos than the Mercedes and Ferraris. Despite losing $100 million USD and watching Honda take its best result of the V6 era in a Toro Rosso (P4 in Bahrain), McLaren's management doesn't regret severing its ties with the Japanese company, as the team came to realize its own shortcomings, and is ready for a fresh start.
Step one of rebooting McLaren was to figure out what was wrong with the MCL33, which was aerodynamically unstable, and had too much drag. Analysts say that this instability was caused by a miscalculation of the distance between the front axle's centerline and the front of the side pods, which ruined the car's airflow any time the steering wheel was turned. This realization reportedly came too late in 2018 for McLaren to justify developing a B-spec car, though by admission of McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, it continued to add smaller upgrades though the United States Grand Prix, in October.
Problems inside McLaren weren't exclusively technical, many were managerial or structural. Longtime competitive leads at McLaren like Tim Goss and Eric Boullier were shown the door in 2017, allowing for McLaren to condense its management structure, and integrate new blood where necessary. Indycar champion Gil de Ferran was hired for the role of sporting director, and will be joined on May 1 by incoming managing director Andreas Seidl, formerly of Porsche's LMP1 program. Both will work alongside technical director James Key, who will leave his position at STR-Honda some time this year for McLaren. Key has a lengthy CV of superb cars designed on shoestring budgets, and will be a valuable asset for McLaren.
Zak Brown admitted in July that McLaren faces a rebuilding process of indeterminate length, and as such has lessened the pressure on his team for the season.
"I don't think it's a 'now or never' [year] because the racing team is going to be around for a long time," Brown said at the MCL34's reveal, as quoted by Crash. "It's obviously a very important year and we showed a big step forward when we made the change last year. But I think we were probably a bit over-excited about how quickly we would return to the front and we got that wrong. We looked in the mirror to understand where we went wrong, made a lot of changes both structurally and operationally, so this is a very important year to show progress."
Despite a poor showing in 2017 and 2018, McLaren's cars pioneered details now seen throughout the field, such as strakes on the bottom of the rear wing endplates and nosecone. Nevertheless, McLaren proved that it stands to learn something from its competitors, and as such will reportedly borrow ideas from Red Bull when applicable. To make the best use of its limited testing time in Barcelona, McLaren has reportedly prioritized reliability, with the intent to find maximum pace later on, though that doesn't mean the team expects to be miles off the leaders' pace.
"We are anticipating a good car. The off-season development has gone according to plan," said Brown in an article on the official F1 website. "But ultimately you obviously don't know what the competition has been up to, the competition is tough and getting tougher. We want and need good feedback from them [Sainz and Norris]."
Feedback might not only come from Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lando Norris, however. Fernando Alonso remains in McLaren's stable despite his departure from F1, and there have been rumors that he could swing by Barcelona for a spin in the MCL34, if not more. Whether or not driver and team continue their relationship in F1, McLaren is set to back Alonso for another Indianapolis 500 entry, and possibly even a season-long effort in 2020.
Mercedes-AMG has entered the 2019 season full of skepticism. Team principal Toto Wolff has expressed doubts similar to those of RBR's Christian Horner as to whether these simplified, broadened wings will improve the racing spectacle.
"So the aim was to take away a little bit of the aero. Direct the airflow not around the car—so you create a big hole behind your car, and that's bad—but over the car," Wolff stated at a sponsor's event, reports Race Fans. "But they fight 2,000 aerodynamicists in all the teams and I think we have found solutions that we can get the air again around the car. It's not going to change an awful lot."
Mercedes's faith in itself is at a low too, Wolff anticipating that even dead-last finisher Williams could bounce back by finding a loophole in the rules, as Mercedes's predecessor Brawn GP did in 2009.
"It is almost like 2009 where Brawn identified the double diffuser. I think there could be teams that have found loopholes, which others didn't spot, that could make the difference," Wolff told Motorsport. "So we are taking everybody serious: whether it is Ferrari finishing second this year or Williams finishing 10th. All of them could come with a car that can outperform us. We are respecting all these teams and the effort they put into it and all of them are being seen as competitors."
Fans who have watched Mercedes repeat this pessimistic mantra despite collecting the last five championships straight will likely take the team's projections for the season with a spoonful of salt. Analysts also aren't buying Mercedes's outward pessimism, with Motorsport Italy pointing out that 2019's rules favor the long-wheelbase, low-rake design that Mercedes pioneered over the last two years. Indeed, Wolff reportedly admitted at the aforementioned sponsors' event that the W10's aero development has progressed smoothly. The updated engine, however, is said to have fallen short of the team's ambitions.
"We've had a little bit of a setback on the engine side where we believed the new concept would deliver a little bit more," said Wolff according to Race Fans. "But these guys are very ambitious like all of us and so I'm optimistic."
Like the Scuderia's engine program, Mercedes has reportedly overhauled the engine's construction using new materials and production techniques. Its pistons are reportedly 3-D printed from a new alloy, and are housed inside a lighter, but stiffer V6 architecture. Improved MGU-H, MGU-K, and combustion efficiency will reportedly let Mercedes steamroll the 1,000 horsepower benchmark, but again, Mercedes reportedly is worried that its improvements won't be enough to reattain supremacy over Ferrari.
