Graham Keilloh  |    14 March 2017

F1's engine conundrum - what will power the future of the sport?


In F1’s new world of Liberty everything it seems is up for grabs. Even things you might not have expected in the first instance. The sport has radical new chassis regulations for this year but the new order it seems are already looking beyond them. And similar applies to the engines, even though theoretically they are set in stone until 2020. The debate over whither, and more to the point whether, the current hybrid power units has started early.

Often it is of the loud variety as well, in more ways than one. Many are lobbying for the return of screeching normally-aspirated V8s, perhaps even to what we had before those with the V10s or V12s.

It’s understandable too. As was argued in strong terms by Jonathan Noble recently, many in and around the sport have struggled to love the hybrids since their introduction in 2014. “Since the hybrids appeared,” said Noble, “barely a race has gone past without some form of criticism about what they have done to F1 – be it the lack of noise, crazy grid penalties, the inability of drivers to push hard in races because of fuel management, or the fact that Mercedes has maintained such a power advantage for three years now.”

And even I as an enthusiast for the hybrid formula recognise the grave errors in the detail at least. These include excessive complexity and as a result cost (a consequence apparently of letting engineers go hog wild drafting the regulations), and development restriction that cut in too early and too severely, with the negative impact on ‘the show’ that Noble described.

Since the hybrids appeared, barely a race has gone past without some form of criticism about what they have done to F1

Worse however the hybrid formula, designed to attract manufacturers, isn’t fulfilling its raison d’etre. Yes the three suppliers that were there anyway have hung around, and have since been joined by another. Yet it seems meagre and no other supplier is on the horizon from what we can tell. And we can surmise why. The cost and low likelihood of competitiveness as a newcomer (as ably demonstrated by Honda) are barriers. But neither are the main one. That gets even closer to what the hybrid formula was supposed to achieve. The precise reason it was predicted to attract car manufacturers is that it was thought they wanted to develop ‘green’ hybrid technology for their vehicles that end up in the showroom. And there’s reason to think that one now has moved on.

As Dieter Rencken observed when visiting last year’s Geneva International Motor Show, while F1 references were thin on the ground any number of manufacturers were at pains to flaunt their connection with the new-ish all-electric motorsport category, Formula E.

They’re voting with their feet too. “In 2016/7, the number of manufacturers represented on FE grids (Renault, DS, Audi, VW, NEXTEV, Mahindra, Jaguar, with Nissan possibly joining off the back of alliance partner Renault) could outnumber automotive brands currently in F1 by eight to five, if, that is, one views McLaren-Honda as two entities,” noted Rencken.

And while there is by no means unanimity on where the automotive technology of choice will go (another problem for F1 trying to follow it – and heck even driverless cars are mooted) the consensus now is that it is looking beyond the hybrid to go full electric. And the resultant conundrum brings us to the core of what F1 wants to be – does the technology not matter much so long as the racing is good? Or should F1, to coin the old phrase, also in some part be about ‘improving the breed’?

The consensus now is that the road industry is looking beyond the hybrid to go full electric. And the resultant conundrum brings us to the core of what F1 wants to be – does the technology not matter much so long as the racing is good? Or should F1, to coin the old phrase, also in some part be about ‘improving the breed’?

Right now the solution for plenty is glaring – F1 should give in on trying to please road car manufacturers, as with what has been described that is now a blind alley. Instead it should seek to please itself.

“It’s pretty obvious F1 can’t be following the automotive industry down that route,” said Mark Hughes last year. “Driverless race cars with hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric motors? And who’s going to come and watch them? Why?

“The road car industry’s technology direction is soon about to snap itself away from anything that F1 – and indeed motor racing in general – can follow in any meaningful way.”

We can add too that even if F1 did want to go down the all-electric route it’ll find that FE already has planted its flag firmly in it.

The case can be made that despite everything the current F1 hybrid is much greener than the lauded electric vehicles. Certainly the green-ness of electric cars depends a lot on the source of that electricity, and many countries remain highly dependent on coal and oil fired power stations (for example at least two-thirds of the US’s electricity comes from them). Yet one wonders how likely F1 is to win that argument, especially after all its agonising about the hybrid units.

The road car industry’s technology direction is soon about to snap itself away from anything that F1 – and indeed motor racing in general – can follow in any meaningful way...F1’s future probably needs to be loud, lairy and normally-aspirated - Mark Hughes

“F1’s future probably needs to be loud, lairy and normally-aspirated,” Hughes continued. “Sure, stick some energy recovery on from the brakes to the battery, try to keep those torque levels up. But if it’s no longer able to contribute, then let it be happy that it played its part contributing towards the common good and is now free to be itself once more.”

Peter Windsor has argued further that F1 should do something akin to GP2 (or now F2) and have a single spec engine supplied perhaps by Ferrari. “My view is that any old engine will do so long as the racing’s good – within reason of course, we don’t want GP2 to be lapping within a second of Formula One obviously,” he said late in 2015.

