This season has seen several key regulation clarifications, with the FIA seemingly taking a more flexible approach to the threat of protests — but how have they been able to make these 'ballpark' changes?
The challenge of creating a set of strict watertight rules for Formula One has always been a tough one, but for many years the system of 'pre-vetting' designs has been pushed harder and harder in a bid to prevent teams getting to the grid with controversial solutions that take the rules and bend them to the maximum.
The problem is, there are so many different interpretations of the wording in the regulations that the technical battlefield becomes a legal-style challenge of wits between the inventors and defendants of the unique ideas, the 'judicial' investigators at the FIA and the opposition teams. And unfortunately, the first chance the opposition teams get to have a say is when the design arrives at the racetrack.
Last season the double diffuser sat within the letter of the law but not the spirit. One of its creators, Ross Brawn, had suggested banning the idea before it even reached the track, for the exact point that it contravened the spirit of the law, but he failed and it has now grown to huge extremes.
This year, there have been several similarly innovative approaches — McLaren's F-duct, the new double diffuser loophole, alleged automatic altering suspension systems and extreme outboard mirrors — but in contrast to previous years, and despite a lack of formal protests, the FIA has been able to act on the situation, clarify expectations and see some designs altered.
This unique idea has been given equal praise, for its innovation, and criticism, for its supposed safety and cost implications. It certainly gives originators McLaren a performance boost — their cars are by far the fastest on the straits — but arguments that it should be banned on danger grounds as it gives drivers control of a significant performance tool were unfounded, given the amount of other buttons, knobs and dials that drivers have to change on every lap.
The fact that it will cost teams time and money to modify their cars to ultimately just match the pace of their rivals was perhaps an argument for its ban, but that is not official cause for it to be thrown out, unless all teams vote against it. And indeed, as Sauber's less successful attempts at implementing it show, it is not as easy as it seems, so McLaren should perhaps be praised for their ingenuity.
Teams took the double diffuser interpretation to the extremes this year, but the FIA finally said enough was enough.
This was a case of a lack of clarity in the rules, in which article 3.12.7 states: "A single break in the surface is permitted solely to allow the minimum required access for the (starter motor)." There is clearly ambiguity in what 'minimum required access' actually means, and some teams designed particularly large starter motors to increase the size of the gap, which adds energised flow into the diffuser to make it work harder.
If the innovators had, indeed, shown the FIA their plans ahead of the season, they clearly did not do so openly, as once the governing body realised the gaping hole (pardon the pun) in the regulations they were quick to say no.
A clarification on what is a maximum size of access hole was all that was needed, given that it was simply an additional definition of an item already in the rules, for the FIA to introduce this 'change' without unanimous voting from the teams.
Ride height systems
Red Bull was hit with claims they were running an innovative automatic system to alter ride height between qualifying and the race, improving low fuel pace but then altering to improve heavy tank running. Although McLaren certainly thought there was something amiss but never protested it and Ross Brawn equally said something "could be" being done to alter ride heights but never pointed a finger. Instead, they both simply suggested the FIA should refresh the rules in that area.
Red Bull has qualified on pole in every race, which is why the accusations began. The car was given the all-clear after an inspection at the last race showed they had no mechanical system to achieve this, but there was still suggestions that they had something automated instead - and the FIA found it necessary to clarify the situation.
The original rule, Article 34.5, stated: "If a competitor modifies any part on the car or makes changes to the set up of the suspension whilst the car is being held under parc fermé conditions the relevant driver must start the race from the pit lane..."
The clarification simply explained: "Any system device or procedure, the purpose and/or effect of which is to change the set-up of the suspension, while the car is under parc ferme conditions will be deemed to contravene art 34.5 of the sporting regulations." On top of that, any self-levelling system (that did not involve a device or procedure) was outlawed in an additional clarification.
Again, being a clarification and not a specific rule change, the FIA was allowed to introduce this without question.
By positioning the mirrors on turning vanes or on the front of the sidepod, teams were again pushing the rule boundaries, giving their cars mirrors but making them relatively useless due to not only their position, which meant drivers had to turn their heads to see them, but their vibration, which made them completely unusable.
In most cases, the mirrors were mounted outboard to improve aerodynamic performance, but this only gained around 0.1s per lap. Even so, every little helps, which is why many teams made the most of this loophole. This time, the FIA got their change through on safety grounds, claiming that the outboard mirrors did not provide effective rear visibility.
But while the FIA were able to make these changes by clarifying elements of the loopholes, last year's double diffuser concept was based on a large loophole that could not be clarified. And all this goes to show how complicated the legalese in the regulations is. Every I must be dotted and t crossed, but unfortunately that will always be an impossible task.