In The Driver's Seat

At last, changes allow drivers to push their cars much harder

Formula One is poised on the edge of an exciting new era, after an off-season spent speculating on the likely benefits of dramatic new regulations.

The cars are wider and more powerful. Aerodynamic revisions promise much greater levels of downforce. And Pirelli's tyres are wider and - whisper it - designed not to degrade so quickly. The FIA speaks of cars being "up to five seconds a lap" faster.

So how is it all going to pan out?

Testing suggested that Ferrari might challenge Mercedes, but it's still just too early to say with any credibility.

But the good news is it won't be after this weekend. We might not learn the full truth - different teams bring updates to their cars at different times - but the first race of the season will give us an idea of the pecking order.

And, more importantly, it will disclose the respective gaps between the teams. If Ferrari and Red Bull are closer than seven-tenths of a second behind Mercedes, we could be in for the two- or three-horse race that the series so desperately needs.

It will just be a matter of acclimatising, and I expect those who drove the old V10 cars of the early 2000s to do so more easily than the newcomers unused to such forces.

But testing isn't racing. Only the teams know what fuel loads, chassis set-ups and engine maps they were running, so the picture can be skewed. But the Ferrari looked very neat and "planted" in both tests, while Mercedes still looked strong and Red Bull had a bit left to come. By Sunday evening in Melbourne, we'll start to get a handle on the truth.

The jury is still out on whether the new regulations will make the spectacle and the racing better, and improve overtaking opportunities.

Lewis Hamilton suggests that though the new rubber is more durable, it still degrades.

"You cannot push 100 per cent every lap, the tyres still degrade," he said. "The tyres are a lot harder than last year. They are definitely a little bit less prone to melting, overheating. But they still do."

However, most drivers agree they can push a lot harder on them than they could in the past three years.

"The way you attack the corners, the way you feel the grip, has been a good surprise," McLaren's Fernando Alonso said.

"To be able to drive the way you want and not like a small child, so the tyres don't overheat - that's the best way to feel a Formula 1 car. It's been fun to drive freely again."

But I expect overtaking to be as difficult as ever, thanks to the wider tyres and shorter braking distances.

Much has also been made of how the higher G-forces and cornering speeds will affect the drivers.

After his first half-day of testing at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, where he completed 73 laps or just over a race distance, Hamilton admitted: "I'm finding the car is much more physical to drive than in the past. It's so much faster in the corners. The force you feel on your body and on your neck is much higher. I've got bruises and bumps where I've never really had them before."

And the retired Jenson Button chuckled recently when he observed: "For sure everyone is going to be feeling the extra loadings."

But they have been training hard over the winter, specifically to beef up regions such as their neck muscles which will have to take the extra strain, and several drivers did more than 100 laps a day in testing.

It will just be a matter of acclimatising, and I expect those who drove the old V10 cars of the early 2000s to do so more easily than the newcomers unused to such forces.

But these are high-level athletes, so they'll all get to the same stage eventually.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2017, with the headline 'At last, changes allow drivers to push their cars much harder'. Print Edition | Subscribe