Williams went from seemingly finding its stride again in 2014 to its lowest championship finish in the team's history in 2018, tenth. Employees recent and current paint a picture of a team resting on its laurels, one outdated and inefficient, blundering its way to its bottom of the 2018 WCC.
Paddy Lowe, who oversaw development of Williams's active suspension in the early 1990s, has returned to Williams after two decades spent at McLaren, and a few years at Mercedes. He is now chief technical officer and a shareholder, and on first returning to the team, Lowe had to challenge a belief within Williams that its problems were small, a belief that "there are just two or three things to fix and than everything will be OK, and we'll be winning races".
"It is a mindset that I think has been in Williams for a very long time," Lowe told Autosport. "The mindset we need is to say, 'everything is available to be challenged and everything has to be done better every year,' otherwise you're being left behind by a very strong set of competitors."
Recently departed head of vehicle performance Rob Smedley added to Lowe's comments, suggesting that Williams should "attack all areas" in need of improvement. These allegedly encompass a technical department that Lowe admitted was "making up the numbers," along with all supporting departments.
"There are areas that need modernization, there are areas that need change and there are areas you should recognize that are strong compared to other Formula 1 teams but are not supported in other ways," Smedley told Autosport.
Smedley praised Claire Williams's leadership, and advised that she or her peers come up with a plan to address the team's problems. Lowe has stated that internal changes have already been made, changes which are already having a positive effect within the team, even if the results aren't yet visible on track.
"I can only tell you we're going to get better and that's not in terms even of results. The engineering is already getting better and that's directionally correct," Lowe continued. He also told Speedweek that the team "will be better," and has "already completed the turnaround."
First on Williams's agenda for its comeback should be improving on its 2018 championship result, even if that means a less distant tenth-place finish. Despite a cessation of Stroll family support with Lance's move to Racing Point, and the loss of Martini as a title sponsor, Williams isn't without financial support in 2019. Claire Williams has reportedly confirmed that the team's budget will remain the same this year, and because the team has determined what was wrong with the FW41, the FW42 surely can't perform any more poorly (assuming it's assembled on time for Monday's test session).
Racing Point Force India F1
Force India became Racing Point over summer break in 2018, after a legal kerfuffle that could have spelled the team's demise. In short, someone to whom Force India owed money was tired of waiting to be paid, and filed suit to force the team into insolvency. The team's driver Sergio Perez filed a countersuit that put Force India's assets up for sale, all of which were bought by a group of investors led by fashion mogul Lawrence Stroll, father of Lance Stroll.
As names go, Racing Point is forgettable, and that's because it's a placeholder, as confirmed by team principal Otmar Szafnauer. Team officials meant to come up with something more permanent before the season's start, but they have seemingly run out of time, and will have to fly the Racing Point flag in 2019.
With the team's finances healthy for the first time in years, Perez is certain that Racing Point can use its newfound security to transform from a hard-hitting lightweight into one of F1's heavyweights. Perez believes that Racing Point is a more promising team than McLaren, and insists that with a bigger budget, Racing Point "can be a massive surprise next year."
And a much bigger budget is reportedly on the way: an executive from one of Racing Point's sponsors, Acronis, reportedly said in an interview that the team's budget is set to triple in 2019. Statements from former Force India driver Esteban Ocon seemingly support this claim.
"Resources have always been the issue, and there will be less of this issue next year," Ocon told Motorsport. "I believe they will be strong contenders."
As one of the team's financiers, Lawrence Stroll expects Racing Point to perform well with his support, and wants the team to break into the top three. Stroll didn't predict when Racing Point would achieve this level of performance, and based on statements from Szafnauer, that kind of pace isn't expected until at least 2020, as manufacturing of the team's 2019 car—the RP19—was underway when the team changed hands.
As for the RP19 itself, technical director Andy Green admits that its early development phases were ugly. Everyone was impacted by the revised aero rules, he said, but Racing Point found itself in the worst-case scenario: the car was unbalanced, and seconds slower per lap.
"The whole thing throws us back about two years in development. I do not know if we can even make it back to the present with these regulations," Green told Auto Motor und Sport. "The car looked really bad when we first put it in the wind tunnel. The performance loss was huge. We are talking about several seconds in terms of the lap time. The learning curve is very steep for everyone. I expect a long fight. With the new season running, engineers will certainly be keen to see what solutions the competition has come up with."
Nevertheless, Racing Point has clawed back some of its lost pace. Green's technical department has emphasized reliability with the initial spec of RP19, which will primarily be used to gain an understanding of the tires during winter testing. Using the information gathered in testing, Racing Point will launch an aggressive upgrade program for the RP19, which will see the car upgraded as soon as the season opener, the Australian Grand Prix.
And if it isn't clear to you already, the Australian Grand Prix may be one hell of a race. We don't miss it, and we suggest you don't either.