FEATURED: Why Parc Fermé should be even stricter

Written by: Oskar Yigen, Edited by: Daniel Yi

During a Formula 1 race weekend, there are certain words that you’ll hear over and over and over again from commentators, pundits, drivers and spectators alike. Two of these words are “the set-up” and “Parc Fermé”. If you’re new to motorsport, you might not know what they mean – in which case you’ll need to learn quickly, as these words are two of the most crucial.

The set-up of a car is the configuration of the suspension, front and rear wing, differential and brakes. The drivers – together with their teams – use the three practice sessions during an F1 weekend to find a setup which is both quick in qualifying and the race. The set-up has to be easy on the tires to reduce tyre wear, whilst at the same time being suited to the given drivers’ driving style. Since it’s impossible to achieve all things optimally, compromises need to be made.

‘’But why can’t the drivers just change their setups between qualifying and the race?’’. This is where Parc Fermé enters the conversation. Parc Fermé (meaning ‘’closed park’’ in french) is a set of regulations that prevent any change to certain parts of the cars’ setup from the time it exits pitlane to participate in Q1 (the first qualifying session), until after the chequered flag on Sunday – hence why teams have to make compromises. 

Article 34.6 of the FIA F1 sporting regulations states the following: “A Competitor may not modify any part on the car or make changes to the setup of the suspension whilst the car is being held under parc fermé conditions. In the case of a breach of this Article the relevant driver must start the race from the pit lane and follow the procedures laid out in Article 36.2.”

“In order that the scrutineers may be completely satisfied that no alterations have been made to the suspension systems or aerodynamic configuration of the car (with the exception of the front wing) whilst in pre-race parc fermé, it must be clear from physical inspection that changes cannot be made without the use of tools.” 

In other words, if any changes are made to the suspension or rear wing configuration of a car whilst held under Parc Fermé conditions, the driver has to start from the pitlane. However, as is clearly stated in the regulations, Parc Fermé only regards suspension (which includes roll-bars, ride height, tyre toe and camber, and various springs and dampers which determine the firmness of the suspension) and the rear wing. Other parts of the setup can be adjusted at any time – for example differential, brake bias and torque mapping – even whilst the car is on track (with the exception of the front wing flap setting, as changing this can only be done during pit stops).

All in all, Formula 1 cars are greatly adjustable on track, both in terms of the cars handling and setup,, but also in how the car responds to the drivers inputs. Therefore, one of the most important skills in modern-day F1 is being able to feel what the car needs at any given moment, and changing its setup accordingly. Drivers like Lewis Hamilton are constantly changing dials, pressing buttons, and adjusting rotary switches on their steering wheels – one of the marginal gains that separate great drivers from very good ones. In my opinion though, the above-mentioned settings shouldn’t be adjustable during a session – they should be part of Parc Fermé regulations.

The reason actually all comes down to a simple, yet widely debated question; what do we want to define Formula One drivers? Should it be their ability to manage a race through constantly changing their setup and thereby getting the maximum out of the car? Should it be their raw speed, and their raw speed only? Should it be a mix of the two? Or should it – as is my opinion – be their ability to adapt their driving style in order to control the different phases of a Grand Prix?

The reason I believe it’s the latter is all a matter of opinion. Some (probably most) would say that since F1 drivers are the best in the world (again, an opinion which is subject to debate), they should be able to cope with all the constant changes of settings on the steering wheel, that driving an F1 car fast nowadays commands – and I can definitely see where those fans are coming from. Personally though, I believe that drivers – instead of changing, pressing and adjusting buttons on their steering wheel – should change their driving style in order to fit the different requirements that their car needs to be fast at any given stage of a race.

Let’s take a look at an example to illustrate my point. If a driver for instance wants to or is forced to save his front tyres, there are a multitude of settings he can adjust in order to achieve that – aside obviously from driving more carefully. Using as little steering angle as possible and making sure to not lock up the tyres. To achieve this, he can move his brake bias backwards by a couple of percentages, taking a bit of load off the front tyres and onto the rears during braking. Or he can loosen his differential, which aids the cars’ rotational ability, taking load off the front tyres at the cost of lesser traction during acceleration. 

Likewise, all these (and more) settings are constantly adjusted in order to make sure the car can go through a certain turn as fast as possible, keeping tyre and brake management in mind. Before a hard braking zone into a tight hairpin, drivers will move their brake bias forwards in order to put more relative pressure on the front brakes, which are more effective than the rear brakes, thus reducing the braking distance needed. Drivers will loosen their entry and mid-corner differential in order to make the car rotate more easily, and they will tighten their exit differential to ensure better traction.

As you can see, the drivers can tailor their cars’ performance to anything they want within the limits of their suspension and rear wing setup. This means that instead of changing their driving style significantly – and the key word here is ‘significantly’ – they change their cars’ setup enough that they can ‘’get away with’’ only changing their driving style by a relatively small amount.

So how, specifically, should Parc Fermé work according to me? Well, I believe that brake bias, differential, torque maps and such elements should be part of the regulations, perhaps with changes only allowed during pit stops (as changing from one set of tyres to another dramatically affects the way a car handles and performs). This would lead to drivers having to change their way of tackling the challenges that their car offers drastically as a race goes on. If a driver is suffering from understeer, instead of changing certain settings on his steering wheel, he’ll have to take action using the pedals and the steering wheel only. He’ll have to carry less speed into corners, utilize trail-braking (a braking technique in which a driver keeps a small amount of pressure on the brakes for longer than normally, often even until reaching the apex of a corner), and smoothen out his racing line in order to make sure that the front tyres will maintain grip through the corners. In other words, drivers will have to drive around problems – not dial, press, and adjust their way through them.

Before we proceed, I do want to make it very clear that I am not discrediting the level of skill, focus and sheer brilliance it takes for the drivers to make these constant adjustments – all I wish is that they apply this skill to pure driving.

From reading this article alone, one might perceive me as a bit of a purist and an old-school racing fan. That is not the case. Being relatively new to the world of motorsport, I am all for technical development and the advancements – which have led to where we are today – that have been made throughout the entirety of Formula One’s history. However, I believe that certain things should remain as they are (or rather, as they were), one of those being that whilst on track, drivers should solely put their focus on using their pedals and the steering wheel. As mentioned, I still think that settings such as brake bias and differential should be allowed changing once in a while, but they shouldn’t be essential tools which require adjustment 5 times per lap in order for a driver to be competitive. After all, drivers are athletes, not engineers.

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