Early in Jean Todt’s presidency, when the new power unit rules for 2014 were being formulated, Bernie Ecclestone described himself as being “at loggerheads” with the FIA chief over the planned changes.
As head of motor racing’s governing body, Todt’s quiet approach with a preference for consensus contrasts sharply with the vociferous, reactive Ecclestone. This made it something of a surprise when the pair united in an attempt to force further changes to the engine regulations at the end of last year.
But only one of them got what he really wanted.
Ecclestone was criticised for his repeated slating of the new engine formula when it was introduced two years ago. But his angry rhetoric about the power units started three years before that. Cost, technology, noise – there was no aspect of the rules change he didn’t perceive to be bad for Formula One. That didn’t change even after he welcomed back Honda who credited their return to the new hybrid formula.
And when Red Bull found themselves struggling with Renault’s second-generation power unit, Ecclestone became their loudest cheerleader, echoing team principal Christian Horner’s complaints about the V6 hybrid turbos and endorsing his demand that Mercedes or Ferrari should sell them a competitive power unit.
For Todt the new engine rules represents his most significant contribution to Formula One since he became president seven years ago. It was a vital change which not only helped bring Honda back, but potentially kept other manufacturers from leaving.
However there was no ignoring the huge cost hike the new engines presented to F1’s smallest teams at a time when they were feeling the pinch from Ecclestone’s prize money distribution structure which favoured the biggest teams. At the end of 2014 Caterham went to the wall and it seemed Marussia would follow them. Throughout 2015 it was clear Lotus’s survival depended on Renault buying the team, while other outfits had to take payment advances from Ecclestone.
Todt had been accused by some of being asleep at the switch. His predecessor Max Mosley’s presidency was marked by a string of hostile public conflicts with F1 teams over the rules.
In contrast Todt has focused on other priorities such as the World Endurance Championship and World Rally Championship – both disciplines where he enjoyed success as a competitor – and innovative all-electric championship Formula E. Above all is his road safety agenda, which he sees as a way of giving something back to motoring after his decades in competition.
But when Todt and Ecclestone’s agendas aligned a showdown was set with the manufacturers over engine prices. Todt suggested a limit of €12 million for engines, a level Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne called “obscene” and led the team to use its controversial veto power to thwart an engine price cap.
This cannot have come to a surprise to Todt, having once wielded the same power himself when he was in charge at Maranello. Speaking to journalists in Mexico he indicated he was prepared to offer stability in the engine regulations until 2020 to secure the price cut, allowing the manufacturers to make savings by spreading their costs over more years.
The alternative was the introduction of a less expensive 2.2-litre V6 engine for those who wished to use it from 2017. This fit with Ecclestone’s repeatedly-stated wish to go back to an earlier engine formula: the V8s or even V10s which manufacturers had already turned their back on. But the alternative engine plan was shot down by the F1 Commission in November.
The year ended with the manufacturers facing a mid-January deadline to propose a means of containing engine costs. The eventual deal – for a price limit of €12 million, stability in the engine regulations from 2018 to 2020 and guarantees on the availability of power units for customer teams – was clearly satisfactory for Todt. They are still considerably more expensive than the V8s – by an inflation-adjusted 28% – but these are vastly more sophisticated pieces of equipment and they will be sold for around 40% less than the current prices.
This is a victory for Todt. But it goes no way towards meeting Ecclestone’s goals of more powerful, noisier, thirstier engines and – above all – competitive power units for Red Bull. Shortly before the alternative engine plan was killed Ecclestone revealed the latter was the true motivation behind his alliance with Todt: “If they were to have given an engine to Red Bull none of these things would have come up.”
Red Bull had found themselves at risk of not having an engine at all for 2016 as they had begun to sever ties with Renault before securing a new deal with one of their rivals. After months of public wrangling a deal for 2016 between the two was resurrected, though Red Bull will rebrand the Renault engines as TAG-Heuer.
But despite the manufacturers’ assurances to the contrary, ensuring a secure supply of engines for customer teams in the future will remain a concern for F1. It was this very problem which hastened the demise of the last turbo era 30 years ago as Renault, Ford, BMW and Alfa-Romeo scrapped their F1 programmes in quick succession, leading to the unpopular one-off ‘two-class’ F1 of 1987.
During the brief window in which the FIA’s alternative engine proposal was on the table responses from Mecachrome, Ilmor and AER demonstrated a clear appetite from independent engine builders to get involved in F1. F1 should find a way to accommodate them in future to protect the sport from the whims of manufacturers who see it chiefly as a branding exercise and – in Ferrari’s case – a revenue stream.
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