Arguably the most misused F-word in Formula 1 is currently ‘freeze’ – as in the engine freeze Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri are asking the FIA to impose on the sport in order to enable the teams to continue using Honda power after the Japanese company exits at end of the year.
Consider the following: Rather than sponsor a F1 team, Red Bull owns two. Rather than commit to trackside advertising, Red Bull has its own F1 track. Rather than advertise on television, Red Bull has its own station, Servus, which holds various broadcast rights including F1 and plays music produced by Red Bull Records. Weather forecasting for the brands’ various ‘edgy’ activities and music shows? In-house company Ubimet delivers.
Rather than have independent media publishing news and features about its F1 and other motorsport and lifestyle activities, Red Bull publishes Speedweek and Red Bulletin. Team gear and corporate dress? In-house fashion brand AlphaTauri, established in 2016, attends to their sartorial needs while being available for sale. There’s surely no need to further labour the point about Red Bull’s attitude to self-sustainability and control.
Yet for engines Red Bull has always relied upon outside suppliers. True, the brand scored those serial title successes, but Renault was Red Bull’s de facto ‘works’ engine partner after the French team withdrew from competition at the end of 2009. Since then, Renault has re-entered F1 in its own right, and by the nature of the beast puts its own interests first, even if circumstantially and/or subliminally.
That said, McLaren replaced the Red Bull teams as Renault’s customer engine partner and placed third in last year’s overall constructors’ classification – finishing one place adrift of Red Bull-Honda, two ahead of the Renault team itself and four ahead of AlphaTauri – so arguments about levels of technology and trackside service are rendered somewhat moot by the orange team’s form. Still, McLaren is switching to Mercedes from this year…
The proposed ‘freeze’ goes against F1’s DNA which, as Red Bull team boss Christian Horner once told this writer, is one of continuous evolution, as comparisons of cars or engines over the past 70 years illustrate. But these are uncertain times, and already development of current chassis has been largely frozen as part of a raft of cost-saving measures.
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Such decisions were not, though, taken to aid a particular team. Ironically, the FIA simultaneously proposed freezing power units, but Red Bull pleaded against such moves, arguing Honda might exit were one to be introduced, only for the company to do just that. Such antics did not exactly endear the Red Bull teams (and Honda) to the governing body, which also took dimly to insinuations that the drinks brand may withdraw from F1 unless a freeze is imposed.
Nor did the two teams’ push for a decision by the end of November last year go down well with its grid peers, the majority of whom would need to approve Red Bull’s request for the freeze to pass into the regulations.
“Engine stuff has such long lead times, and if we were to take on a project like [Honda engines] then there’s quite a lot of work behind the scenes that would obviously need to happen and be put in place. Really by the end of [November] we need to be firming up on a position,” Horner said at the time.
A spokesperson for a rival team sneered at the timeline, telling RaceFans, “We’re not going to make it easy for them; why should we? Plus, there are too many unanswered issues before can take a decision.” These are expanded upon below.
Thus, the matter rumbled on beyond the end of November and into mid-December, when Max Verstappen’s victory from pole position in Abu Dhabi shied rival teams away from a decision, with Pierre Gasly’s subsequent comments that “[Honda] will push and give everything until the last race [of 2021],” further flaming the apparent antipathy.
“They win, then want us to freeze their engine after that performance?” muttered a team boss.
Then, a fortnight ago, a Red Bull source revealed that a vote had been set down by the FIA for last Monday, but this proved to be a false dawn, with an FIA spokesperson telling RaceFans: “Maybe somebody thought there was a vote scheduled.” A rival team figure later told RaceFans, “Yesterday’s vote was expected only by Red Bull; it was clear for days that there was no vote…”
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Our original Red Bull source lamented that, “The goodwill that existed on Friday no longer existed on Monday,” but remained hopeful that the freeze concept would soon be approved at team level, assuming both FIA and F1 vote in favour of a freeze (see below).
The answer to the phantom vote lies somewhere between the various comments: Apparently a vote was requested and agreed to, but not unanimously. Certain parties felt they needed to understand the implications: How and when would specifications be frozen; what if one engine proved much faster (or slower); how long would the freeze last; what balance of performance mechanisms applied; how would they be monitored?
As revealed previously, a Formula 1 Commission meeting is scheduled for Thursday 11th February, and while the majority of agenda items are Covid-related, the question of a freeze will surely to be discussed, in particular the points outlined above.
Under F1’s incoming (2021-25) governance process chassis regulation, any changes agreed before end-April of the preceding year require a ‘simple majority’. This is not, though, as simple as it seems: in F1 ‘simple majority’ is not a plus-one majority as per real life, but 25 votes out of 30. The FIA and F1 have 10 votes each and each team one. A ‘super majority’ is required to approve changes agreed after the end of April, which means 28 out of 30 votes.
