Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2020

Will F1’s game-changing engine freeze allow Mercedes to lock in their winning edge?

2021 F1 season

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There’s no doubt who the first winner is following yesterday’s announcement that a freeze on engine development will be introduced from the start of the 2022 F1 season.

Red Bull had lobbied hard for the change, as it means they will be able to continue to use their current Honda power units after the Japanese manufacturer leaves at the end of the year, without having to fork out huge sums to develop them. They are already tooling up to take over maintenance of the power units after Honda pull out.

Unsurprisingly, when Red Bull first mooted a freeze last season, the views of their rivals were closely linked to the balance of power in the championship. Mercedes clearly had the best power unit last year, Ferrari the worst, and Renault somewhere in the middle with Honda. Their teams responded to the freeze based on whether they stood to gain or lose from it.

Renault were opposed. Ferrari initially also opposed it but later indicated they were prepared to accept a freeze if it included a mechanism to equalise the performance of the different power units.

Mercedes, quite happy to lock in their current advantage, backed the idea of a freeze but described the suggestion of performance balancing “a bit of an insult”.

Start, Red Bull Ring, 2020
Red Bull were far behind Mercedes at the start of last year
While the full details of the freeze agreed yesterday is yet to be confirmed, the word is no balance of performance mechanism will be imposed. The frame of the game is therefore set: Teams have already developed new power units for this season, they can produce new designs again for 2022, which they will then have to use until F1’s next generation of engines arrives in 2025.

Therefore, a lot is riding over what the engine manufacturers have produced for the 2021 F1 season, and what they might have up their sleeves for next year.

This will be the eighth season for F1’s V6 hybrid turbo power units. It has long been expected that as the current technical regulations mature, designers would gradually converge on optimal solutions and produce engines of similar performance levels.

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For a while, this seemed to be happening. Following Mercedes’ crushing dominance of 2014-16 (51 wins from 59 races), rivals Ferrari and Red Bull closed the gap to them over the following seasons. By 2019 the top three teams were regularly within 1% of each other in terms of pure lap time. That year, for the first time in the V6 hybrid turbo era, something other than a Mercedes took pole position for more than half of the races.

Then 2020 happened. Ferrari’s recent gains were abruptly reverse following their private agreement with the FIA, prompted by an investigation into how their power units worked. Meanwhile Mercedes, stung by their red rival’s progress the year before, hit back hard. With Red Bull also beginning the season on the back foot, Mercedes’ margin of superiority last season was close to what it was during the first three years of the V6 hybrid turbo era:

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2020
Analysis: Mercedes’ 2020 dominance and their chances of being caught this year
The engine freeze has therefore raised the stakes for F1’s manufacturers. The V6 hybrid turbo era has little more than 12 months of open development left to run.

What the manufacturers produce for 2022 will define the competition for two further seasons. It’s not hard to imagine what could happen if Mercedes make another 2020-style leap at the beginning of next year: Their already awe-inspiring feat of seven consecutive championship sweeps could extend into double-digits by 2023.

Of course, the reverse may also apply. Any manufacturer whose power units aren’t up to scratch when 2022 begins can probably forget about collecting any silverware over the following three seasons.

But Red Bull will be hoping the new engine freeze plays out like the last one did. When the V8 engines were frozen, the championship temporarily became a formula dominated by aerodynamics and engineering, and the Milton Keynes team swept the last four championships in a row.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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38 comments on “Will F1’s game-changing engine freeze allow Mercedes to lock in their winning edge?”

  1. @keithcollantine Was Mercedes early season advantage really just down to increased engine power? Is this known somehow through data? Or was possibly, to name an example, DAS during warm-up laps a factor in qualifying pace? And what factor was there to Red Bull building a hard-to-handle car for the first half of the season? I know the qualification mode ban helped a bit in decreasing the gap as well, of course, but overall, are Merc’s gains considered all or vastly engine related?

    1. @aiii Good question. Early reports in 2020 also identified changes to the rear suspension setup, improving downforce there, as a strong factor. Don’t know how that played out.

