Too much innovation can hold F1 teams back, says research

Formula 1 racing teams that relentlessly focus on new technology could damage their chances of winning, according to a new study.

Teams introducing innovations that go further than new technical regulations require tend to perform worse on average than those who simply meet the requirements, researchers at City University London found.

This suggests that constantly striving to introduce new technology as quickly as possible is not as strong a strategy as optimising existing systems, the researchers said, particularly in years when there are major regulation changes.

‘Innovation is very important for Formula 1 but the problem is too much innovation and most of all too much exploration,’ lead researcher Dr Paolo Aversa of City’s Cass Business School told The Engineer.

‘Technology works as architecture and a modular item has to combine with all the other elements in the car. If the technology adopted is too raw it might actually increase complexity over a certain point that causes more problems than benefits.’

The researchers studied car performance for different F1 teams between 1981 and 2010, analysing how much their cars were altered each year, comparing that to the minimum technological requirements of changing regulations, and factoring in other strategic decisions that could affect the seasons’ results.

‘When the complexity of the technological update of the regulation increases, the performance of the car on average decreased and the more the regulation changed the more trouble the cars had,’ said Aversa.

‘You would think that the people who did more innovation would do better because the car would do more than the regulation asked, but they actually performed worse.’

The researchers used the example of the 2009 season when two relatively new and inexperienced teams, Brawn GP and Red Bull, won first and second place in the Constructor Championship, respectively, together taking 14 of that season’s 17 races. 

Both teams used cars that complied with the latest F1 technical updates but avoided the new kinetic energy recovery system (KERS), which wasn’t mandatory but was trialled by more experienced teams – Ferrari, Renault, BMW and McLaren – during the season.

Aversa said he thought that some F1 teams put an over-emphasis on innovation and that, despite other benefits such as prestige or the development of new technology for the mainstream automotive industry, they would sometimes perform better if they took a slower approach.

‘Sometimes you have a lot of things in your technological assets that you can further exploit that are still not optimised and that would give you a much better result than trying to do something new to prove that you are an innovator,’ he said.