In 2014, an all new Formula One engine was introduced with an incredibly complex hybrid design meant to extract as much energy from gasoline as possible. An exhaust driven turbocharger has two jobs. One, it crams more air into the engine and two, it turns a generator to make electricity. Another system harvests heat from the engine to generate more electricity. And then even more electricity is recaptured from the rear wheels under braking. All that electricity is used to drive a motor that helps propel the car forward. The electronics controlling all that cramming and harvesting are insanely complicated.
All the teams and all the engine manufacturers agreed to this scheme way back in 2013. In fact, the idea was originally proposed by Renault, which has a long and proud history of building winning Formula One engines. To help control costs, everyone agreed the design of the new engines would be “frozen” at the start of the 2014 with only limited development allowed in 2015 and again in 2016.
Everything worked perfectly until the teams started winter testing in January of this year. That’s when Renault engines started blowing up every 5 laps and the Mercedes engines were found to have a 100 horsepower advantage over everyone else. The teams without Mercedes power immediately began crying foul and demanding the engine rules be unfrozen. Things went rapidly downhill from there.
The Mercedes team went on to win every race in 2014 except one. The buzz in Abu Dhabi for the last race this past Sunday should have been about who would win the World Driving Championship, but instead, most of the weekend was devoted to squabbling among the teams. Two teams have gone bankrupt this season and will be gone from the grid next year. Three more teams claim they are hemorrhaging money and on the brink of insolvency. The head promoter of the sport, Bernie Ecclestone, says that nobody watches anything online and his target market is people 70 years old and older. Meanwhile, TV ratings are plummeting and grandstands are often half full. Clearly, Formula One is in a mess and no one seems to know how to clean it up.
According to Race Car Engineer, Christian Horner, managing director of Red Bull Racing, has the answer. Having won the championship 4 years in a row, Red Bull is not happy that they only finished 2nd this year and they want something done about it. Horner’s idea is to rip up the current rules package and substitute something cheaper and less complicated. Specifically, he and Dr. Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s director of racing, want to ditch all that silly hybrid stuff and have just an engine, twin turbos instead of just one, and an auxiliary electric motor. In other words, they want something more like a Prius on steroids. They say the change is necessary to keep costs for the lesser teams under control.
Over at Mercedes, this idea has not been well received. It seems “all that silly hybrid stuff” is precisely where their horsepower advantage comes from. Officially. Mercedes spent more than $150 million on their new engine but rumors insist the actual figure is nearly three times that amount. So it’s not surprising they do not want to go back to the drawing boards and start all over again.
Toto Wolff, head of Mercedes Motorsport, argues, “Reversing everything, changing the format, changing the engines would just increase costs, it would be the opposite for what we need for Formula One at the current stage. We are all talking about costs and if you would open up the regulations in the way it has been described, that clearly means you don’t care about costs because that would be like digging a grave for Formula One.”
What’s going on here? Strip away all the posturing and finger pointing and it comes down to this. The current rules package allows the engine manufacturers to change 47% of their power units for 2015. That seems like a lot, right? But Renault says it will need to change 60 – 70% of its engine to catch up with Mercedes. Red Bull uses Renault engines. Red Bull wants to win. Their pleas for a relaxation of the engine freeze have been rebuffed and so they are trying an end run around the rules, claiming they are concerned about the costs the lesser teams have to pay to play the Formula One game.
The kicker in all this squabbling about costs is that Honda has just returned to Formula One. It will power the McLaren cars in 2015 and is willing to supply other teams after that. Rumors also continue to swirl about Volkswagen getting involved in Formula One soon with an Audi branded engine. The radical new hybrid engines Formula One agreed to for 2014 and beyond seem to appeal to car makers who want to use the sport to further their reputation for building ultra-efficient road cars.
Add it all up and the odds of the sport changing its mind again and going off in yet another new direction are slim to none.