The Formula One world may be on its winter break before the start of the 2017 season in March, but development never stops and all the teams are hard at work designing and refining their cars ahead of the first testing session in Barcelona on February 27th.

What they come up with this winter could set the direction for several years to come, as 2017 will see a huge range of rule changes related to the design of the car. While there are a few tweaks and improvements every year, the 2017 overhaul is much more comprehensive. In fact, it's set to be one of the biggest transformations in years.

Biggest changes in decades


Several key experts within the F1 paddock have offered their opinions on what impact the changes will have, and they all agree we're set for a hugely exciting time.

Toro Rosso technical director James Key, for instance, said the "massive" changes to areas such as bodywork, suspension and tires are the biggest he has ever seen in almost 19 years in the sport.

"From a chassis point of view, it's the biggest change of the past two decades, even bigger than 2009 and certainly bigger than 2014," he added.

That's why teams have been hard at work for over a year already preparing their cars for 2017. Toro Rosso, for instance, started development in September 2015, months before the regulations were even finalised, but they, like every other team, won't truly find out what works until the morning of the first test at Catalunya.

Key said: "Firstly, you've got the enormous amount of research you have to do to try and understand what makes a car with these new regulations tick, without any experience of them in reality, because for a long time, we can only operate in the virtual world." 

So what are the biggest changes for next season F1 engineers have to cope with, and how are they expected to affect the performance of the cars?

Bodywork and aero


Among the most significant differences from 2016 will be the shape of the cars themselves. The new regulations will make them wider, lower and more aggressive looking. For the first time, the FIA have explicitly considered the aesthetic appeal of the cars when setting the rules - something that may be welcomed by fans after complaints that recent generations of F1 machinery have been too ugly.

But it's not all about looks. Another key reason for the design changes will be to improve the aerodynamic performance of the car. For example, changes to the design of the bargeboards in front of the sidepods should make it easier for teams to control the airflow around the car.

Front wings have been made wider, with the maximum width increasing from 1,650mm in 2016 to 1,800mm in 2017, as well as having a more swept-back shape. The rear wing is lower and wider as well. This should also produce greater downforce.

Tires


The performance of the Pirelli tires provided to all the teams has been a source of much conversation in the last few years, and the changes for 2017 will no doubt do little to change this.

The most striking change is the width of the tires, which are set to increase from 245mm at the front to 305mm, and from 325mm to 405mm at the rear. This will give cars a much bigger contact patch, theoretically providing more mechanical grip and enabling faster cornering.

Pirelli has also been tasked with making the tires more durable, so drivers can push harder for longer, instead of the current situation that sees drivers forced to back off in order to preserve the life of the tire.

What it means for the racing


In terms of raw speed, the combination of more downforce and higher mechanical grip is expected to improve times by around three to four seconds a lap, as it allows drivers to attack corners at higher speed and with greater confidence.

However, opinion is mixed on whether the new design will actually allow for more overtaking - mainly due to the heavy reliance on aerodynamics. In recent years, this has made it difficult for drivers to follow one another closely around the circuit, as the turbulent air left in the wake of a car disrupts the carefully-designed aerodynamics of the chasing car.

Some people are optimistic that the changes will have an effect. McLaren team principal Eric Boullier, for instance, said: "The car will generate more downforce from the tires, mechanically, which should not hurt the overtaking numbers. Additionally, the influence of the front wing will be lower, since the floor and the diffuser will generate more downforce, allowing more overtaking."

One thing is for sure - with the most substantial changes in years, it's a great opportunity for innovative engineers to shake up the status quo and get ahead of competitors. All eyes will be on Melbourne come March 26th to see who's done the best job interpreting the new rules.

Randstad has been the official partner of the Williams Martini Racing Team since 2006. Success in Formula One requires the commitment of a talented team performing at the best of their ability. The expertise, spirit of excellence and trust on which we base our relationships, are illustrated within the Williams Martini Racing team every day.In 2015, Randstad and Williams launched the Randstad Williams Engineering Academy together.