The new Formula One season begins this week with yet another set of new rules and regulations, including an end to in-race refuelling.
The refuelling ban does not mean an end to pit stops, as cars will still be stopping to change tires. However, those stops will now be cut to about three seconds rather than the previous eight to 10 seconds of standing time while fuel was topped up.
In recent seasons, the cars that qualified in the top 10 had to start the race on the same fuel load they used in qualifying. Now, the top qualifiers will be handicapped by having to start the race on the tires they use to qualify, while those outside the top 10 get to use fresh rubber.
The combination of those two rules will make for a shift in tactics, in which the timing of the pit stops will be balanced between the condition of the initial set of tires and a calculation of how long the next set will be able to last.
“The strategy will be much different compared to last year,” Ferrari driver Felipe Massa said during preseason testing. “When is the right time to come (to pit)? When is the right time to change the tires? What is the type of tire to use? You don't know when we're going to stop. It's going to depend on the tires and on the strategy of the other cars.”
Just as important as the in-race decision on when to pit will be the decision on Saturday about whether to go all out in qualifying and damage the tires which must be used to start the race, or to settle for a slower time, forego that last qualifying lap and have the rubber in better condition for Sunday.
Tires that are a little fresher than that of a rival could be decisive on the opening lap or two of the race, given that this year the cars will be at their heaviest, and least responsive and maneuverable, in the opening stages.
These rules should benefit a driver who is experienced enough to make such judgments, and a driver who is either kind on his tires or has the skill to maintain pace on degrading rubber. The contrast will be marked at McLaren, for example, where Lewis Hamilton is an aggressive racer who rapidly uses up tires, while teammate Jenson Button has a smooth style.
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn was excited by the challenge and dilemmas the new rules will bring.
“You could go all out for qualifying but you would then have to be lucky to have a car in the race,” Brawn said. “It's going to be difficult to balance both.”
Brawn's decision to lure seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher out of retirement for this season could reap big dividends, as the German is renowned for his attention to detail when it comes to working with his engineers to maximize the car set—up, and has vast experience in being able to read a car's handling.
When pit stops were timed around fuel loads, the timing of the stops was planned out before the race, but not so now.
“It's going to be much more of a reactive situation this year,” Brawn said. “Not much you can pre-plan, you'll have to react in the race to what you see.
“It's going to be quite tricky to sort the strategy out. If you come in too soon for your first set of tires can you make the second set last the whole race? It's going to be fascinating how the strategy in the stops will work out. It is completely different to last year.”
In cases where qualifying is dry and the race itself is in wet conditions — or vice versa — all cars will get new tires for the race and not the ones used in qualifying.
With no refuelling — a cost-cutting measure due to the expense of each team hauling fuel rigs around the world — each car will have a much larger fuel tank this season. That has caused a redesign that makes the cars almost a foot longer than they were in 2009. Some teams have tried to capitalize on this by building up the rear bodywork so that it extends from the air intake above the driver's head to connect with the rear wing.
The number of sets of tires allocated to each car over each grand prix meeting will be cut from 14 to 11. Teams won't be able to get around this by skipping practice and hoarding all their sets for qualifying and race, as one set must be handed back to race authorities after Friday's first practice session and another two after the second practice, regardless of whether they were used or not. So big teams and small teams alike will do comparable amounts of laps on Fridays.
Another key rule change is the points system. The 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 system has been scrapped, replaced with 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1.
That puts more of a premium on winning. The old points system delivered the second-placed driver 80 percent of the points collected by the winner. Now it's 72 percent. Whether that provides more incentive for the second-placed driver to chase down the leader remains to be seen.
Ten points-earning placings rather than eight will provide more interest for the midfield and tail-end competitors and give even struggling teams something to fight for and something to show for their efforts.
Qualifying will follow the same three-stage format, with adjustments to allow for the expansion of the field from 20 to 24 cars. The number of competitors eliminated after stages one and two will be increased from five to seven, still leaving 10 drivers in the final qualifying stage.
Front tires have been narrowed from a maximum width of 27 centimetres to 24.5, and wheel covers have been banned. But double diffusers will again be here. And just like last year, when they caused much legal argument, there is again the potential for challenges to stewards over how teams have interpreted rules which regulate the design of the diffusers, which manage air flow under the car.
This year, the stewards' decisions should be more consistent, because the FIA has appointed a permanent panel of stewards, including former drivers, from which a few will be selected for each race. In the past, the stewards changed from race to race, providing for some ad hoc rule applications. This year, the stewards will have increased scope to impose post-race penalties. Drivers handed drive-through or stop-go penalties for in-race infractions may now be hit with additional post-race time penalties, rather than the either/or situation of previous years.
Another contentious addition of 2009 — the KERS power-boost system — has been banished for 2010, by consensus among the Formula One Teams Association rather than actual regulation. KERS was problematic in 2009, with many teams spending large sums to develop the technology while only two — Ferrari and McLaren — used it regularly. But with KERS banned by consensus rather than rule, will one or more teams break ranks and reintroduce it this season?