“If GP2 was Formula One…let’s say they were all running Ferrari engines instead of the engine they have, and all the teams were different colours, and we had all the stars in there, would the fans be that turned off by it all if the racing was unbelievably close?

“There’s still a big difference between DAMS and Trident [in GP2], the character of those teams is completely different.”

It would have much going for it. Many of the sport’s cost problems would be relieved, the sport wouldn’t be held to ransom by engine suppliers as it threatened to be 12 months ago, and we’d benefit presumably from a more competitive field that would be in sharp contrast to the recent Merc dominance. It might even be akin to the 1970s when loosely speaking everyone other that the Ferraris had a Cosworth DFV – a competitive engine that they could purchase cheaply. And that era now is viewed as a high point of F1 racing.

Let’s say they were all running Ferrari engines instead of the engine they have, and all the teams were different colours, and we had all the stars in there, would the fans be that turned off by it all if the racing was unbelievably close? - Peter Windsor

But the same 1970s contain a warning. Read contemporary accounts from the end of that decade and you’ll find widespread complaint about F1 cars that are slow in straight line, uninteresting as they all make the same noise, and a sport that had become stale. I don’t recall widespread love for the V8s at the end of their time either. At the very least, as with most F1 ‘solutions’ we should not assume it’ll be a panacea.

Ditching the sport’s manufacturers also is not something to be done lightly, as Ross Brawn reminded us recently. “We have to respect the amount the manufacturers have invested in Formula One and the engines,” he noted. “It’s huge investment and not that sort of thing you can write off”. Though it’s been argued on the flipside that in Windsor’s scenario there’s nothing to stop manufacturers coming in as sponsors, even to badge the spec engines.

The FIA president Jean Todt however set his stall firmly against a V8 (or V10 or V12) return, stating that the old units “will not be accepted by society”. Plenty scoffed at this, asking among other things what society’s sensibilities have got to do with anything. But Todt on a certain level has a point.

We should not underestimate how vulnerable F1 would be in that situation should the gargantuan environmental lobby turn its fire onto them. F1 would be the softest of targets for Governments and any other number of influential organisations and lobbies. Joe Saward described F1 with the old engines as “a sitting duck for anyone who wants to hit us” and “the poster boy of the old era”. Pat Symonds on the eve of the F1 hybrid era concurred. “I think that it was important that we were never seen to be socially unacceptable in motorsport,” he said then, “and I think if we’d done nothing there would have been a faction that would have said ‘this is wrong, this is harming the planet’…you wouldn’t walk down King’s Road wearing a fur coat now would you?”

Certainly the sport has changed over time in this regard, as no longer can it be entirely secure within its own bubble. As a mass-consumed and intricately inter-connected event it is linked inevitably to the world beyond the circuit’s perimeter fence. This was brought home – albeit on a different subject – after Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident in early 1994. The contrast with, say, the death of Jim Clark just over a quarter century earlier, or even Gilles Villeneuve’s death just over a decade earlier, was night and day.

I think that it was important that we were never seen to be socially unacceptable in motorsport, and I think if we’d done nothing there would have been a faction that would have said ‘this is wrong, this is harming the planet’…you wouldn’t walk down King’s Road wearing a fur coat now would you? - Pat Symonds

With Jimmy and Gilles as with many others it had been as Nigel Roebuck described “accepted as an inevitable, if regrettable, occurrence in what was a dangerous sport”. Loosely speaking the sport continued as it was after each tragedy too. Not so with Ayrton’s death. In the weeks after Imola 1994 faced with extraordinary sustained screeching about a ‘killer sport’ F1 feared genuinely for its very survival. Little wonder Todt – who of course was involved in F1 at the time – is wary.

“Would that [going back to loud normally-aspirated engines] result in F1 being perceived as socially unacceptable?” asked Hughes, pre-empting the point. “Well, maybe it needs a certain outlaw rebellion spirit.” One might even point at the incongruous success of Clarkson, Hammond and May in that ilk. But then again even they with their success, popularity and resultant plentiful cash cow ended up being shunned by the TV mainstream.

F1 therefore needs to tread carefully. As Hughes suggested even so we could retain energy recovery; it’s worth reflecting that it is in many ways very F1 and indeed Adrian Newey came up with something like it a few years before F1 instituted it (although then Max Mosley shot it down in flames). As Symonds has pointed out too if society’s emphasis these days is on efficiency then F1, even in the V8 era, is all about efficiency, getting the most out of every drop of fuel and every milligram of weight, and this surely is highly relevant. A spec engine formula could promote that even more acutely: “We’ve always struggled to find power but we find it through efficiency,” Symonds explained of the V8s. This all could help as a defence mechanism.

But as ever the solutions aren’t quite as straightforward as they appear on initial contact. Perhaps it’s just as well we’ve got a few years to think about it.



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