Matters are more complex for power units – the same mechanisms apply, albeit with each power unit supplier also having a vote. Thus, with 10 teams and four power unit suppliers, a motion requires 27 votes (from 34), with the teams and power unit suppliers sharing 14 votes amongst them, and governing body and commercial rights holder 10 each. The Red Bulls are clearly assuming the FIA/F1 axis will vote for a freeze, or have been granted such assurances.
Thus, the Red Bulls (and Honda) – with a vote each – would need to find another four votes in favour for the freeze to fly. How their competitors vote will depend upon the fine print and, as always, the devil lurks in the detail. A draft proposal has it that engine suppliers would be free to develop their power units as they see fit until close of scrutineering for the opening 2022 round, and thereafter specifications would be frozen.
That, though, flies in the face of logic for power unit suppliers would be forced to cram three years of development into a single season, all while the sport is reeling from the effects of Covid. An alternate proposal is to freeze engines after this season, thereafter using fuel flow to balance performance between power units. Rivals are, however, cynical about the efficacy of such measures, particularly as the system is potentially open to abuse.
Furthermore, Mercedes is content with its current performance advantage, while Ferrari and Renault have some catching to do; Honda’s is said to be the second-best power unit at present. Why would Mercedes voluntarily cede its advantage to help direct competitors, one with whom there has been a fair amount of ‘needle’ in recent years? Equally, how can Ferrari and Renault be expected to catch up in a year; what if they don’t?
A more vexing question is: How long will the freeze last? 2022 sees F1 race under its ‘new era’ chassis regulations – originally slated for 2021-25, then pushed back by a year due to the effects of Covid. No decision has yet been taken as to whether the end date will also be delayed by a year – thus to 2026.
I put the question of timing for the regulation change to F1 managing director Ross Brawn during an exclusive interview last week.
“There’s some discussion at the moment [about] what’s the ideal,” he said. “We’re keen to introduce a new power unit at some point in the future; we think there’s opportunity with the power unit, [to be able to] set a new target and a new objective which could be extremely relevant, extremely appealing to existing suppliers and new [manufacturers].
“So, it’s a question of whether we do that for 2025, or 2026. I think the [chassis] regs will align with that, because I think when we do the new power unit, we need to do a step with the car, because one of the things we want to be able to demonstrate is another major step in efficiency in terms of fuel consumption. That will come partly from the technology of the car as well as the technology of the power unit.”
Bear in mind that all teams plus the FIA and F1 will needs to vote on any change of shelf life, and that will hardly be the work of a moment.
In December 2020 the FIA committed to “a second-generation biofuel variety, meaning it is exclusively refined using bio-waste, not intended for human or animal consumption” by 2030, adding that these “100% sustainable fuels [would be mandated for] introduction of the new F1 powertrain architecture.”
During our interview Brawn quickly warmed to the topic. “The key thing is sustainable fuels. We want to be able to use a fuel which completes the carbon cycle and comes from renewable sources to close off the carbon circle,” he said.
However, a complicating factor is that split opinions exist within the F1 fuel advisory panel FOFAP, upon which all major oil companies – including those not in F1 – sit. FOFAP meets annually to ensure F1’s fuels are road relevant. One faction believes F1 should embrace these second generation ‘Gen-2’ sustainable fuels ASAP, while another is of the opinion that it makes little sense for F1 to race with fuels that are not (yet) commercially available.
Does FOFAP have valid points, I asked Brawn.
“They have valid input,” he says, adding, “[But] I think there are interim steps worth [considering]. Are there baby steps we could make, or would we be better off making big step to a fully sustainable fuel? We think probably the latter, and some of the debate is around the interim steps that could be made.”
The matter is believed to be up for discussion during next week’s Commission meeting but is unlikely to be voted upon given the far-reaching implications (and potential complications) for F1, teams and present and potential engine suppliers. Crucially, some teams indicated to RaceFans they would prefer to delay the freeze vote until these (and other) issues are clarified. That said, consider the implications of a five-year freeze…
On the one hand an alternative engine supply option exists for Red Bull in the form of the FIA’s engine supply regulations, which include an ‘obligation to supply’ mechanism. Under the provisions, Renault, as the power unit supplier with the least customers (currently only itself) the company would be required to supply both teams if called upon to do so. Thus, Red Bull cannot claim that it has no alternative, only that rancour exists.
On the flipside, Red Bull is obviously seeking the best solution to the thorny issue of power unit supply. The problem is, though, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and while some power unit suppliers have publicly backed Red Bull’s calls for a freeze, they will acquiesce provided their performances are not jeopardised in the process. After all, why spent $150 million only to voluntarily hand both titles to your fiercest competitors?
Our Red Bull source last week spoke of an absence of “goodwill”, and therein lies the rub: the company and its subsidiaries have always controlled their own destinies – consider that Red Bull is not a listed entity – and now both its teams are reduced to beseeching votes from the governing body, the commercial rights holder, eight rivals and three engine suppliers, two of whom are direct market competitors for Honda globally.
On that basis alone there is unlikely to be an easy or quick solution, let alone a decision anytime soon.
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