Although Formula 1’s current engine regulations expire at the end of 2020, as exclusively revealed here last July the FIA abandoned plans to overhaul the engine format for the sport’s 2021-onwards era due to a lack of commitment from motor manufacturers.
Indeed, any criticism of their cost to teams had previously been addressed by the FIA, which imposed a cap of around $20m per season for two cars, depending upon exact specifications. Clearly, expecting manufacturers to throw development money at an overhaul designed to potentially save money was oxymoronic. Extending the validity of the current regulations would also provide longer amortisation periods.
Thus, the current engine format remains (largely) in place until end-2024. What happens thereafter is currently under discussion. There is talk of two-stroke cycles or even split cycles, of variable valve phasing/timing and electric valve gear, with additional emphasis on improved heat recovery (MGU-H) units. Not least, electrification systems could be upgraded to operate on up to 600V and over 800W. Serious – but costly – stuff.
This is likely to disappoint those calling for cheaper and less complex power units. Such as Racing Point’s technical director Andrew Green and McLaren CEO Zak Brown who did so during the FIA’s Thursday press conference at the Monaco Grand Prix.
“I think what we have now is an incredible piece of engineering in the back of the car,” said Green. “But it could just be too incredible. I think what we have is potentially something where the technology bar of the power unit is just way too high, and I think I would like to see something that is just slightly simpler.
Brown put it simply: “More power would be great. Less expensive would be outstanding.”
However neither is directly linked to an existing engine supplier. There is a stark difference between their comments and those of Cyril Abiteboul of Renault and Christian Horner – the latter’s tune on engines having changed markedly since Red Bull signed up as Honda’s ‘works’ partner.
Looking to the future, Abiteboul believes next-gen fuels will play major roles in shaping F1’s power unit formats.
“One thing that might be interesting that starts to be discussed is not necessarily not the next generation of engine but the next generation of fuel, because we still believe that Formula 1 is about hybrid technology, not full electric, for a number of reasons,” he said.
“Clearly we need more power and sustainable power and long races, but there will be new forms of fuel coming up in the next few years, whether you are talking about more bio-fuel, so a different composition, or even synthesis fuel, coming from non-fossil sources, that could be attractive and that would require new development.” That means additional costs.
Although the ‘romantic’ in Horner yearns for a power unit that is “normally-aspirated, high-revving V10 or V12 and loud”, the realist in him said: “Unfortunately I think they’re rather outdated now.”
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“We’ve now got a period of stability with the engines until 2023 I think or 2024, so it’s important that Formula 1 makes the right decision for the future,” he added.
“Obviously the automotive sector is moving an awful lot at the moment, and what technologies are going to relevant then? Because when that engine comes in 2025 that’s going to have to be for a five-to-10-year period, so we’re actually talking up to 2035, which is a long way down the pipelines.”
One might cynically wonder whether F1 will still be around by then.
Such thoughts aside, the projected engine technologies are very much in line with comments made by Ross Brawn, F1’s managing director and the man ultimately charged with delivering F1’s spectacle, who last August said: “We want to create a set of technical regulations on the engine that are appealing to new manufacturers.”
But will such technologies attract engine suppliers? Equally crucially, will such regulations also appeal to the sport’s existing suppliers, for what good would it serve to attract three incomers if the four current suppliers are lost?
Over the years F1’s engine suppliers have evolved into three distinctly different categories:
1) Independents, who design, develop and manufacture F1 engines for sale, paid for either by teams directly, or by commercial entities. In this regard think Cosworth, which produced the record-setting DFV, bank-rolled at the time by Ford. Cosworth has also produced F1 engines for its own account, such as the CA family supplied to Williams in 2006, and budget teams between 2010 and 2013.
Other such entities include the original Ilmor operation, (now the Mercedes F1 engine facility, which produced engines both for its own account and contractually for Mercedes-Benz), Climax, Weslake, Judd and Hart.
2) Original equipment manufacturers (OEM) suppliers, but without an in-house team, such as (currently) Honda, but have on previous occasions included BMW, Renault, Mercedes, Porsche and even Lamborghini.
3) Full teams producing their own chassis and engines, usually OEM-owned as with the current Renault and Mercedes operations. Other examples include the Alfa Romeo teams of the fifties and eighties, Toyota and Honda (1964-68 and 2006-08). Plus, of course, Ferrari. Before compulsory supply regulations intervened, many such operations enjoyed both sole use of their engines and/or supplied outside teams.
