Dieter Rencken on engine costs
Formula 1’s current engine formula took six years to not finalise. Conceived by the Max Mosley administration in 2008 and slated for introduction in 2013, it was delayed until 2014 because the goalposts moved after Mosley’s departure. In the process, the architecture switched from inline-4 to V6 and certain ‘performance-differentiating’ technologies were dropped in the interests of cost saving. Yet this has proved to be the most expensive power unit change in F1 history, while post-2014 changes to the concept have opened the door to it becoming more costly still.
The ‘hard hybrid’ (as opposed to the ‘soft’ KERS-supplemented V8s) 1,600cc turbo formula was intended to appeal to and appease the fears of the six car manufacturers (plus Cosworth) then in F1. There were high expectations, too, that a more road-relevant engine concept would entice VW and a Korean brand to enter the sport.
As it transpired, the hoped-for entrants stayed away and half the manufacturers (plus Cosworth) walked, leaving Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault, with Honda making an awkward return a year after the delayed switch to hybrids. Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone had failed to force commitments to compete from manufacturers, and so a concept aimed at road relevance was introduced without most of them.
In 2011, Ferrari and Mercedes insisted on a switch to V6s on the basis that they had no plans to build high-performance inline-4 road-car engines, and therefore there was no marketing kudos. Mercedes, though, now pride themselves on offering the most powerful inline-4 2.0-litre turbo in the industry…
The current formula expires at the end of 2020, prompting the FIA to convene a meeting of F1 engine manufacturers (non-competitors were also invited) to consider what comes next. The meeting, held at the end of March in Paris, was attended by representatives from the FIA, FOM, Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault, Honda, VW and Alfa Romeo, plus independent engineer Mario Ilien.
So far so good, save that no independent teams, who pay through the nose for the exquisite power units the manufacturers provide, were represented. Yes, manufacturers are well placed to frame the technical specifications of whatever formula is adopted, but what use are fancy gizmos if they put half the grid out of business?
Manufacturer priorities are simple: an engineering platform that combines a test bed for road-car technologies with a performancebased marketing pedestal that provides a measure of product relevance. Budgets are immaterial, for once brands are committed to the public spectacle that is Formula 1 they spend whatever it takes to be successful, or face ridicule. Hence engine department headcounts of 600-plus.
Contrast that with the independent team wish list: cheap, reliable engines with 70kW more than the rest (or, at the very least, power parity), preferably not only supplied free of charge by manufacturers, but accompanied by substantial marketing budgets – in other words, being paid by manufacturers to race with the best engine on the grid. That is just how Williams and Benetton won their titles.
A pipe dream? Seemingly so, for not even McLaren or Red Bull Racing achieve that via their Honda and Renault partnerships. While all commercial boxes are ticked by McLaren’s deal, the power unit is the laughing stock of the field; Red Bull have access to a reasonable engine, although the team cover power-unit costs through a badging deal with TAG Heuer.
Force India, fourth in the 2016 standings, pay full price ($25m) for their supply of Merc units, thus cars and kit do not feature the three-pointed star. The costs are covered by a pink livery deal with water company BWT, which illustrates the lengths independents go to in their quest for budget.
Ultimately, there is a disconnect between the manufacturers and their customers, the independent teams. Hence the presence of Ilien at the engine meeting is a positive sign, for ideally F1 needs an independent engine company to keep the manufacturers honest. However, as Cosworth and Craig Pollock’s PURE project engine company can attest, independent suppliers were ‘involved’ last time round, and where are they now?
The wonder is that all parties are considering a change of engine formula. The staggering development costs for the current engine have now largely been amortised, while the units themselves are mostly reliable despite outputs of close to 750kW. They are also super-economical, consuming half the energy for a given lap time when directly compared with the old-iron V8s. Talk about road relevant.
Surely the answer is to retain the present architecture, but simplify the more sophisticated hybrid systems. That would enable prices to be dropped to around $11m per two-car annual supply, which was the target all along.
By 2020, the ‘new’ F1 V6 PU could be sidelined