What once represented the hallmark of a successful campaign now looms as inconsequential, with the impending developmental “arms race” set to grip Formula One as it enters its latest iteration.
In years past, a championship contending outfit’s fate rode considerably on its fortunes at the early season ‘flyaway’ events, with notional deficits proving too substantial to overcome across subsequent races.
This is set to change with the renewed aerodynamic emphasis heralding an unprecedented upgrade cycle, which has the potential to negate previously decisive advantages from one weekend to the following.
While this is unlikely to propel McLaren into, ahem, race finishing contention overnight, the advent of rolling development is a dual carriageway which will allow no outfit to rest on its laurels, lest competitors will supplant the indiscriminate status quo.
Drawing parallels to an instance of a team seizing an advantage coinciding with a regulation overhaul, the aforementioned Woking concern stole a sizeable march on rivals in the happier days of 1998 at pre-season testing.
With a package crafted unsurprisingly by Adrian Newey, the MP4-13 boasted field-lapping pace at Melbourne. While this figure diminished as the season developed, with unlimited testing at the disposal of those possessing the means, its sole challenger that year was Ferrari, and only then, courtesy of Michael Schumacher’s ability to outdrive the car, was its superiority jeopardised.
Fast forward to 2014 when the hybrid era commenced, and Mercedes, which had invested the majority of its time and resources since returning to the sport in 2010 in its bid to pioneer the new regulations, established and maintained a soul crushing dominance, lasting through 2016.
Kudos must be afforded to Brackley and particularly Brixworth – on account of the engine dependent age, for reaping what they sowed.
This in contrast to the stubborn attitudes on display at Renault, and later, Honda, with each paying the price in varying degrees, yet it must have been galling to realise that, having failed to do their homework, entire campaigns for its customers were effectively stillborn.
Returning to the present, it’s true that the rise of the continuous development process is likely become soul crushing in itself, though it’ll be reassuring for personnel to fathom that the reward for toiling away many evenings will be more readily tangible, rather than waiting until the following season, when the chances are that most concepts are already rendered obsolete.
Despite the relaxation of the derided power unit ‘tokens’, in tandem with reduced engine emphasis, this will arguably be of commensurate significance to outfits languishing in power as the restless aerodynamic innovations, the latter which will be impossible to track from weekend to weekend.
Not that victory should be diminished, it could be that salvaging an ugly fifth place in the early events is a crucial result once the tables are turned at subsequent races, thus rather than viewing the outcome objectively as a failure, they could amount to the silent victories in the dynamic ‘arms race.’
Perhaps Mercedes will continue its ascendancy, though it’s an appetising prospect to envisage nominal challengers Ferrari or Red Bull delivering upgrades on any given weekend which places them ahead of the Silver Arrows, only for the former to strike back at the next event.
Now they have been granted the opportunity, it shouldn’t be too much to ask for a team which craves success badly enough to work itself into the ground, the spectacle will be utterly fascinating.