F1’s next engine will need more than storytelling

2020 Russian Grand Prix, Thursday - Sebastian Kawka

Telling the Hybrid Power Unit story. That was the key downfall of the 2014 engine regulation change according to many folks you speak to in the paddock. The lack of enthusiasm and a full-throated endorsement of the current Hybrid Power Unit is due to the lack of selling the message, telling the story and marketing?

I believe the cost, lack of sound (depriving the sport of its visceral experience), lack of improved competitive racing, impact on small teams (with three teams bankrupted by the new engine and the remaining non-manufacturer teams on life support), and the baked-in advantage that Mercedes has had as the architect of the current power unit specification for 7 years are the real reasons for the lack of over-the-top endorsement and excitement for the current power unit.

That’s just my opinion, of course, but others feel it is a simple lack of telling fans the story about how efficient these hybrid engines are. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said:

“I believe we are not telling the hybrid story well enough,” he said.

“With 50% thermal efficiency and complexity and technology that exists in these cars, with the energy recovery with kinetic energy or exhaust gases, the batteries that we’re using and the technology within them.”

There is no doubt the efficiency is good but this notion that a better-told story would instantly sate the desires of a rabid F1 fanbase falls short of the mark. The assumption here is that the overwhelming majority of F1 fans are all-in on hybrid, sustainable power unit technology and the reasoning behind such technology and if F1 would have told a better story about their hybrid efficiency, then fans would have been in love with the power units for the last 7 years.

Whether right or wrong, that notion is incorrect. There is a significant percentage of F1 fans who are not moved by the sustainable performance of the current power unit that came at the expense of what F1 WAS, or in their mind, IS about. It’s a numbers game that F1 played assuming that the large majority of F1 fans would be in favor and that wasn’t quite the reality.

The evolution of the road car has been heavily impacted by an ideology that has been transformed into a business model. As that model permeated all forms of business from architecture to gum wrappers, it also became the fuel for the engine of change and manufacturer involvement in F1. F1 was going through a difficult time and appealing to car makers so they would pour cash into the series was important. In order for car makers to justify that involvement and investment, the series and to become and agent of the road car manufacturer’s R&D roadmap.

Now, poised for a new cost cap or budget in F1, the series faces a new “story telling” moment as it contemplates the next engine formula for the series in 2025.

“We are a pretty good showcase for hybrid technology. And the next generation of power units, whatever they come up [with], will have even more sustainable energy recovery and sustainable propulsion systems in the future.”, Wolff said.

“We know now that we have to look at the costs, we don’t want to make the same mistake that we are purely engineering-driven like these power units but make sure that we have something innovative, sustainable, powerful, fuel-efficient, and at a reasonable price.”

Clearly the intent here is not to back peddle or compromise but to double down on the sustainability. The key here will be context and how the sport chooses to define sustainability or innovation. Is KERS enough to be considered sustainable recovery? What about sustainable propulsion? Is a more fuel-efficient V6 a qualifying notion or what about a V8 using synthetic fuel?

The challenge is arriving at an affordable engine formula that ticks the boxes of sustainability enough to keep car makers involved and yet not bankrupting the customer teams in the process. A formula that excites fans and improves the competitive racing excitement. Oh, and a good story teller apparently.

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No matter the rules someone is going to prevail and likely dominate. Then everyone copies them and you end up with what we got now. I’d prefer you let the teams and manufacturers do what ever they want (within reason) and apply a formula to equalize them. I like the BTCC “success ballast” http://www.btcc.net/about/key-rules-and-regulations/ but there are other ways.