ENGINE DEALS THAT GO OVER THE RED LINE
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