  2. With no BoP why did Ferrari change their minds and back it?

    1. Its reported elsewhere for 2022 they have a whole new engine on tap with a split mcu shaft similar to merc and the most recent honda evolution

    2. That was my first thought as well. They must have a lot of faith their new engine is a big step forward.

  3. The idea of Mercedes sweeping to double digit championships by 2023 fills me with dread. Like no disrespect to them or to fans of theirs – but I’m certainly not one, and would dearly like to see literally anyone else win it for a change. Or at least have a tighter fight for it. I really hope the engine freeze accomplishes this.

  4. I have no strong views either way on the engine freeze, but I’m very glad there’s no balance of power rules. Balance of power wrecks the sporting integrity of any series in which it reads its ugly head.

    Side note – the engine people at Ferrari really have a lot of work on their hands to get their engine right before the freeze.

    1. @tflb
      The “sporting integrity” of this series was already ruined when they allowed a giant manufacturer like Mercedes to spend billions of dollars to dominate the sport instead of controlling costs.

      1. As opposed to when Ferrari ran unchecked with special spec tyres, or engines that contravened fuel flow regulations?

        1. Peak whataboutism

          What does Ferrari’s cheating in 2019 have to do with Mercedes spending billions of dollars to dominate the sport?

    2. petebaldwin (@)
      12th February 2021, 16:37

      No balance of power wrecks the sporting integrity between the engine manufacturers however large disparity between the engines wrecks the sporting integrity of the constructors title. It’s a bit of a no-win situation. Depends what matters more to you – the WDC or the battle between engine manufacturers.

    3. With the cost cap now effective im wondering how much extra resource Ferrari can actually throw at this? They were alrady operating at the cost cap ceiling.

  5. Funny how F1 markets itself to be the pinnacle of innovative technology, but then brings in handicaps for the sake of the show.

    1. Funny how people still fall for this “pinnacle of innovative technology” crap, despite F1 banning ground effect, 6 wheels, active suspension, traction control and whatnot. (ABS?)

      Wake up man, it’s about the show since the early seventies.

      1. I think it could be argued that some of the restrictions introduced in the 70s and 80s that restricted performance were not in fact to improve ‘the show’, but rather to keep speeds under control for safety reasons – as in that period, the speeds being achieved were far in excess of the safety levels of the cars.

        1. @tflb totally agree. ‘the show’ only really became a thing when , ironically, it wasn’t (as much of a ) show anymore. I always felt treated with disdain by F1 until quite recently. But I also agree with @oconomo, the pinnacle would now be very different in terms of tech. The idea that hybrid is the pinnacle is anathema, its just the legislation in Europe has dictated the manufacturers must go broadly electric. If they really cared about the environment they’d not build SUV’s and even Ferrari are doing that. No, f1 has always followed the money. This is just tobacco for the woke generation ( in f1 terms).

        2. Not gonna argue there, but the point remains that calling F1 the pinnacle of innovative engineering is a joke, and has been for a very long time now.

  6. Crazy. To think we could have locked balance to year 2025.

    Ideally Ferrari should have a slightly better engine, then they would have about same laptime.

    Mercedes and Red Bull are equally good at chassis design I think, everything else is Red Bull propaganda.

    That would get us a close championship.

    If they just lock in current state, I do not see Mercedes failing until they implode from lack of intrest in F1 because same team always wins.

  7. Can’t say I like the idea of this engine freeze.

    The technical development race of F1 is for me just as big a draw as the on-track racing. I love digging into the various developments & improvements the engine manufacturer’s make just as I like looking into the various developments teams bring to the cars through the year.

    It’s that stuff that sets F1 above everything else to me. This freeze & some of the other development restrictions been introduced is a big part of why i’m less excited about F1 over the next year years as I have been the previous years. Next year’s regulation change has my interest in terms of seeing how they play out but I just don’t like how restrictive aspects of them seem to be.

