Is F1’s hybrid the right direction?

I may talk a lot about Formula 1 cars but that most likely only adds to the white noise about the current direction the series is heading in. However, when a guy like Adrian Newey speaks about cars and engines, I tend to sit up and take notice. As F1’s most successful car designer, he knows a thing or two about that of which he speaks.

The interesting issue is that F1 has taken a hard left turn into the global movement of being a hybrid, eco-friendly series. This has always been a mission of the FIA since Jean Todt took the helm from Max Mosley and even Max was sharing the same narrative in his waning presidency. Todt and Mosley were not alone as Renault and Mercedes both threatened to leave the sport if it didn’t become more road-relevant and hybrid.

As we wade into a second year with the new power units, there is not doubt the technology is astounding and ground-breaking but it has left many fans nonplussed as to the sound, power and type of racing that F1 now seems to offer. One wonders if the world’s collective frustration wasn’t somewhat muted by the championship win for fan-favorite Lewis Hamilton? Had it been Romain Grosajean in a Renault, would the world have reserved such criticism or would they have pounded the table with both fists?

As for Newey, he has taken a step back from the daily grind of designing Red Bull Racing cars and the reasoning could be tied to a lack of innovation space:

“Hopefully you can always improve, the problem is the limitation of the regulations and apart from the small change to the nose rules the regulations have really been stable over the winter,” he said. “They are unfortunately becoming a very restrictive set of regulations, so much so that the car is designed for you.”

The restrictive regulations over chassis design are certainly one main element but as Newey points out, the new engines make it very difficult to overcome a deficit through creative chassis design:

“In my opinion, Formula One should be a blend of the performance of the driver, the chassis and the engine, and I think the current regulations have swung too much in favour of the engine and a very restrictive set of regulations on the chassis. If an engine manufacturer derives a benefit it’s difficult for a chassis manufacturer to make enough of a difference to overturn it. That’s not to say that there isn’t a difference between chassis, of course there is, but it’s more difficult to find that last little bit.”

Some in F1 seem to recognize the need to make changes to the current formula. Most notably Niki Lauda who, ironically, is part of the Mercedes leadership team has stated a desire to make F1 difficult again and return to 1,000bhp turbo engines and wide tires. Ferrari’s new team boss, Maurizio Arrivebene agrees.

So what should F1 do? One answer might be centered on F1 asking what it wants to be. Is it a proving ground for road-relevancy for the manufacturers who are participating? Manufacturers have placed serious pressure, along with cultural movements, on Formula 1 to try and become more green in its approach to racing and therefore a good testing ground for new and innovative hybrid technology. One assumes this is the way all cars will be going and with the US standards set to rise to north of 50mpg, perhaps they are right.

However, last year 16.5 million light vehicles were sold in the US and of those, the top three were all internal combustion engines (ICE)—just 0.7% of the total vehicles sold were electrics hybrids. So can we say with series-changing effect that this is, indeed, the way the entire world is going? Is that a future-confirming percentage?

Internal combustion engines may seem outdated but they do most of the lifting, pulling, traveling and climbing in this world and there is a real innovation block for much more efficient engine design such as the Achates Power engine with its opposed-piston and two-stroke ICE design.

The US department of Transportation doesn’t see the ICE going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, it sees the ICE as the main power for transportation for the next several decades. I had argued at the time that F1 could be more beneficial to the road car industry by innovating the ICE to it maximum of fuel efficiency and power delivery—it must be said that they had reached a level that was incredible by the end of 2013 so I don’t want to marginalize their achievements but I believe there was still more that could be done.

It was my position that developing an ICE in F1 that could be more efficient would be an immediate impact to the road car industry. A petrol-powered car is able to harvest 18% of the fuel to move the car forward while 82% of it is burned off as waste energy. For diesel, 45% of the fuel is used to propel a vehicle with 55% of it being burned off as waste heat. Surely a real innovation block there, right?

I am not privy to F1’s ICE effective fuel use percentage but one would presume they were higher than 18%. Had the sport achieved the maximum in ICE fuel use percentages? Are there no gains to be made from here? I believe that F1 could have made the ICE a much more efficient product and as it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, wouldn’t this be a much bigger impact on the environment and trickle-down technology for road cars than using hybrids and stating that the series now uses 30% less petrol over the course of a season?

In the end, F1 is using an ICE along with a turbo and a hybrid system so I can’t be to hard on them and the technology they have created is astounding in scope, it really is. Will it help Mercedes and Renault and even Ferrari develop hybrid systems for road cars? Most likely it will but getting road cars to 40mpg will reside on the shoulders of the ICE with electric or natural gas putting cars over the 54.5mpg goal line set for 2025.

Ultimately the increase in ICE efficiency could reduce usage down from 90 million barrels per day to possibly 70 million due to the steep increase in mpg requirements. For me, F1 could have been a leader in creating ICE efficiency that would achieve these higher efficiency ratings and designed the ICE for the next 20 years.

Having said that, it’s not hard to see that manufacturers wanting to achieve 54.5mpg know they need an ICE and hybrid system in order to do so and F1 seemed a good place to design a hybrid system that could deliver the performance needed to meet the demands that will be placed on the power units in the next 20 years too.

All of that said, has anyone remembered that we’re supposed to be racing here as a sport?

Hat Tip: ESPN F1 and WSJ

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