Is F1 dominated by Power Unit performance?

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There have been a number of commentators stating that since the change in engine regulations at the start of 2014 to the complex hybrid turbo charged 1.6 litre V6 power units, that the contribution from the chassis has been marginalised.  These comments have come from those within the sport (Christian Horner and Adrian Newey amongst others) and fans equally.  The recent eight days of testing gives an opportunity to examine if this is truly the case.  Three teams have swapped the power unit that they are using, Toro Rosso has gone from Renault to the 2015 Ferrari unit, Renault have dropped  the Mercedes unit that the Enstone team used last year in favour of their own motor, and Manor have taken the championship winning Mercedes in place of the year old Ferrari power unit they used previously.

Toro Rosso reckoned that upgrading from Renault to Ferrari power should find them 0.6 seconds a lap.  In pre-season testing last season the best lap they managed was a 1:24.191 on super soft tyres, while this time out they managed a 1:23.134 on the new ultra soft tyres.  Pirelli reckon the step from super soft to ultra soft should be worth between 0.5 and 0.6 seconds a lap, so initially the 1.057 second improvement would seem to equate to the half second from the tyres and nearly six tenths from the power unit upgrade.  This however ignores any improvement in the chassis made over the last twelve months.  Yet the ultra soft isn’t designed to be use at a circuit like Barcelona, or in the cool temperatures experienced in the test, so maybe the change of power unit really has contributed half of that lap time improvement.

Turning to the comparison between Lotus in 2015 with the Mercedes power unit (1:24.067 on the super soft tyre), and Renault in 2016 with their own power unit (1:23.933 also on the super soft), the team have actually improved by 0.134 seconds.  As the Renault was considered (certainly by Red Bull) the worst of the power units with the exception of Honda, and Mercedes the best, this must indicate that the chassis has improved by more than the 0.6 second difference between Renault and Ferrari and whatever difference is perceived between Mercedes and Ferrari, and still added a further tenth of a second.  All this from a team struggling for cash through most of last year to the extent that they could not pay the catering bills to feed the team in the last half of the season.  Either that, or Kevin Magnussen is a substantially better driver than Romain Grosjean, but that would mean that the driver becomes the significant differentiator in lap times, which is not the message most are stating.

The final team of the three swapping power units, Manor, weren’t at the pre-season tests in 2016, so there is no direct comparison of the lap times between the two tests.  However, as they use the leading Mercedes power unit, it is noticeable that they are between 1.9 and 2.9 seconds slower than the leading Mercedes depending on the driver.  So there is potentially a one second pace difference between Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto, and a 1.9 second difference between the Manor and Mercedes chassis.  However the best Manor times were set on the ultra soft tyres while Mercedes set their best times on the soft compound.  There is supposed to be over a second difference between those two compounds, so the difference in the chassis is even greater.  The other two Mercedes customers though do have comparable times to the works team.  Williams best was only 0.171 seconds slower than Mercedes on the same soft compound, while Force India was even closer (0.088 seconds) but using the super soft (perhaps 0.5 seconds faster).

The other power unit manufacturers have a greater spread between the different chassis.  Ferrari customers Sauber and Haas were significantly slower than the works team.  Sauber used the soft tyre compared to the works team’s ultra soft, and that could explain a second of the 1.995 second difference.  Haas though were at best 2.490 seconds slower on the same tyre as the works team.  The other Ferrari user (Toro Rosso) is using last years (supposedly slower) power unit, yet they are the closest to the works team only 0.369 seconds adrift on the same tyres.

Finally, comparing the Renault power unit users, Red Bull were at best 0.408 seconds faster than the works team, although that may be down to the tyre compounds used (Red Bull on the super soft, and Renault on the ultra soft).

In conclusion I think that both the driver and the chassis still plays a significant role in the speed of the car, it is not all down to the power unit.  Mercedes are dominant not only because they have the best power unit, but because they have class leading chassis and drivers.  The complete package is necessary to win.  That has always been the case, and continues to be the case.  What do you think? If it is all about the power unit, then how do you explain the variation in the Ferrari powered teams pace, or the improvement shown by Renault when moving from Mercedes to Renault power?

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longshot

There are a couple of other explanations of the variance between teams using the same power unit. The first is obvious – that not all teams were actually pushing that hard to record fast laptimes during the testing, in fact I’d probably say that none of them drove their cars at qualifying pace, as they had more important things to spend their time on. The second is that Ferrari and Mercedes provide different engine management software to their customers. Same engines, but good luck getting the same level of performance and drivability out of them. In truth we will only… Read more »

Severo Mirón

I totally agree

Negative Camber

That’s one element that has been mentioned a few times in the press and certainly Adrian has spoken about the differences in engine software and mapping management that the manufacturers have but how it is/could be different for customers. That seems a very dicey issue if you’re a customer for sure.

Nigel@CassRacing

Furthermore, and I have no idea of what the answer is, but when you purchase an engine supply from say Ferrari, do you also get the same fuel and oil Ferrari gets? We do know that during the V8 era McLaren had to run Esso oil and fuel instead of Petronas in their Mercedes engine which cost them 15 horsepower against the works team.

MIE

All the Mercedes teams now use Petronas fuel and lubricants, so that should be the same for everyone. Williams certainly felt that the ability to write their own software would give them an advantage given their expertise in ERS. In 2014, they were using less fuel than the works cars, so that may have helped them get to third in the championship.

Kjkb

Agree no real analysis can be done from pre season testing it’s all speculation. and Merc and Ferrari need to start playing fair and not handicapping the customer teams. It’s the reason Dennis switched to Honda he knew without the works software and mapping your handicapped

jiji the cat

I don’t think the power units rule, but the power manufacturers do. When a manufacturer decides not to supply a competitor because they might get beaten, well it’s a sad state of affairs.

Admir Šehić

Why would they supply them? Merc and Ferrari spent hundreds of milions on these power units. If some team wants wining engine, they should invest hundreds of milions and bild one. Very simple :)

jiji the cat

Yeah but most other teams don’t have the budget. For me it’s got to the point that if you’re not driving for merc, Ferrari or Renault ( in the future) you don’t have a fat rats ass of winning a championship, and that’s a sad state for F1 imo.

Shocks&Awe

F1 has always been that way. You’ve got to spend money to win, but spending money is no guarantee.

But while everyone wants to win, no one is going home because they’re losing year after year. They only leave when they can’t afford to stay anymore, because they’re racers (or they’re a big company that is there for other reasons).

Which come to think of it is maybe where my annoyance at the big car manufacturers comes from. They don’t sell cars to go racing. They go racing to sell cars. That’s the real shame.

jiji the cat

My point is not so much about the money but more about the inability to be competitive unless you manufacture your own power unit. Remember all the F1 teams in the past that won championships with other manufacturers engines? Thos days are well and truly behind us.
Our only hope is that Honda start getting there shit together and depending on their contract with Mclaren, can spread their wings to other teams and take it to merc and Ferrari. Imo

Shocks&Awe

Ah, yes, but the reason you can only be competitive if you manufacture your own engine, is because you need a large company willing to spend the money on development.

jiji the cat

I think you and I will continue to go round in circles on this subject.

Shocks&Awe

Great! I look forward to it, mate! ;-)

Jack Flash (Australia)

It is dominated by Manufacturer Cartels

longshot

Speaking as we are of the pre-season tests, this – https://f1metrics.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/2016-preseason-form-guide/ – has got to be the most in-depth analysis I’ve ever come across, and points to Mercedes extending their domination this year. Definitely worth a read.

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