THIS F1 LIFE
WHAT NEXT FOR THE FORCES THAT POWER F1?
Pat Symonds on PUs of the future
Once again we have come to that point in the regulatory cycle when thoughts turn to the next power unit. The previous naturally aspirated V8 had a lifespan that ran from 2006 until the end of 2013. Eight years seems a reasonable life for an engine design, so now it is time to consider what will replace today’s highly sophisticated hybrids.
Various factors, not least the expiry of current commercial agreements at the end of 2020, have determined that the next power unit should appear for the 2021 season. Current engines have attracted more negativity than they deserve. Yes, they are complicated, but their sophistication and efficiency would not have been possible without complexity. The decisions to downsize the engines and bring back the power of the internal combustion engine through turbocharging, while adding significant hybrid electrical capacity, has mirrored much of what is going on in the auto industry. While the incredible efficiency that has been achieved has perhaps not attracted the publicity it should have done, I think most fans are aware that the race-fuel consumption is around two-thirds of what it was in 2013, while maintaining similar levels of performance.
There have been further criticisms. Much was made of the lack of sound, which wasn’t surprising given that this is a low-revving, downsized turbocharged engine. Next, the expense of the engines became a focus. Some of this latter criticism is unjustified: total engine bills have risen, but not for the obvious reasons. In 2006, the V8 engine had a unit cost of just over $700,000 and, over a season, each car used eight of them. Add in the inevitable cost of support including trackside engineers and freight, and it’s clear that a typical engine bill of $20 million for a two-car team merely covered the incremental cost of supply and support.
The cost of the power unit has since risen to around $1.5m. However, this is offset by the fact that in 2017 a driver may only use four power units, and, in 2018, this will drop to three. At that point, the hardware cost of power units for the racing season is very similar to the cost of a supply of the V8 engine. Yet even with the cooperation of the power-unit suppliers, who, at the behest of the FIA, have pared back their originally contracted receipts by several million, the cost of supply is still above that of the old V8s.
In order to understand why, we need to accept that the business model has changed and manufacturers are no longer prepared to absorb all development costs within their own teams while supplying customers at an incremental cost. The new way of doing things sees the manufacturers passing on some of the cost of development of the current engines. The amount passed on appears to vary between the different manufacturers and true figures are hard to come by, but for 2018 the regulations dictate a price of $24m, a figure that once again approaches incremental cost.
That may seem a huge sum, but F1 is not a cheap sport and for a mid-sized team this represents perhaps ten to 12 per cent of its budget. The power unit embodies a significant part of the overall package and personally I don’t feel that this cost is totally unreasonable. In the late 1990s at Benetton, our engine bill was around $35m and at the end of the season we got an additional bill because we had exceeded the agreed testing mileage. Of course in those days we might well use one engine on Friday, two
The high-downforce 2017 cars seem underpowered despite the engines producing in excess of 670kW