Commentary

'Change' the operative word in 2009

Formula One racing as we know it is no longer. Sweeping rules changes and cost-cutting measures will give F1 a new look in 2009, writes Dan Knutson.

Updated: January 16, 2009, 2:52 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

Newly crowned Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton will defend his title in 2009 in far different circumstances from those in which he won it in 2008.

Hamilton and the rest of the F1 world -- everybody from drivers to fans to teams to engineers to accountants -- will see a vast number of differences this season.

There are sweeping changes in the technical rules, especially with the aerodynamics. Costs have been cut, races added and dropped, and almost all testing has been banned.

These and other changes are going to shake up the pecking order among the teams.

[+] EnlargeRobert Kubica
AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Ryan RemiorzRobert Kubica, left, won't get a chance to defend his Canadian Grand Prix title -- the series dropped the Montreal circuit from the 2009 schedule.

Read on to see what's new in F1 in 2009.

RACES

Abu Dhabi joins the 17-race schedule while Canada and France have been dropped.

TEAMS

Honda has put its team up for sale.

After signing a technical partnership with McLaren Mercedes, Force India switches from Ferrari to Mercedes engines this season.

A NEW BOSS

McLaren's chief operating officer Martin Whitmarsh will replace Ron Dennis as team principal of the McLaren F1 team on March 1. Dennis, who has run the team since he bought it in the early 1980s, says he will be working harder than ever on other projects spread through the companies of the McLaren Group. And he will still attend many but not all of the F1 grand prix races.

Dennis has been thinking of stepping down for several years now, and originally planned to do it in 2007 but stayed on to steer his team through the spy scandal with Ferrari that resulted in the FIA fining McLaren $100 million.

The transition will be smooth as Dennis and Whitmarsh have worked together for many years, and have in reality been co-team bosses for more than five years. The difference now is that the buck for many major decisions now stops at Whitmarsh's desk. But don't expect Dennis to get too far away from team operations.

"I've worked with Ron for 20 years now, and anyone who knows this team well knows how it operates," Whitmarsh said. "It has been a transition -- Ron has reached that point.

"I was keen for Ron to dictate the time frame for it so I never pushed him, nor have I wanted any external influence in that regard. It's very much Ron's timing and about how he takes his life forward."

DRIVER LINEUPS

The lineups remain remarkably unchanged from 2008, with seven teams retaining their same drivers: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes (Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen); Ferrari (Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen); BMW Sauber (Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld); ING Renault (Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet); AT&T Williams Toyota (Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima); Panasonic Toyota (Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock); and Force India Mercedes (Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil).

Ex-Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel replaces the retiring David Coulthard at Red Bull Renault, where he pairs up with Mark Webber. Toro Rosso has yet to confirm its 2009 drivers. And who will drive for the former Honda team depends on who buys it.

UNITED FRONT

Last September the teams formed the Formula One Teams Association to present a unified front in negotiations and discussion with the FIA and with F1's commercial boss, Bernie Ecclestone.

Unlike the past when one or two teams always splintered off from the group, FOTA has shown unprecedented unity.

Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo: "What's certain is that the time to divide and conquer to rule in F1 is over."

ENGINES

Drivers must use the same engine for three consecutive race weekends (consisting of Saturday and Sunday) compared to two weekends in 2008.

A team is limited to 20 engines during the 2009 racing season -- eight for each driver for race weekends and an additional four for "Friday" testing.

To help improve engine life, the rev limit is now 18,000 rpm versus 19,000 last year.

The freeze on engine development remains, but Renault has been allowed to update its engine so that it has horsepower equal to the output produced by the V8s of the other manufacturers.

All this has been done to reduce costs considerably. Compare the new 20-engine rule to 2002, when a driver used three engines per race weekend (one each for practice, qualifying and the race) plus more for private testing. That would translate to a team's using 102 engines during the 17-race 2009 season even with the testing ban.

COST CUTS

Team budgets will be cut by at least 30 percent in 2009 because of the various rule changes including the following:

Because they will use fewer engines overall, the teams that lease engines from manufacturers will pay about $10 million in 2009, which is about half what they paid in 2008.

Each team will be required to close down its factory for a total of six weeks during the year.

Teams will bring fewer personnel to the track by sharing information on items such as fuel and tires to eliminate the need to use spotters.

No wind tunnel exceeding 60 percent scale and 50 meters per second can be used in 2009.

The teams have detailed and signed a comprehensive aerodynamic test-restrictions agreement effective in 2009 that includes limiting the number of hours and days a wind tunnel can be operated per week.

TESTING

In 2008 the teams were limited to 18,640 miles of testing during the season. This year all in-season testing is banned except for the open Friday practice sessions on grand prix weekends. And that should add up to an estimated savings of more than $20 million for the big teams.

TIRES

The grooved dry-weather tires used since 1998 have been replaced by slicks in 2009.

McLaren Mercedes test driver Pedro de la Rosa: "Obviously, the slick tires give you a lot more grip, so although we will be running with reduced downforce, the overall grip of the car won't be that different to what we had. But it's the balance front to rear that will change -- the slick tires have a very strong front end going into the corners and they have very good traction coming out. Overall, I think the slick tires will give us lap time in the low-speed corners, and because of the reduced downforce we'll be slower at high speeds."

KERS

The use of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems is permitted but not mandatory in 2009. Basically a KERS unit takes the "free" energy produced by the heat given off during braking and stores it either in batteries or a mechanical flywheel setup. The driver can then call up an extra boost of power similar to the "push to pass" button that the Champ Car series used.

