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Tech analysis: How Formula 1’s future is a throwback to 2009 ideas

The FIA’s publication of concept images and plans for the 2026 Formula 1 cars has laid out clear targets for grand prix racing to get right what the current rules did not.

Giorgio Piola's F1 technical analysis

Giorgio Piola is the preeminent Formula 1 technical journalist. View our full selection of Giorgio's technical illustrative content

Talk of better management of dirty air, of limiting designers’ ability to generate outwash, and prioritising closer racing is the intention, but there is still a lot of time for teams to unpick the good intentions before the cars hit the track for the first time.

The renders provided by the FIA are understood to be a few generations behind where the governing body is in terms of the final draft of the regulations which is set to be signed off later this month.

However, there’s already some interesting observations to be made, even if things have moved on a little from what was published on Thursday.

The first of those is that we could easily be looking at a car born of the 2009 regulation changes, almost as if the last 15 years have been an alternate timeline. 

The front wing, pillar arrangement and nose are reminiscent of the generation of cars that preceded that regulation change, with the Renault R25 and McLaren MP4-21 perhaps two iconic cars of that era that would spring to mind.

Renault R25 2005 Imola front wing and nose
McLaren MP4-21 nose

This could be because there’s a distinct push to alter the behaviour of the front wing again, with the ability to alter the wheel wake profile obviously a key factor in how the rest of the car is laid out. 

In that respect, the front wing will be 100mm narrower and there’s also a change in tact when it comes to the footplate region of the wing, which was deleted for 2022 but makes a return in 2026. There’s also scope for other aerodynamic trickery to appear on the surfaces above.

The front wheel deflectors that we find on the current cars have also been deleted, as the technical working group helping to frame these regulations has clearly found other ways with which to deal with the wake being generated. 

This includes in-washing wheel wake control boards that will sit on the front of the side pods, whilst there’s also clearly a shift away from the fence and tunnel-like floor arrangement we currently have.

This means a return to a floor arrangement pre-2022, with a raised floor leading edge, flatter midsection and a lower-powered diffuser, which will reduce the need for ultra-stiff and low ride height set-ups.

The beam wing has also been deleted once more, likely due to the aerodynamic coupling effect it creates between the diffuser and rear wing, which could have been a sticking point with the twin moveable rear wing elements.

Perhaps it’s here where we should note that while it is nice to see renders that appear to give a general representation of how the FIA expects the regulations to be read, the reality is normally a little more diverse, as noted by Jason Somerville, Head of Aerodynamics at the FIA.

“We've aimed to close loopholes and undesirable opportunities for exploitation,” he said. “However, we're all experienced enough to know that teams are experts in seeking a competitive advantage!

“So that's one of the biggest challenges: to ensure we have a robust set of regulations, which give us the performance and the racing that we're expecting."

And, whilst the teams have been involved in developing the 2026 framework, they can’t start work on development of the aerodynamic surfaces for their cars until 1 January 2025.

But, that’s not to stop them setting up a working group to develop ideas and solutions for the chassis and mechanical side as soon as the regulations are confirmed.

What is changing with the 2026 F1 cars

At the heart of the 2026 F1 car is a new power unit, with the MGU-H removed and more emphasis placed on energy deployment from the MGU-K, as the ICE takes more of a back seat. 

The changes will result in more of a 50/50 relationship between combustion and electrical deployment, as the MGU-K will be able to deliver 350kw, rather than the 120kw currently permitted. However, to balance the books, fuel flow and boost levels will be reduced on the combustion side.

In order to deliver that extra electrical energy to the MGU-K, the Energy Store has been redefined, whilst the amount of energy that can be harvested under braking each lap has also been increased significantly.

Increasing the emphasis on the electrical side of the power unit required a change in approach to the car’s chassis and aerodynamics design, with the FIA keen to make the cars more nimble.

In order to achieve this, the maximum wheelbase has been reduced from 3600mm to 3400mm and the car’s width reduced from 2000mm to 1900mm.

The minimum weight also comes down 30kgs to 768kgs, whilst there’s also been changes to the width of the wheels and tyres, reduced by 25mm at the front and 30mm at the rear.

There’s been a significant push to balance the aerodynamic output of the car with the new power unit too, as the FIA eyes around a 30% reduction in downforce and 55% in drag when compared with the current machines.

Most of the drag reduction will come from the new active aero package that the cars will sport in 2026, as both the front and rear wings will have moveable elements.

And, whilst it might first appear to be a more powerful version of DRS, this new active system is different from a sporting perspective and necessary in order to complement the changes made to the power unit.

The active front and rear wings will have two states, or modes as the FIA has termed them - X and Z. Z-mode is the standard state, where the moveable elements contribute to the overall downforce and drag that’s being generated by the car. X-mode is the low drag state, where two elements on both the front and rear wing can be moved to reduce downforce and the drag being generated by those elements. 

This will improve aerodynamic efficiency and allow the power unit to operate at its optimum level, whilst also providing the necessary harvesting to occur in the braking zone.

As all drivers will have the ability to use X and Z modes as they see fit during the course of a lap, electrical deployment will now be a tool at the disposal of a chasing car and offer support in overtaking situations.
Known as override mode, the chasing car will be allotted additional energy to deploy during the course of a lap if it is within a pre-determined window at the end of the previous lap.

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