  8. Where’s the famous Ferrari power to veto when we need it?

    1. They’ve probably kept that wild card for something else that they aren’t capable of.

  9. I don’t like the concept of an engine freeze and at first I was surprised that Mercedes and Ferrari and Renault agreed it.

    Then I thought again and reasoned that Wolff is not stupid and would not agree such a thing unless there was some advantage in it. One thing might be that this freezes the Honda engine long before the end of the season in practice because they cannot afford to do too much R&D on an engine which within months will not be theirs in case the changes do not work and they are stuck with it?

    And what exactly is the start date for this freeze? First race in 2022 or last race in 2021 and if the latter that might alleviate the problem for Honda/RedBull I have suggested above. If the latter there is development time for the others RedBull will not have.

    Will there be a chance to make changes for safety and reliability? How will that feed into a ‘freeze’.

    I am not Wolff and I can’t guess all the ins and outs but I would bet money on him having seen an advantage somewhere. Wouldn’t you?

    1. As far as I understand, its beginning of the new year, so new engines.
      And Honda has promised (whatever that word means) to work on the engine till the last day, so I guess RB shouldnt be locked out of any development time at all.
      Wolff is pretty safe regardless I think since Merc engine are class of the field on power vs reliability still, so the advantage is still most likely being the best while saving money – what additional benefit does he needs.

    2. It will be 2022. Renault & ferrari have bot planned to introduce new engines in 2022

  10. Will F1’s game changing engine freeze allow Mercedes to lock in their winning edge?

    Some would argue that has been locked in since 2014.

    I would say that the answer is no, or else this would not have received unanimous consent.

    From what I recall, Ferrari supposedly has a big step coming for this year, and they will have time as well ahead of 2022, as will the others. Honda will be going full bore as well, as will I’m sure Renault. As of course will Mercedes.

    So I just think that aside from them all unanimously agreeing to this, which must mean there isn’t a big fear, by 2022 the engines will be fairly close in performance, but significantly I think the far less clean air dependent cars are going to erase some maker’s pu deficit to some degree as well. By that I mean for example…we know that historically almost always the winner of the WDC needed the WCC car in order to win the WDC. The odd time when a driver has won the WDC in a car that was not WCC winner, said car was at least a strong second place to the WCC. I just think the new F1 philosophy of ground effects cars that can race more closely is going to increase the chances for a driver to win a WDC without the WCC car. Sure of course it will remain that one would be better off in the WCC car, but I just think more times than in the past, as the coming years unfold, a driver in a strong second place WCC car will have a better chance than before.

    If it is so wrong to suggest LH’s success is ‘all’ down to the car, (and I agree) then of course it is also incorrect to say it is all down to the pu, and I think even less so come the new regs. Obviously the whole of F1 is on board and I would say that if the others that aren’t Mercedes have a fear at all it will just be that Mercedes keeps on progressing strongly, more strongly than them, but they know they have a chance to do the same and are likely confident that after this year, and ahead of 2022’s cut-off date, they can get close enough to Mercedes pu-wise to make their cars and their drivers the difference.

    1. almost always the winner of the WDC needed the WCC car in order to win the WDC

      Though the two are clearly interconnected the other way round too. A stronger driver, or driver pairing, can ensure a WCC. Conversely, a driver or pair who perhaps have the strongest car can lose both the WDC and the WCC.
      Red Bull should have the best chance of matching Mercedes now they have a strong pair of drivers, since they also benefit from their car often performing better (due to chassis and aerodynamics) where the Mercedes is relatively worse. Much better than being strong where Mercedes are also strong. A racier car also favours Verstappen at least as we know. Personally I’m hoping at least McLaren and Red Bull can catch Mercedes, at least from next season on, if not push them harder this year.

      1. @david-br Oh for sure strong teams attract at least one strong driver and then the other driver’s degree of strength is subject to endless debate, lol. And ya for sure the reasons for a team or a driver not winning the big trophies in a winning car are many and varied, and highly debatable. Eg. 2017, and 2018 what my experience was, what I felt and thought to myself at the time, was that both Mercedes and Ferrari, mainly LH and SV, had similar numbers of wins in the first halves, which to me meant Mercedes was their usual threat, and certainly not that Ferrari were suddenly on it, like we were to disregard Mercedes potency. I never did. I expected them to put on the boil. And just look at LH’s massive numbers of wins in the second halves of those seasons.

