Reports surfaced last week suggesting that a new Formula One engine rules package is under consideration. The current engine rules expire at the end of the 2020 season. Ross Brawn, former team owner and now technical consultant for the sport, says, “Before we think about a sustainable car concept for Formula One, the engine must be clarified. Everything else depends on it.”
In the existing rules package, a 1.6 liter V-6 engine is just one pieces of the powertrain puzzle. A turbocharger is used to boost its power. An electric motor adds more power. Electricity for the motor is supplied by a battery which is charged in two ways. First, the motor becomes a generator during deceleration, much the way regen braking works on most modern hybrids. Second, a device known at the Motor Generating Unit – Head (MGU-H) harvesting electricity from the heat of the turbocharger.
The current rules result in a powertrain package that is incredibly complex and insanely expensive. Mercedes is rumored to have invested as much as $500 million developing its power unit. The sport’s leaders want the cars to be “road relevant,” but does the average fan want to watch cars that are “road relevant?” Isn’t that what the Mobil Fuel Economy run is for? One reason to push the “road relevant” strategy is to get more manufacturers involved in the sport but the high cost has kept most of them away.
FIA president Jean Todt held a meeting last week with all the team principals plus a number of potential engine suppliers including Audi to talk about what the next engine rules should be. Todt says he wants to make next the next power units “simpler, cheaper and louder.” Michael Schmidt, lead motorsports reporter for Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport reports the leading candidate is a twin turbo V-6 making about 1,200 horsepower. That would be 200 horsepower than the current power trains.
The Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) — the combination of the battery and electric motor used today — will remain but the MGU-H will no longer be part of the package. Few people will miss it. The heat harvesting technology is the critical component that has made Mercedes so dominant in recent years and caused enormous headaches for other engine manufacturers. Schmidt reports it is also possible that the batteries and turbochargers may be standardized. Using one component from one supplier for all the teams helps save money but it also moves the sport closer to being the spec racing series everyone wants to avoid.
Why is the MGU-H being deleted? Former F1 driver Marc Surer says, “We have two problems. First, the FIA does not want to abandon hybrid engines. But the single turbo removes the sound. The single biggest problem with F1 at the moment is the sound and this is simply not solvable with one big turbo. We need two turbos. But then it becomes technically difficult to get energy from the exhaust. So the FIA may need to sacrifice the MHU-H and offer the fans a better sound.”
I can speak personally about the sound of the current cars. I have been to many Formula One races in the past and ear plugs were always required to avoid damaged ear drums. Last September I was in Monza and seated at the very end of the long straight leading to the Parabolica. The cars were at maximum power as they went by but I kept my ear plugs in my pocket. The cars just weren’t loud enough to make using them necessary.
Formula One is at a crossroads and trying to figure out what it wants to be in the future. New commercial rights holder Liberty Media obviously wants to make the racing more exciting so it can maximize its return on investment. It wants to add concerts and balloons and circus acts to entertain the fans. But what do the fans want?
Speaking strictly for myself, I want to see passing. Not slipping by while others are in the pits, actual on track, wheel to wheel racing. That is what makes our hearts beat faster. And I want shrieking engines that joggle up my gizzards as they roar by. As I am writing this, the Shanghai grand prix is underway. Sebastien Vettel jus forced his way past his old teammate, Smilin’ Dan Ricciardo. The two went wheel to wheel out of a corner, racing each other as hard as they could. Their tires actually touched briefly, sending a cloud of tire smoke into the air.
The crowd roared it’s approval. The announcers all declared it the move of the race and said that was what the fans wanted to see. I couldn’t agree more. Note to Liberty Media, Jean Todt, and Ross Brawn. We don’t give a damn about fireworks, concerts, or aging celebrities prancing around the paddock. We want to see drivers letting it all hang out in an effort to get to the checkered flag first. Keep your aero, your MGU-H, and your carbon fiber brakes that couldn’t stop a Radio Flyer wagon until they get to 1200º C core temperature.
The next meeting of team bosses will discuss improving passing opportunities. Here’s what I would say if I were invited to that meeting. Give us on track, wheel to wheel racing and plenty of it. Please.