Could F1 have two engine formats in 2014?

There is nothing inexpensive about designing and building an engine for Formula One. Regulations place minimums and maximums on the format and performance of the engine and budgets place restraints on a team’s ability to create an engine or purchase an engine supply. In short, there’s nothing inexpensive about an F1 engine program for manufacturers and privateers.

The regulations have the format set to change in 2014 and the current direction is the V6 turbo engine approved by the governing body, the FIA. Most fans took this as a mandate and had written in on a stone after coming to grips with the idea of a smaller engine and move back to the turbo format waste gate and all. Like many idea in Formula 1, the story rarely ends with an official FIA statement and now fans are wondering if the engine discussions might be still open, maleable and up for interpretation or at least contradiction.

Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault are the three engine makers most likely to make the jump to the new V6 turbo format. Cosworth, as rumors would have it, will most likely bow out in 2014. PURE is now still-born due to a lack of bridge financing and the list of engine manufacturers salivating to enter Formula 1 is small if non-existent.

Mercedes and Ferrari have to build the engine for their team effort while Renault supplies Red Bull, Lotus, Williams and Caterham. If there were any need to verify Renault’s importance to the F1 program, Williams F1 may be a shinning example as their 2013 resurgence with a Renault lump betrays their 2012 performance as the worst year in the team’s history with the Cosworth. But what of the small teams? Can they afford the new V6 turbo engine supply from Ferrari, Mercedes or Renault and will regulations prevent the engine makers from supplying more than 3-4 teams on the grid?

One of the issues is the price tag of an engine supply program. The research and development costs have to be cast off ont eh project as well as this means that Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari will be keen to recoup their investment in the new engine format as quick as possible. Can the small teams afford this? There is a case to be made that they cannot handle the price and could seek parity while still using their current engine programs which include a V8 normally aspirated format. This would mean the FIA would need to define equivalency rules to make the V6 turbo’s and V*’s on par with each other should they go down this road.

Matching performance parameters is nothing new in racing. The Le Mans series does it every year and even Formula One saw its era of parity in 1988. Even so, is this the best way forward for Formula One? According to McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh, it isn’t:

“It’s feasible,” Whitmarsh told AUTOSPORT. “I don’t think it’s an attractive thing to do, personally. Equivalence formulas, we have had it before, we had it in ’88, we had turbos and normally aspirateds when we were coming the other way. It wasn’t such a bad memory for McLaren, but it wasn’t an attractive formula.”

When seeking parity between engine formats, Whitmarsh feels the V6 turbo’s would have to be given special advantage:

“I think you’d have to arrange, if you did it, such that the new turbo engines have advantage over normally aspirated, so you’re creating a two-tier championship, which is I think not an attractive thing to have,” he said.

The FIA and teams are working to find a modicum of cost control in Formula One and this is the message that has been presented to the public for some time now. Can they control CFD, wind tunnel and material costs? Perhaps but most fans are wondering why the series would change the engine format in a time of austerity knowing that the cost of doing so is enormous. Why not stay with the current engine format that has been regulated, balanced and reliable?

The reason could be to lure manufacturers back to the sport with an engine format more salient to their road car division development while other say it’s to be a “green” sport with a format more akin to where humanity is going with combustion engines. Either way, why not just reduce the flow of fuel to the current V8 format and let engineers pencil solutions to the problem? This would keep costs relatively low, provide a technical challenge, be relevant to road car engineering, address sustainability,  and allow small teams to remain in F1 without spending fortunes on new engine supply programs?

Fans expect Formula One to be cutting edge and pushing the limits of technology but what fans may not understand, fully, is just how difficult it is to compete in the world’s most advanced form of motor sport while the world’s economic viability is on a balance. Then again, I wonder if the FIA understand this as well. If polled, many F1 fans would tell you to keep the V8’s and stop fiddling with constructs…just develop regulations to reduce aerodynamic downforce, clean up the air and go racing.

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