        So wrt this convo, I don’t think Ferrari had a WCC nor WDC car in 2017 and 2018, and while may have been strong, obviously not strong enough. I don’t subscribe to “they should have won” because I don’t think they were meant nor deserved to, given what to me was from minute one a formidable highly proven Mercedes team that were winning races from the getgo too, not just SV.

        Sorry I digress. I share your hopes for RBR and Mac too, that would be awesome and I think it will be. I have this gut feeling Honda is going to have something special this year.

    2. @Robbie I agree.

      People seem to have also forgotten that 2014 – 2019 was dominated by those that had “party mode” that essentially guaranteed the front row, and often the front two rows. That, combined with the current difficulty that cars have to follow, pretty much killed any chance that a good chassis could overcome the Merc cars that had the advantage of being at the front as well as having a pretty darn good chassis/driver combination.

      I’d expect that from 2022 onwards, with supposedly the ability to follow more closely, cars won’t need to be nearly 2 sec a lap faster to overtake. Out of that time gap, probably up to 5 tenths at times has been pure PU but that diminished down to maybe a tenth once party modes/changing modes on the fly was out

      To me, this should bring the comp more back to a driver/chassis competition, hopefully not as bad as when it was pure chassis, but far more balanced than it has been from 2014 – 2019.

  11. Red Bull had lobbied hard for the change.

    Which on past experience seems to equate with ‘and Mercedes lapped up the rewards.’
    So, answer, probably.

  12. Woah, no balance of performance? I thought that was a given. That makes me much less excited for the next 4 years then…

  13. It seems everyone is happy with how their PU development is going So that may explain F1 not imposing the ‘balance of performance’ rubbish. This does open the way for Merc, Ferrari and Renault to concentrate on the 2025 PU, not so for RB I think. Honda has made it very clear they are not going to to have any involvement past this season so at this point RB will be on their own?
    They are about to enter the world of 1 billion dollar engine development with none of the experience of their rivals. It’s a big hill to climb without an experienced partner who could also help with the burden of the cost. So I would think they are looking for or maybe already have found someone.

  14. I really hope ferrari sorts it out. Another 4 years and we’re starting to look at a Scheckter to Schumacher drought since the last drivers champion… certainly something I wouldn’t have predicted after the 2007/2008 seasons.

  15. The question is wrong, and should be:

    “Did the gowdawful token system allow Mercedes to lock in their winning advantage?”

    Yes, it did. Aided by an incompetent FIA who refused to act when it became clear what a disaster it was.

    1. Really? All the engine manufacturers BEGGED for the token system to limit the amount they would have to spend developing the damn things. Then they realised how bad they were compared to Merc, BEGGED the FIA to get rid of it and then promptly began to complain that the engines were too expensive to develop. This culminated in Honda leaving (after rejecting the idea of a freeze) and RB BEGGING for a freeze so they didn’t have to develop the engine.
      The problem hasn’t been tokens, the formula, or the price of developing the engines; it’s been the ineptitude of everyone who isn’t MB.

  16. Noy sure redbull have really thought this through. If Mercedes, Renault and ferrari all introduce new engines in 2022 are redbull just going to be using their 2021 engine? Honda won’t be spending anything on R&D so redbull are going to have to invest in their engine themselves. But im sure if redbull is off the pace they will lobby for balance of performance.

  17. The right side graph of lap time deficits really does a nice job of illustrating last season’s bunching of the midfield teams with Mercedes ahead and Red Bull stuck in no-mans-land between them.

  18. Yes. Mercedes have the clout to do anything they want in f1. Honda never publicly criticised an opponent until they questioned mercedes leap this past season. A couple months afterwards they announced their departure. I can see Honda like michelin not wanting to return to f1.

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