Most feedback regarding Formula 1’s decision to remove the token system have been positive and on face value, allowing teams to develop their engines does seem to be a path to parity as well as a way to reel in Mercedes from their current power unit domination.
There are usually three sides to every story, however, and as Reuters shows, Red Bull technical chief Adrian Newey doesn’t quite see this as a glass-half-full situation:
“If you look back on the original technical working group meetings and minutes from 2012-13, the agreement at that point was that the engines would be frozen but teams that were behind would still be allowed to keep developing. That’s not happened,” Newey said.
“So it becomes a spending frenzy…the numbers being spent by the big manufacturers are eye-watering and so I think potentially for companies such as Renault who aren’t prepared to spend that sort of money, it means actually the gaps get bigger not smaller.”
We’ve discussed Renault’s acquisition of Lotus F1 and how the Enstone team will do much better with big budgets from a car manufacturer but it seems Newey knows something we don’t—they aren’t keen to spend the kind of money the big teams are.
In the past, we’ve discussed engine parity among manufacturers and customer teams and key to that balance of performance across differing manufacturers and their customers is the software that the power units use. Many suggest that a team like Force India may have a Mercedes power unit but it’s not the same as the one in the back of the works team car with regards to software etc.
“It’s very curious to me that we have this set of regulations where the manufacturer has to supply the same hardware to other teams but it’s no under no obligation to supply the same software and therefore the same performance,” said Newey.
“Nobody is complaining about this because the customer teams can’t complain because their contract doesn’t allow them to.”
Newey says that Renault is different as they have always provided the exact same power unit, including software, as their works team. The challenge is if Renault are not prepared to spend the kind of money that Mercedes and Ferrari are spending.
One interesting point in Ed Osmond’s article is this:
“Newey described as ‘quaint’ the notion that power units would converge in performance as a result of the development shackles being removed.
In exchange for supplying 12 million-euros engines that cost 20-25 million euros to make, the manufacturers were making sure of voting rights on key committees, he said.
That meant Mercedes and Ferrari could ensure, without complaint, that their own works teams still had an advantage. “
This is a very important point with regards to the current political power struggle for control of F1. The big teams may have agreed to reduce their engine supply costs but in return they have the customers voting in their favor. Basically they eat 12 million and buy votes for their effort. At least that’s the implication here.
With open development, many believe that Ferrari, Honda and Renault will be able to close the gap to Mercedes. As I argued, when the token system was introduced and Mercedes was comprehensively better, the German manufacturer has a performance advantage baked in to their formula and it is not reversible due to the token system. Now without the token system, the notion is that this is not the case but Newey sees it differently:
“You can’t photograph an engine, not the internals anyway. So if you have an advantage, you can lock it in for some time,” he said, suggesting that sometimes gains were only made when knowledge was passed on by movements between teams.
“That happened with Ferrari last season where some Mercedes engineers left and joined Ferrari and were able through their knowledge to bring a very considerable jump in the performance of the Ferrari engine,” Newey said.
“These engines are still relatively infant technology,” added the man whose cars have won titles for three teams.
“We have already seen the steps that can be made…there’s no reason to suspect they’ve suddenly reached a plateau.”
If that is the case, then removing the token system will not allow for a reduction in Mercedes’ engine performance advantage and that is not how the engine regulations have worked in the past where parity was achieved over time due to diminished returns in engine development.
Ultimately there has to be a three-way balancing act that is centered on the driver, chassis and engine. Right now, the engine trumps the other two and Newey feels this is off kilter. Thinking back, could we not say that the Red Bull era of domination was leaning toward the chassis and not engine but now the engine has taken the lead role? What’s more sobering is this: Can you recall a time when the series was ever too driver-focused and not chassis or power?
Hat Tip: Reuters