The en­gine du­op­oly that un­der­mines F1


Thus F1 nds it­self held to ran­som by just two sup­pli­ers: Mercedes and Fer­rari. That sit­u­a­tion is made all the more crit­i­cal by both oper­a­tions hav­ing par­ent com­pa­nies with the nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal clout to dic­tate terms. And make no mis­take: they do. Dur­ing those six in­ter­ven­ing years en­gine prices have shot up 300 per cent, al­beit for what are, ad­mit­tedly, exquisitely crafted, green tech­no­log­i­cal mas­ter­pieces, while test­ing has been slashed to a third of 2009 quo­tas.

The tragedy is that F1 should have an­tic­i­pated it af­ter the man­u­fac­turer ex­o­dus of 2009. But, rather than en­cour­ag­ing in­de­pen­dent en­gine sup­pli­ers to join, it typ­i­cally put short-term ex­pe­di­ency ahead of long-term strate­gic plan­ning. Cos­worth’s re­turn was brief, af­ter they pro­duced an en­gine to suit a bud­get-cap regime that never ma­te­ri­alised. F1’s mas­ters then formed the ‘Strat­egy Group’, offering prime seats on board to those very en­ti­ties able to rock the boat.

That said, F1 ap­pears to have adopted some rather ex­treme mea­sures to alien­ate it­self from cur­rent and prospec­tive sup­pli­ers, since the sport’s com­mer­cial rights holder has been openly crit­i­cal of both the sound and tech­nol­ogy of en­gines that cost their makers up­wards of £100m an­nu­ally to sup­ply and ser­vice, and three times that to de­velop.

Folk speak wist­fully of the era when Cos­worth sup­plied 90 per cent of the grid with their leg­endary V8s. Bernie Ec­cle­stone’s Brab­ham team, for ex­am­ple, won the 1981 ti­tle with th­ese units, and he has said he be­lieves a re­turn to com­mer­cially avail­able power units for in­de­pen­dent teams could be the so­lu­tion.

This, though, over­looks one salient fact: Ford bankrolled and sub­sidised the en­gine, bas­ing its ‘Win on Sun­day; sell on Mon­day’ prod­uct cam­paigns around F1 (and other mo­tor­sport) suc­cess. With­out such back­ing, no in­de­pen­dent en­gine com­pany could sup­ply units to the grid with­out in­cur­ring enor­mous losses.

This mat­ter strikes at the very core of F1’s hy­brid en­gine con­cept, de­signed to at­tract man­u­fac­tur­ers – not alien­ate them. Why has there been so lit­tle in­ter­est at this level? True, there was talk that Audi may en­ter the fray, but the mere fact that F1 may have been on the Ger­man brand’s radar does not im­ply it will hit the grid, diesel-emis­sions scan­dal or not. Af­ter all, one of the con­cepts re­cently pushed by Audi is a lu­nar ve­hi­cle in­cor­po­rat­ing e-tron/ quat­tro tech­nolo­gies, yet it does not fol­low that the four-ringed logo will adorn ag­ship deal­ers on the Moon or Mars any time soon…

How­ever, back­ers need not nec­es­sar­ily be mo­tor com­pa­nies, sim­ply en­ti­ties with the de­sire to pro­mote their brands us­ing F1’s enor­mous global plat­form. Peter Sauber blazed the trail with Petronas brand­ing, fol­lowed by Alain Prost with Acer – al­beit both with Fer­rari en­gines – so the con­cept has suc­cess­ful form. In­deed, as they proved, oth­er­wise iden­ti­cal units could well carry dif­fer­ent badg­ing – this hav­ing been PURE’s busi­ness model.

And yet part­ners are in­creas­ingly re­luc­tant to em­brace the sport, as McLaren can at­test. They have sought ti­tle spon­sors for two years now and, again, F1’s com­mer­cial con­trollers must ques­tion why brands con­spic­u­ously avoid adorn­ing the anks of grand prix rac­ing cars.

There must be good rea­son, and it is likely to be re­lated to re­cent de­crees (sup­port­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion for which has been seen by this au­thor) that garage back­drops are not to be tele­vised if they bear brand­ing, or to the trend to­wards se­lec­tive cov­er­age of dom­i­nant teams. Add in con­stant crit­i­cism from up high, and is there any won­der so few brands wish to en­ter F1 as en­gine sup­pli­ers or badg­ing part­ners?

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