The 2014 engine regulation changes fractured the Formula 1 world. It galvanized those who favored an electric-powered series—which they felt was the future of road cars technology and therefore more relevant than internal combustion engines—and those who considered the technology an assault on the senses with a lack of sound and very high cost of entry to participate with regulations intended to mitigate those cost such as the 3-engine-per-season rule.
There have been periods in F1 where an engine format existed for several years. The most recent, stable format was the V8 era between 2006-2013 with a 2.4 liter capacity that started with a bang running at 20,000 rpm until a rev limiter was introduced. That was an 8-year run and the technology of that particular format had achieved effective parity.
With 2020, the current hybrid V6 turbo era will have reached its 7-year mark of stability and as discussions loom over a raft of proposed changes to the series in 2021, the engine was initially part of those conversations but they have since taken a back seat to a morass of issues such as cost-caps, prize money distribution parity and other major changes such as aerodynamic overhauls.
Still, the engine remains a source of frustration, elation and significant cost implications depending on which camp you are speaking with. Some fans love the hybrid technology and join the manufacturers in viewing F1 as the pinnacle of technology and a proving ground for relevant and future road car technology. Others lament the lack of sound that created the visceral experience F1 has always offered and the cost of the hybrid power units and limited number of suppliers.
With the future of F1 at stake, discussions over the proposed 2021 changes is in full swing and the knock-on effect is the discussions around the future of the power unit. What will it be and which direction should F1 take to remain relevant or should it simply focus on being entertaining? Would Mercedes, Renault, Honda and Ferrari spend the money they do on just being entertaining or does every step in F1 have to be a rapid prototyping development lab for their road cars?
Renault F1 managing director Cyril Abiteboul said the future power units for F1 have to be more relevant to future road cars, and a cost effective for the manufacturers.
“If I look the pace at which the world is changing, in my opinion there is a huge risk that F1 is left behind,” said Abiteboul.
“Look at the Greta Thunbergs of this world, look at electrification.
“Things that people are saying today that they would not even have considered six months ago – Ferrari talking about a full electric car.
“So the world is moving at a very fast pace, and we have to be very careful not to be left behind the road car industry.
“Whatever we think of electrification, it’s not going to go away.
“Basically what that means is I’m trying everything I can and urging everyone to fast track the consideration for a new power unit, what it should be, what it should look like, what it should cost, and stopping spending a crazy amount of money – because we’re spending a crazy amount, all together, all four engine manufacturers – and start spending on what would be relevant for the future.”
I am less clear on what a 16-year-old Swedish girl has to do with the Formula 1 engine format as I am the need to move onward from current hybrid technology and the seeming vapor lock the teams are experiencing with regards to what the next formula should be.
In the meantime, Abiteboul says the sport needs to freeze the current tech until they figure out what they’ll do next.
“Probably that would mean at some point slowing down the investment in the internal combustion engine, and increasing development towards the electric parts, but maybe also consider new sources of energy, like the fuel cell, or things like that, which will probably be the future of F1,” he explained.
“Right now we are more in the process of structuring a plan with a progressive freeze of the engine, and reduction in the number of specs per year, so we can ramp up to a new power unit in 2026.
“But frankly it’s seven years from now, it seems super far, and I’m thinking not just for myself, I’m thinking for F1 as a community.”
There’s some wisdom in that and perhaps if the new direction for shove isn’t coagulated for a few years, then freezing the development would bring parity between engine makers. What is slightly more complex is that if the radical changes in wheel sizes, aero downforce and chassis weight and design happens for 2021, they will have to include the current hybrid power unit as it’s long-term element in which the car is built around. That could get challenging should they take a different approach and leave the two sides, chassis and shove, at differing ends of the development spectrum.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff is also in the search for a way forward.
“From a cost perspective we would be keen, together with the FIA and Liberty, to keep the current formula,” said Wolff.
“It’s a very efficient hybrid power unit and we are just not good enough at transporting that to the world. But it is.
“Nevertheless the world is changing, we have millions of people on the streets protesting or cheering about climate change.
“For us at Daimler sustainability has become more important than just a marketing tool. Sustainability happens.
“We have to ask ourselves the question as PU suppliers, what is the vision for the future formula 1 engine?
“Bearing in mind the costs, bearing in mind the hybrid component needs to be substantially larger, and this is something we are looking at because obviously it’s not easy without having additional costs related to it.”
At this point, I have to ask what Formula E is for if not to develop the way forward in EV technology and why is F1 seemingly wholly focused on being an R&D lab for road car EV tech if Formula E is specifically designed to be that very thing? Would F1 not be better served in being an R&D lab for internal combustion engine development?
The ICE is not going anywhere soon and while the hybrid power unit combines both worlds, for much of the current regulation formula, big gains have come from ICE and fuel development. It seems to me, if I were Mercedes, I could use my presence in Formula E for the electrics and my presence in F1 for the ICE. If I am honest, they seem lost as to what to do next.
Maybe Greta wouldn’t approve. If she isn’t replacing Jean Todt, then I am not sure it matters much. One big elephant in the room…road car development lab or entertaining racing? Which is more important? I know what Greta and I would choose but what would you choose?
Hat Tip: Autosport