Saliently, since introducing its full hybrid engines in 2014 F1 has failed to attract any independent suppliers despite regular calls to do so. Cosworth conducted a feasibility study and quickly realised that such a project was not viable without outside support. When such entities (including Aston Martin) are expected to invest upwards of $150m/annum for a maximum return of $60m (three teams), that’s a big ask…
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Another drawback of this group – a factor that applies equally to OEM suppliers – is that such suppliers have no direct say in F1’s governance, nor do they derive benefits from sponsorship income or shares of F1’s revenues; however, this last point may change going forward should Liberty its promise to pay engine suppliers a subsidy of $10m per annum. It’s small change, though…
Indeed, as Renault discovered during its 2010-15 hiatus from being full team owner, being engine supplier only has major drawbacks in that the partner team is handed bouquets in victory while the engine supplier suffers briquettes in defeat. Hence the French company elected to make a full return as team owner from 2016, following Mercedes’ lead from six years earlier.
Honda’s situation is slightly different: the Big H is the world’s largest engine manufacturer, offering a variety of products for marine, two/four-wheel, botanic/agricultural, stationary/ industrial and even aeronautical applications. Thus, in purely practical terms, the two Red Bull teams are simply further applications for Honda engines, albeit high-profile ones.
The third engine supplier category – full team entries – provides manufacturers more control over their destiny (and results) and offers political and commercial clout, yet is by a substantial margin the most complex and expensive F1 entity to manage. Thus only two major OEMs have won titles in their own rights – Renault (2005/6), Mercedes (2014-date) – but only succeeding after granting their respective team bosses Flavio Briatore and Toto Wolff total autonomy.
However, a major drawback under current regulations – which force OEM teams to supply a number of customer teams – is that parent suppliers find themselves embarrassingly beaten by secondary outfits – such as occurred with Red Bull/Renault, and Brawn/McLaren-Mercedes before that, and presented with Renault and McLaren-Renault.
The overarching question, then, is: which company would want to enter F1 as engine supplier in future, whether as team owner, or not? It is doubtful whether a Cosworth, a latter-day Ilmor or Ricardo has the resources to develop competitive engines incorporating the high-tech and next-gen without the full backing of a commercial partner, particularly given that full electrification now appears to be the way forward for the industry.
Plus, as outlined above, F1’s current and proposed commercial and regulatory structures provide little incentive for OEMs to enter F1 as engine supplier only – whether in their own right or as partners to specialists – while 2025 is just five years away. That is the timeframe required for prospective incomers to conduct feasibility studies, obtain board approval, and then go through all the engineering hoops.
The lead time from white paper to introduction for the current regulations was five years (2009-2014), having been postponed for a year while arguments raged back and forth over inline-four or V6 formats. And, as Honda can attest, it can takes four years to become competitive with an engine that is arguably less complex than the proposed technologies outlined above.
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Then factor into the equation that, according to Brawn, “the major (performance) differentiator” in F1 should not be the engine. “The first differentiator should be the driver,” said Brawn, “the second should be the car, and the third should be the engine.” Which sane OEM would throw gazillions at power units that do not, by design, provide competitive advantages? That surely is the name of the OEM game?
That leaves the third category: full team ownership. Now consider that such an incomer would be unlikely to enter before 2025, for that would require the design and development of two different power units, and that testing is heavily restricted under the regulations. Which OEM would commit without being able to test and acquire data?
Similarly, in order to commit, any incomer would need to know what commercial structures and technical/sporting regulations to expect, and F1’s recent history suggests that procrastination is very much the strategy, whether by design or simple delay. Finalising 2025’s frameworks in June 2023 is hardly likely to pique the interest of newcomers, who would require three years minimum to gear up.
Finally, to justify F1 engagements OEMs require TV ratings. Mantras of ‘fan engagement’ and ‘activation’ are all well and good but nothing beats eyeballs when it comes down to moving metal in global markets.
Here history provides a lesson: During the 2000s, a period of free-to-air TV, F1 had seven engine suppliers: (alphabetically) BMW, Ferrari, Honda, Jaguar (Cosworth), Mercedes, Renault and Toyota. After TV went predominantly pay-per-view, ratings dropped by around 40 per cent over ten years, and so did the number of engine suppliers (from seven to four).
There may be no correlation in the numbers; equally, there may well be, for no new manufacturer has entered since. What has changed that could suddenly attract OEMs to F1, whether as teams or purely as engine suppliers?
Like it or not, F1 is dependent on OEMs, even if only as engine suppliers – and that dependency has dictated the current engine formula, loathed and loved in equal measure. Strip the engines of their hi-efficiency gizmos, and there is little to zero appeal in F1 for main stream motor manufacturers, and F1 could find itself with insufficient engines for a full grid.
Thus F1 could find history repeating itself: With no incoming OEMs (or even teams) looming, there seems to be little or no sense in changing F1’s 2025 engine regulations, bar for some tickling around the edges. Equally, with no adaptation for the changing times, F1 may not be sufficiently appealing to OEMs to persuade them to commit to combustion-engined sport in the face of mass electrification across the motor industry.
It’s a vicious cycle. For F1 to break it will require imaginative thinking.
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