The rules limit the system to releasing a maximum of 80 horsepower for 7 seconds each lap. It won't increase maximum rpm, which is limited to 18,000, but will, for example, give the driver a surge of power at the start of the race or when trying to pass or defend his position on the track.

McLaren's chief engineer Pat Fry: "KERS, if you get it right, will be worth four-10ths in qualifying. And on circuits with a long drag [after the start] down to the first corner, such as Barcelona, it will be worth 20 meters -- or three grid slots."

However, a KERS unit adds between 55 and 75 pounds to a car. While the teams are working hard to reduce the weight of the system, the power-surge benefits have to be considered against the added weight that reduces lap times.

Because KERS is complex and expensive to develop, many teams will probably opt to not use it in the early races of the season.

AERODYNAMICS

By far the biggest change for 2009 centers around the cars' new aerodynamic package. These are the biggest single set of aero changes in F1 history, and certainly the most extensive change since the banning of ground effects at the end of 1982.

The basic idea is to give the driver more overtaking opportunities by increasing mechanical grip (with the slicks replacing the grooved tires) while decreasing aerodynamic downforce by over 30 percent.

When we first went into the wind tunnel with our '09 model, we'd lost well over 50 percent downforce, and clawing some of that back is an exciting, huge challenge when you don't have the bodywork rules to allow you to do that.

-- McLaren's Doug McKiernan

McLaren's principal aerodynamicist Doug McKiernan: "All the top-body furniture has basically been removed. The rear wing is a lot higher, the diffuser moves rearwards, the front wing has been moved forwards and is lower and wider. The bodywork no longer features deflectors or hydrofoils.

"When we first went into the wind tunnel with our '09 model, we'd lost well over 50 percent downforce, and clawing some of that back is an exciting, huge challenge when you don't have the bodywork rules to allow you to do that."

By "top-body furniture" he is referring to all the winglets, horns, flips and lips that sprouted all over the car and the wings. All have been banned, as have the "bargeboards" or turning vanes on the side of the car between the front and rear wheels.

Honda team principal Ross Brawn: "All that furniture makes it terrible to follow another car because when you get behind another car it's shedding off all these vortices and your car is affected very strongly by those vortices. So trying to follow another car at the moment is impossible."

As Brawn says, at the core of why it has been so difficult to pass in F1 in recent years is that the driver closing in on a car in front found his car losing downforce and becoming unstable. The dirty air off the car in front played havoc with the aerodynamics of the car behind. Because a driver could not stay close enough to the car in front in a corner, he was not close enough to draft past on the following straightaway.

The specific changes to the front and rear wings are as follows:

Front wing -- Width increases from 55.19 inches to 70.86 inches, which is also the maximum width of the car including the tires. The height of the wing is 2.95 inches off the ground compared to 5.91 inches in 2008. The 19.69 inch center section of the wing is of a standard design dictated by the FIA. Thus the teams are allowed to develop and tweak the wing only on either side of the center section.

Rear wing -- Width decreases from 39.37 inches in 2008 to 29.53 inches this season. The height of the rear wing has been increased by 5.91 inches.

McKiernan: "At the moment, our biggest challenge is understanding the flow structures around the car. When you go and change the front wing it's a huge challenge to recalibrate the understanding of how that wing's going to perform through a corner. And that device then dictates the flow structures down the car and how they all interact as they go around the car.

"The flow is now much less constrained -- there used to be very obvious devices for controlling flow structures around the car. Now we're doing it with other parts, so it's more difficult. So your objectives are similar but the challenge is harder."

While the initial loss of downforce was nearly 50 percent, the teams have clawed back about 20 percent. However, the 2009 cuts were so stringent and the rules have been written in such a way that, unlike previous years, the teams will not be able to regain much more. The downforce cuts, therefore, are here to stay.

Former Force India chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne: "It will be unlike previous rule changes where there was supposed to be a 25 percent cut, but it disappeared in 12 months -- with the regulations as they are now you won't get back to the same levels that we had in 2008 no matter what you do."

WHAT TO EXPECT?

Because the technical rules have been so stable in recent years, the smaller teams have been able to close the gap on the bigger teams. In 2008, the difference from the fastest to the slowest of the 20 cars in the lineup was less than three seconds.

Compare that, for example, to the qualifying times for the 1986 British Grand Prix when there was a 12-second spread between the first and last car on the grid.

Because the teams are all at different levels developing their 2009 cars and coping with the drastic rule changes, the field will be more spread out this season. That will be true especially in the early races.

Fry: "Once everything settles down, I think you'll see teams doing bigger upgrades. For example, you won't have three little deflector tweaks, but some teams will bring an entire new floor. For 2009, I think we will see [that] performance spread across the field will be bigger. And there's also the potential for upset and the normal pecking order to be different."

While the resources of the top teams will allow them to develop their cars faster than the little teams before and during the 2009 season, the new technical rules have drastically changed the car's design DNA.

Williams' technical director Sam Michael says that much of what the teams have learned and refined about their car's design from 1983 through 2008 has had to be thrown away.

So all the teams are starting from scratch and on a level playing field with their 2009 cars.

While the fans might not see a Force India win the season opener in Australia on March 29 while a Ferrari trails around in last place, the running order between the 10 teams will be different in 2009 than it was in 2008.

How different? And who will be where?

"We have no idea," driver Mark Webber said. "It is really like flipping 10 coins and seeing where the teams land."

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

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