The V8 Out, The V6 Turbo In, Should We Be Worried?

Ka-Blam-O! If anyone has watched former driver David Hobbs commentating for the Speed Channel in the past years, or for the NBC Sports Network now, you will recognize this term. I’m not so sure it is in the F1 lexicon, but don’t tell Mr. Hobbs that because it is his favorite word to use when describing to the viewer that a driver’s engine just let go. Not that all of the white smoke and sometimes oil exiting out the rear of the car at high velocity was any hint, but I suppose Mr. Hobbs is paid to make sure we are clear on what is happening on track.

Now that I think about it, “let go” is not really an accurate way to describe what happens when a Formula 1 engine, which revs up to 15,000 and 18,000 rpms, encounters a disturbance which in turn causes a part to fail, which in turn starts a chain reaction culminating in a rather large and fatal explosion somewhere inside the motor. But let’s not forget about Hobbs’s term, we will re-visit it a little later.

It’s customary lately for Formula 1 to have regulation changes between seasons, but this upcoming revision can only be described as comprehensive. Or, a real doozy. What on a Formula 1 car has been affected, you ask? Just everything inside the entire engine bay.

Formula 1 cars will compete this year with V6 Turbos, which take the place of the normally aspirated V8s that F1 has been using since the last engine formula change back in 2006. Because modern F1 cars are seeking to exploit the coke-bottle effect (as it is referred to) in the all important air flow at the rear of the car, most everyone who is reading this already knows what a huge undertaking such a change is. Not just for the engine suppliers, but even more so for the teams. With designers wanting to pack everything in as tight as possible the issue is how cramped can it be without causing problems such as heat retention and/or overheating. Add to this challenge an engine and chassis which have not yet turned even one lap in race conditions and you can see that complete uncertainty lies on the road ahead.

Will reliability be an issue? Some think so. As reported in a January 15 news article from Autosport, Christian Horner makes the prediction that, “I think you could see a very high retirement rate, maybe even 50 per cent in the first race.” Those are pretty dramatic words from the Red Bull Team Principal. Then again, as has been stated, the changes this year are just as dramatic. Horner continues to say, “For the back of the grid it is a huge challenge with the costs that are going to be incurred with this power supply unit,” and this indeed was one of the major complaints from most of the teams when this directive came down from Jean Todt and the FIA. The cost to change over will be extremely high. Which in turn will affect development. And this could have a direct effect on reliability.

At least one driver shares Horner’s concerns. As far back as December Jenson Button told Autosport’s Jonathan Noble and Matt Beer, “Winter testing is going to be hilarious in Jerez.” The 2009 world champion suspects that the very different behavior of the all-new turbocharged V6 engines, the inevitable initial unreliability and the cold January temperatures in Jerez will make the first runs a bizarre experience. Button says further into the article, “It [transitioning to a V6 engine] is in a bad place right now, but by the first race we will have it all sorted.” To further explain Button’s comments, he is referring to several issues. In addition to engine reliability, the drivers will have to deal with power torque and the lack of downforce due to the removal of the exhaust blowing over the rear diffuser.

There was a time when all kinds of mechanical issues would sideline an F1 car from a simple hose springing a leak all the way up to an engine failing. In fact anything and everything was a candidate for coming undone, breaking or just falling off a racecar at high speed. Not all component issues but many of them will result in the failure of an engine. I once had a chance to see a Gilles Villenueve Ferrari with the top apron removed and could see how the car was put together. A la la, (as my Moroccan friend Abdi would say), common bolts, regular old rivets and the kind of clamps you find on your garden hose holding together something that operates at 180 plus miles per hour. How many of you reading have seen something similar? My guess is quite of few of you know exactly what I am talking about.

Most if not all of the problems from the 70’s, 80’s and part of the 90’s have been eliminated as a result of the shift to computers, composite materials and just plain better engineering when designing and building an F1 car. Call it progress and despite the complexity of modern day F1 machinery, unreliability has been the one sidelined for the last ten or so years. Yes, there is the occasional engine retirement, but it’s commonly other issues that are responsible for a driver not reaching the checkered flag. Hydraulics, which run a good share of any car’s system, are a common culprit. Back in 2012, it was some faulty alternators that caused Red Bull and Lotus frustration and headaches. Last year it was Pirelli’s rubber that caused its share of driver retirements as well.

Personally I don’t share this general feeling of doom by either the experts or the drivers. I concede there will be some cars retiring due to engine failure. And I also concede the smaller teams might get the all-important packaging wrong and until they fix that issue their engines will continue to expire. Will it be as dramatic as we are led to believe? I don’t see it. I don’t see a return to the day when engine failures were a common occurrence.

Many things have changed considerably since the old days when you never knew if a driver would finish a race or not. I have already mentioned one of these changes, which is build quality. The milling, machining and fabrication at present are light years from anything available during the time when F1 cars were put together in rickety old garages. Also, the smallest or most underfunded team has resources and engine/design knowledge so far advanced from previous eras that a comparison is not just apples to oranges, its more like apples to wood blocks.

And if indeed reliability becomes a problem again I think that with all the modern tools and techniques available to both engine suppliers and the teams’ engineers a solution will surely be found quickly. In this advanced day of F1 the turnaround time is the shortest it has ever been. And unlike the aero parts which need track time to correlate and determine if they are performing as intended, an engine and its ancillary parts can be tested and re-tested, broken down and examined at any time. In fact a part or parts, or the entire engine, can be stressed until it fails which can lead to the exact solution to remedy whatever the problems are. Any gearheads reading this? Feel free to chime in if I’m wrong.

This might sound a bit odd, but I would welcome an uncertainty in the engine department this coming season in F1. I like it when you just don’t know what is going to happen. It spices up the racing and helps build tension. It will make for some dramatic finishes. Of course it can never be fun for us fans to watch the drivers or teams we favor falling victim to a malfunction of some sort be it small or catastrophic. I imagine it will be considerably less fun for the drivers or the teams, but in this era of near 100% reliability the increased possibility of the Ka-Blam-O would be a nice palate cleanser now and then.

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