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Formula One set to open 2022 season with new rules and new-look cars

The first race of the new Formula One season will be contested in Bahrain on Sunday. For the first time since 2017, the season will open with someone other than Lewis Hamilton as reigning champion. (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Three months after the dramatic conclusion of last year’s Formula One season, highlighted by Max Verstappen’s last-lap overtaking of Lewis Hamilton in the final race to win the championship, the 2022 campaign is set to start with updated rules meant to encourage more passing.

Verstappen’s victory didn’t inspire Formula One’s new regulations, which had been discussed since 2017 and whose 2022 implementation was delayed by a year in an attempt to ease the financial burden on teams during the coronavirus pandemic. But his success, controversial as it was, offered a taste of greater competition, which Formula One and its governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), hope to see more of going forward.

“There is huge excitement ahead of this new era, and while 2021 has been a great battle, we still have cars struggling to follow each other during the race,” Formula One Managing Director Ross Brawn said last year. “The regulations for 2022 will address this problem and create an opportunity for closer battles and more wheel-to-wheel racing. The combined effect of the new aerodynamic regulations and financial rules, in the form of the cost cap, will create the conditions for a more balanced championship and for the gaps across the grid to close.”

Among the most notable changes this season are those aerodynamic regulations meant to produce more competitive races and results, and which influenced this year’s new car designs.

Formula One cars are designed to use the air that flows past them at high speeds to move more efficiently. Last year’s cars, from the shape of the front wing through the contours of the rear wing, made overtaking opponents more challenging because their features left turbulent, “dirty” air directly in the following car’s path.

With drivers racing down straights, that dirty air can benefit the trailing car because the leading vehicle essentially punches a hole in the air in front of it. But the dirty air can hamper the following vehicle around turns by reducing the force that presses a car toward the track at high speeds and provides its tires better grip. The reduced downforce loosens the tires’ grip on the track and slows the following car around turns, which makes it more difficult to pass.

To address this, the front wing of the new cars feature upturned endplates, and the rear wing has rounded edges in a departure from their boxy predecessors. Those changes are meant to direct turbulent air above tailing cars rather than at them.

The new cars are also constructed to use ground effect to generate a greater proportion of downforce. To achieve this, the cars were built with channels along their undersides that help produce the pressure that pulls the car to the track, rather than depending on the car’s upper surface to create a similar effect. It’s an approach last used during the 1980s, before the car features that enabled it were banned over safety concerns that since have been alleviated by technological advances, and one that has contributed to the “porpoising,” or bobbing phenomena, seen during preseason testing.

Additionally, the cars are outfitted with tires that were made to be more resistant to overheating and that have increased in size from 13 to 18 inches. They also sit below winglets, which further help manipulate airflow around the vehicle.

Where some of the new changes are standard across the board, some cars offer subtle variations around the nose, sidepods and floor of the vehicles — as is the case with Mercedes, whose car features “radical sidepods” that engrossed observers and competitors during its debut in testing last week.

The theory is that these changes will lead to more close-quarter duels during races and less predictable results by the time the season concludes.

“It’s just the same approach we take every year — it’s just more difficult because the rule changes [are] much more significant than we’ve seen in the past,” Mercedes Technical Director Mike Elliott said. “When you get a new set of regulations, it’s a new challenge. It’s a challenge to start from scratch. In most years, where we’ve got carryover regulations, you’ve got a pretty good idea what good looks like. … When you got a brand new set of regulations, you don’t know what the limit is, you don’t know where you can get to. And that’s exciting for engineers. It’s an exciting challenge to work out what the opportunity might be, to try and explore all these opportunities and try and do that in a better way than the opposition does.”

Across the grid, several drivers have new homes in 2022.

Mercedes will team Hamilton, a seven-time champion, with former Williams driver George Russell. Hamilton’s former teammate Valtteri Bottas signed with the Alfa Romeo team. Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren, last year’s second, third and fourth-place teams behind Mercedes, maintained their lineups. After dumping Russian driver Nikita Mazepin last week in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, American-owned Haas will pair Kevin Magnussen alongside Mick Schumacher.

Off the track, former race director Michael Masi was relieved of his duties after his controversial late decision enabled Verstappen to overtake Hamilton during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December to win last year’s drivers’ title. Masi reportedly will remain with the FIA in an undetermined capacity while Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas alternately fill his old role.

Preseason trial runs started in Spain at the end of February and continued in Bahrain last week. The Middle Eastern country will host the season’s first race Sunday. The 23-race season, Formula One’s longest ever, runs through the November finale in Abu Dhabi and features in May a newly added stop in Miami as well as the October return of the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin.