After running in dry conditions thus far, Formula 1’s newest era of regulations will finally be tested in wet conditions at Imola this weekend.
So far within the new era of Formula 1 regulations which have provided us with exceptional racing through the first three rounds of the season, the only wet running time from which teams have been able to gather data took place under artificial conditions on the final afternoon of preseason testing in Barcelona.
With little to no knowledge of how the car will react to a wet surface and certainly not enough data to build a viable tire strategy, this weekend in Imola will bring unpredictable results.
For this first weekend of wet running in brand new machinery, what key aspects of wet driving should fans remain mindful of going into the rest of the season?
Spray and overall visibility
During running in Barcelona, fans were able to analyze the aerodynamic flow surrounding the edges of each car’s floor and gather some preseason insights into the potential success of each team. One of the more notable lessons learned from this running was the immense spray of the new generation of Formula 1 cars.
Not compromising the vision of the drivers in sunny conditions, much of the mist thrown up by a leading car was quickly evaporated from the track surface. In natural conditions with rainfall and a soaked surface though, the new cars will be putting enormous amounts of water into the sightlines of following drivers.
With the new regulations designed to improve racing by providing cleaner air for the following car, one of the unintended consequences is a much wider aero spray off of the rear end. This goes unnoticed in dry conditions as it is an invisible force, but in wet conditions, it will spray moisture over a larger area and further compromise the vision of the following driver.
It is truly unknown whether the new cars will have a more tangible impact on the vision of following drivers, but vision will inevitably remain at a premium throughout wet races.
New 18-inch tires
As witness in a strategically exhilarating first race of new regulations in Bahrain, the new construction of the Pirelli tires has remained a central talking point since the preseason. With a reduced tire wall and increased 18-inch diameter, the overall tire construction encourages a stiffer feel and less flex than the old 13-inch tire.
With wet treads applied to a more rigid construction, the compounds designed for wet running will have more consistent clearing of water through the treads, flexing less under load and retaining similar grip in cornering situations.
The primary point to watch with the new tires though will be their durability and the feasibility of a no-stop race, which has only been completed once by Esteban Ocon in the Turkish Grand Prix (who later claimed to be only one lap away from a puncture, as the canvas had been torn away to reveal the inner carcass).
With an overall firmer construction, will the infamous “slintermediates” make their return or will the new slick compounds handle a damp surface well enough to justify the change?
Impact of porpoising
Having become one of the single most used terms in the 2022 Formula 1 season, porpoising is an issue varying in severity from team to team. Each constructor’s handling of it will become easily apparent in wet running at Imola.
With Imola being comprised of numerous heavy braking zones, cars will consistently be starting their braking at high speeds with the highest amount of porpoising, causing many drivers to lock up on entry like they did at similarly constructed turns at Albert Park. Those same porpoising-induced lockups will stand out in wet conditions with nearby gravel traps to punish overzealous drivers.
Because of the exceeding risk of locking up one of the front tires in wet conditions, teams will likely make a conscious effort to reduce porpoising in their setups and create a stable base for heavy braking on heavy fuel loads Sunday.
Failing to remain on the track in such conditions could turn a simple lock-up into a gravel trap-induced DNF, a mistake no team can afford to make in conditions conducive to chaotic results over the course of the event.
Overtaking without DRS
If we do experience extended periods of wet running on Sunday, it will be the first time DRS won’t be in effect under race conditions. It is currently being debated among the community whether the mechanism is still necessary with the improved regulations, so Sunday could be an excellent proving ground for potentially removing it.
Imola already only has a single DRS zone along the main straight, setting up overtaking opportunities into turn one under heavy braking. Seeing whether cars are able to remain close to one another through the finicky final sector will be a key indicator of the need for DRS in current-day Formula 1.
Combined with an overall reduction in grip under wet conditions, Sunday could potentially bring far closer racing than we would conventionally see at an Imola circuit which figures to be a difficult track for overtaking in dry conditions.
Even with the improved regulations keeping cars closer to each other, Imola is a track of minimal overtaking opportunities due to the medium-speed, tightening nature of the most corners encouraging single-file racing.
If drivers are able to remain within touching distance of each other or make tangible gains through specific sections of the circuit, we could see the creation of one or two new overtaking points at the historic venue.
Exaggeration of current car characteristics
With this weekend set to see the first wet running under race conditions this season, teams will only be working from their knowledge of current dry setups from the last three races. This means a lack of understanding of the car in such conditions will leave the most impactful weaknesses of each car exposed.
For example, Mercedes have been fighting an unstable rear end for the duration of the season, as well as excessive drag on the straights. The impact of a draggy car has been noted far more often than the twitchiness of the car when talking about the lack of success for the defending constructor champions.
In wet running this weekend, Mercedes will be transitioning their focus to the instability of their car as the wet conditions accentuate their present challenges.
Other individual car characteristics to keep an eye on throughout wet-running include the low-speed cornering of the Red Bull, the tire wear of the Williams (last season’s wet tire was a C2 compound, the same classification of tire that Alex Albon took the length of the Australian Grand Prix), and just how exceptional the balance of the Ferrari is.