F1 car launches: What was really going on?

As testing gets underway, the eagerly anticipated new 2022 F1 cars have all “launched” in one way or another, with everything from the genuine machine taking to the track to digital renders and fake cars. Months of research and development has gone into preparing for the most momentous rule change in F1’s recent history, so why was launch season so full of smoke and mirrors?

Aston Martin’s AMR22 was the first of the more “genuine” cars to be launched.

Formula 1 fans have waited patiently over the winter, eager to catch a glimpse of the game-changing new cars that will kick off a new era for the sport. Ahead of testing for each new season, the teams reveal the cars they hope will take them to victory in the year ahead. This sounds like a straightforward process, but this year, it has been anything but.

Stretching from 2014 to 2021, the hybrid era of F1 has produced the quickest and most advanced cars in its history, largely due to the advances in aerodynamics which allow the drivers to corner at speeds which are difficult to even comprehend. This performance has come at the cost of the spectacle, with the turbulent wake created by a modern F1 car depriving the car behind of the downforce needed to attempt an overtake.

The new 2022 regulations are designed to create cars which will be able to follow each other much more closely, leading to better racing. The changes required to make this happen are so significant that this generation of cars will be radically different to their predecessors, making their reveal such an occasion.

Teams have invested huge amounts of time and resources into preparing these brand-new cars, in the hope of finding a loophole in the regulations or an ingenious innovation that might gain them an advantage over their competitors. To go to all this effort just to give the game away before the first race might seem foolish.

This is likely to be the opinion of Red Bull, whose car launch was little more than their livery imposed onto one of F1’s show cars. The only news coming out of Milton Keynes has been their new lucrative sponsorship deals with tech company Oracle and cryptocurrency platform Bybit reported to be worth a combined $150 million per year.

Team Principal Christian Horner has openly admitted that the launch car bares little resemblance to what will show up in Barcelona, and has emphasised the rapid pace at which the 2022 cars will be developed. Adrian Newey, the team’s chief technical officer, is one of the sport’s great visionaries who commands respect throughout the paddock. Exactly what he has come up with this time has remained hidden up until now, as the Red Bull is forced into the limelight at testing.

They have certainly decided to keep their cards close to their chest, in what could be a shrewd move to conceal a groundbreaking design from the competition – albeit at the cost of fans’ interest and column inches for the team and its sponsors.

Alfa Romeo have largely followed Red Bull’s secretive approach, with their car only breaking cover on track wrapped in a camouflaged livery to conceal the C42’s details. The car will not be launched until after the first test in Barcelona. While the sport’s aero analysts have still been able to glean plenty from the camouflaged car, this seems like a strange approach. The team has an opportunity to hype itself up as the only outfit featuring an all-new driver lineup this year, with the only rookie driver in the sport Guanyu Zhou partnering departing Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas.

In previous years, Brawn’s double diffuser, Red Bull’s blown diffuser and Mclaren’s F-duct (among many others) have surprised fans, and had rivals scrambling to imitate the designs to achieve a similar boost in performance.

However, the 2022 regulations are quite different to earlier rule changes. They are effectively in battle with the aerodynamicists, who will attempt to generate as much downforce as possible with their designs, often increasing the dirty air generated by the cars. As a result, the new regulations are possibly the most prescriptive in the sport’s history, potentially stifling technical innovations in order to protect the quality of racing.

Despite this, in key areas there is still scope for invention, and to pursue radically different concepts to other teams, and some of those approaches will be better than others.

Thankfully for the sport’s fans and media, these interesting and different approaches have indeed emerged, and have been shown off in more genuine car launches.

Teams’ designers have come up with a variety of approaches, and are constantly developing their cars.

Aston Martin’s launch followed that of Red Bull, and could hardly have been more different. The British brand’s launch featured an actual car, that was then shaken down at Silverstone, revealing plenty of interesting design features, including a surprisingly high front wing and striking louvres along the top of the sidepods.

McLaren followed with a launch that revealed a shift from the traditional pushrod front suspension design to a pullrod system, a move which has caught most people off guard.

A key focus has been the sidepods, one of the main areas where the teams have been afforded creative licence. Ferrari’s sidepod “valleys” stood out immediately as an interesting alternative method of directing air flow towards the beam wing at the rear of the car. Both Ferrari and Mclaren’s unexpected designs point to the authenticity of what the teams have shown.

However, the launches of the new Williams, Mercedes and Haas cars were rather more confusing. The Williams that took to the track at Silverstone was very different from the one that had been shown off at its launch event, while the Mercedes that lapped the same track and was parked in front of its drivers at the launch event bore a different design from the renders that were also released at the time.

Haas were the first to kick off the car launch season, with renders of the VF-22 representing an earlier stage in the design process rather than the finished article, which eventually emerged on track over a fortnight later. In all three cases, one served as a genuine car reveal whereas the other allowed a more visually appealing promotion of its sponsors.

Even the most genuine-seeming of car reveals may not be what they seem. Certain details on many of the cars will inevitably have been hidden, and will be different at testing, and then at the first race of the season. There is no finished product in F1, and teams are working constantly to figure out the new regulations, meaning that the cars will be continually evolving.

Some comparisons between different approaches can be drawn during testing, however, even this will involve its own tactical games. Any team to have found a significant advantage in performance will be quick to turn down their engine and weigh the car with fuel to disguise their true pace, a move Mercedes has performed several times during the hybrid era.

The battle that seems to be approaching in the 2022 season has in fact been raging on in the background for some time. Launch season has given us a slight glimpse into the battle that will slowly emerge in the coming weeks.

For more interesting stories from the world of F1, please sign up to my mailing list below, and follow me on social media where I will post updates and other F1-related content. For more detailed analysis of the new cars, watch The Race and Autosport’s YouTube videos, which I have used to inform this article.

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