McLaren's Pat Fry believes Formula 1 will continue to see big fluctuations in performance and unpredictable results into the 2010 season as teams have only scratched the surface of the current rules so far.
The 2009 season has been one of the most unpredictable in years, with Brawn and Red Bull taking turns at dominating early on, Ferrari and McLaren starting slowly before recovering ground, and Spa seeing a shock Force India, Toyota and BMW one-two-three in qualifying.
Fry, the chief engineer on this season's McLaren MP4-24, thinks it will be a long while before the field settles down into a more stable order, as this year's rule changes were so comprehensive teams are set to continue finding big steps with their packages.
"The level of performance gained in the season, historically a couple of years into a new set of rule changes, the development rate seems to level out," said Fry. "I still think we're at a very, very early stage in terms of understanding what you can actually do within the current aero package. A lot of people were adapting the 'double' diffusers onto their cars rather than having designed them for it. So I'm sure there will be variations on that which might take a year or two to settle out.
"I think there will be a reasonably steep learning curve through into the middle of next year. A car can be good at one track and then the order can swap at the next."
He thinks the current tire regulations are also playing a big part in shaking up the pecking order from race to race.
"We're relatively light on tires so running a soft tire in Hungary and Valencia, we could manage a long stint on that when other people couldn't," said Fry. "If you get a bad day at Silverstone with a hard tire in cold weather, no one would be able to get the tires up to temperature, so that would swing in favor of the cars that are harsher on their tires. As well as just aero development through the season, I think tire choice is swinging the order around."
McLaren's own form has varied considerably during the 2009 season, with the team struggling to break out of Q1 in the early summer races but then taking a commanding victory with Lewis Hamilton at the Hungaroring and finishing on the podium in Valencia. But just a week later at Spa, Hamilton returned to the midfield as the team struggled for fast corner pace.
Fry is optimistic that McLaren's current development programme can address this issue before Suzuka – the next circuit on the schedule where fast corners are prevalent.
"Suzuka will certainly be interesting," he said. "I suppose if you look at our development throughout the year, it was obvious at the start of the year we were lacking an amount of downforce compared to the rest of the grid.
"In terms of ultimate downforce, at Spa and Monza you've got to have the efficiency. Suzuka is less about efficiency and more about the overall downforce, so it's a different set of challenges. We're still very good I think in low- and medium-speed corners. We still need to work, and we are working hard, on improving high-speed cornering. This is obviously through aero research.
"The development that we're doing, hopefully for Singapore and then onto Suzuka, will see us make another step improvement from where we've been on high-speed cornering."