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Di­eter Rencken on en­gine deals

For­mula 1: it’s all about power, not least when it comes to the power units them­selves. Teams’ ac­cess to them, reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing their devel­op­ment and their cost and spec­i­fi­ca­tion have been the source of some of the sport’s most bit­ter fights. The FIA, aware of these strug­gles and their po­ten­tial to rip F1 apart, last year in­tro­duced re­vised pro­ce­dures to reg­u­late en­gine sup­ply and costs and un­freeze devel­op­ment. This last pro­vi­sion was in­tended to help Honda ac­cel­er­ate their lag­gardly per­for­mance devel­op­ment curve.

Ar­ti­cle 8.3 of the Sport­ing Reg­u­la­tions stops sub­sidiaries of ma­jor mo­tor man­u­fac­tur­ers from sup­ply­ing more than three cus­tomer teams (in-house op­er­a­tions, as separate le­gal en­ti­ties, are deemed ‘cus­tomers’). A re­vi­sion, known as Ap­pendix 9, goes a step fur­ther: teams are re­quired to nom­i­nate their power-unit part­ners by 1 May for the fol­low­ing sea­son.

Should any teams be with­out a will­ing sup­plier by 1 June, the FIA can di­rect the man­u­fac­turer sup­ply­ing the fewest teams to sup­ply power units to any other teams at the stip­u­lated price, and un­der the terms of Ap­pendix 9. An el­e­gant so­lu­tion to a po­ten­tially thorny is­sue? Ap­par­ently so, un­til all teams nom­i­nated their 2018 powerunit sup­pli­ers and ma­jor cracks started to ap­pear.

The first of these showed up at Sauber, who, hav­ing nom­i­nated Honda by the due date, af­ter drop­ping long-stand­ing en­gine part­ner Fer­rari, split with team prin­ci­pal Mon­isha Kal­tenborn. She had ar­ranged the 2018 Honda deal, along with a con­cur­rent sup­ply of McLaren gear­boxes, but Sauber’s own­ers – the Swiss Long­bow Fi­nance con­sor­tium, funded pre­dom­i­nantly by Swedish money – im­me­di­ately be­gan to ex­press doubts about a Sauber-Honda part­ner­ship.

Long­bow chair­man Pas­cal Picci’s reser­va­tions were echoed by new team prin­ci­pal Frédéric Vasseur. The word was that Sauber pre­ferred any power unit other than Honda, with Fer­rari top­ping their wish list, fol­lowed by Mercedes and Re­nault – all of whom cur­rently sup­ply three teams.

Then, on the Thurs­day be­fore the Hun­gar­ian Grand Prix, it was an­nounced that the deal was off, with Honda’s gen­eral man­ager Masashi Ya­mamoto cit­ing “dif­fer­ences in the fu­ture di­rec­tions” be­tween sup­plier and team. Vasseur added that “this de­ci­sion has been made for strate­gic rea­sons, and with the best in­tent for the fu­ture of the Sauber F1 team in mind”.

McLaren also want out of their Honda deal, and are said to have writ­ten to the FIA to ask about the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of switch­ing sup­pli­ers. Mercedes are be­lieved to be top of their list and Fer­rari seem the most un­likely, given their ri­valry in the sportscar mar­ket. Thus, within two months of the nom­i­na­tion date, two teams have re­quested ex­emp­tions from Ar­ti­cle 8.3 and Ap­pendix 9. If both are granted, the con­ces­sions could leave the FIA open to lit­i­ga­tion from teams who stand to lose out to a Mercedes-pow­ered McLaren.

It’s not un­rea­son­able to as­sume that a McLaren-Mercedes pi­loted by dou­ble world cham­pion Fer­nando Alonso might beat a Mer­cpow­ered Force In­dia or Wil­liams-Mercedes – re­gard­less of driver – par­tic­u­larly since McLaren en­joy sub­stan­tial bud­getary ad­van­tages as a di­rect re­sult of the sport’s in­equitable rev­enue struc­tures. Any team dis­placed by an em­pow­ered McLaren-Mercedes could face a loss of up to $40m in their earn­ings from the con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship, so they could hardly be blamed for seek­ing to block any con­ces­sions. Nor could the FIA be faulted for be­ing con­cerned about the reper­cus­sions of le­gal ac­tion dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year. It seems as though pre­sent in­cum­bent Jean Todt will sail through un­op­posed, but he likes to keep mat­ters tidy.

It’s no co­in­ci­dence that the FIA took the un­usual step of mak­ing a last-minute change to its Aus­trian GP Fri­day press con­fer­ence line-up, to in­clude McLaren, Honda and Sauber. As ex­pected, all three pub­licly pledged their re­spec­tive al­le­giances; that said, F1 con­tracts are known to be about as elas­tic as bungee rub­ber – and this time the cord would snap with in­evitable con­se­quences…

And the en­gine ru­mour mill con­tin­ues to grind on: Scud­e­ria Toro Rosso are said to be in ne­go­ti­a­tions with Honda, a sug­ges­tion that makes lit­tle ap­par­ent sense given the ad­van­tages STR en­joy by shar­ing en­gine sup­ply with sis­ter team Red Bull.

Dur­ing these wran­glings one sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor has been over­looked: every power unit re­quires a com­pat­i­ble gear­box, and there are no reg­u­la­tions cov­er­ing trans­mis­sion sup­ply. Ap­pendix 10, any­one?

Sauber have with­drawn from their Honda en­gine deal for 2018; McLaren might like to do the same

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