A tactic Max Mosley used to great effect was to suggest or announce a change to the regulations so appalling that anything else he suggested, which would be what he had planned all along, would be accepted with relief. In the ‘nineties, he once announced two big changes to the forthcoming rules. One was what he wanted (all I can remember is it would have been contentious) and the other was to improve the racing by bringing out the safety-car to bunch up the field every time the race-leader was more than ten seconds ahead. At a meeting with the teams shortly after, Mosley agreed, probably after much argument, to drop the bunching idea, and the teams accepted his other proposal with minimum fuss.
2006 was the first year for the 2·6 litre V8 engines (back then Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault, BMW, Honda, Toyota, and Cosworth). FIA also mandated a long list of new highly constricting regulations on v-angle, length, weight, bore-size, cylinder-spacing, centre-of-gravity, permitted materials, and many other technological limitations. The intention was to make the engine design so restrictive and similar that manufacturers would not spend gargantuan amounts of money on development. Of course, the manufacturers spent gargantuan amounts of money development. Who would have guessed?
Mosley, with his never-ending and ever-failing quest to curb expenditure, announced that year his plans for a standard engine. The design and manufacture would be commissioned by FIA to provide affordable engines for all. The F1 manufacturers were offered the choice of either badging these engines or building their own to absolutely identical design and specification. Mosley did his all-innocence act of being puzzled how they could object to this and how all this massive spending nonsense could be avoided. Thus the manufacturers were persuaded to agree to an engine freeze, starting in 2007, based on the engines used for the 2006 Japanese GP.
Of course, some engines were more equal than others. Much has been written on this subject of how engine-suppliers were allowed modifications for reliability and cost reasons, yet miraculously these permitted changes by some bizarre inexplicable coincidence also improved the performance of the engines. I think we all remember Flavio Briatori’s indignation and sheer disbelief that this could happen when Renault had kept to the spirit of the rules (bless).
I would be fascinated to know how much has been spent by the engine-makers secretly conducting research and development on design improvements that can be passed off as being for reliability/cost purposes. FIA have year-by-year been further restricting the number of engines teams can use to save costs, which means more money has to be spent improving reliability, and provides the excuse for making ‘reliability’ improvements. The theory is that the less engines they use, the less it will cost, especially to customer teams, but the cost-per-engine is how much the manufacturer spends on its engine programme (including all the engines they build to test in the factory) divided by how many engines they make! Additionally, big money can be spent on fuel research, exhaust design and anything else that will eke an advantage. Yes, the performance difference that can be made is reduced but the restrictive technology (not just for engines) has seen reductions between teams so reduced that small differences have big effects on results. In short, all the rule changes for engines and everything else to restrict spending have never broken the immutable law of F1 that teams spend as much as they can get. (Eventually, even Max Mosley realised this and thus tried to bulldoze in the budget-cap but discovered just how immutable that law is.)
Last season, the perception was that Mercedes was the engine to have followed by Ferrari and Renault (ignoring the departing BMW). Engine advantage is not just about power and torque. An advantage of the Mercedes was it needed less cooling so radiators could be lighter and smaller enabling trimmer aerodynamics. The Ferrari seemed fast but thirsty on fuel. The Renault was believed to be more fuel-efficient but Red Bull rued its reliability issues.
To make the engine freeze appear even more meaningless, in March, Renault dropped hints via Red Bull’s Christian Horner that if they did not get a performance break, they might quit. At this point, it all becomes a bit NASCAR.
NASCAR is designed to let the manufacturers compete and take turns winning with relatively cheap costs. The new generation cars are the same for all manufacturers with little difference in engines. Before that, NASCAR banned anything they did not like as they went along so there was little point spending money on fancy technology. If Chevrolet in the past introduced a new model that was slightly faster, Ford would whine and whine until about six races in, they would be allowed a minor change to their spoiler and equality would be restored.
The Renault incident seems to suggest that this is now the status quo in F1 for engines, especially with only three manufacturers left plus Cosworth for the poor teams. Persuade FIA a little help is needed, whine enough, and a little catch up is enabled. In the current economic conditions, when the engine-makers and teams are spending less because they have less, this may be a good thing. However, it is certainly this blogger’s opinion that once the economic conditions improve (I hope by 2013 for the new engine rules), that this farcical engine ‘freeze’ is abolished and proper competition returned.
The latest development is Ferrari have been given permission to tweak their engines to solve their recent engine reliability woes. The puzzling thing is that if there is an engine freeze, how come the Ferrari engines are not just as reliable as last year?
The other big engine story is the return of KERS for 2011 being pushed for by FOTA. This is led by Ferrari and Renault with their roadcar companies wanting the green credentials. Obviously, this is a huge u-turn from agreeing not to run it this season but two out of three manufacturers is a lot of clout.
Possibility one is Ferrari will supply their system for their customer teams, Renault will supply others whilst McLaren and perhaps Williams will use their own systems. With fuel tanks being three times the size, putting the KERS behind the driver as current regulations dictate would be tricky. Williams have pointed out their bulkier flywheel system would have to go somewhere else. Part of the plan is to increase the KERS power allowance but even so, especially with the bigger fuel tanks, not all teams will be keen. Of course, it could be made compulsory.
Possibility two is a standard system supplied by Flybrid. With Williams investing heavily in KERS flywheel technology to market outside Formula One, being supplied by a direct rival would surely sting. Flybrid have a deal to supply their technology to Jaguar, and have won a British Engineering Excellence award for their innovative mechanical flywheel KERS unit. It has been shown to work to a high standard on the test-bench. My doubt is will it stand up to the rigors of operating in the harsh enviroment of an F1 car? Will their clever CVT system combined with a fixed-gear-ratio transmission, clutch and power-axle protruding into the vacuum chamber containing the up to 40,000 rpm flywheel stand up to being heavily bashed around for 200 miles?
It seems possible and best KERS be deferred to 2013 when it can be given piles of power allowance in tandem with smaller, efficient engines. It is easily argued disposable battery KERS is less environmental than not using KERS, but also that if development lessons are learned, they could be applied to road-cars using more sustainably rechargeable batteries that look likely to be around in not too many years. However, that only applies if development competition is allowed. Stipulate a standard system as compulsory, it will be as environmental as the green paint on the Bridgestone tyres.
One thing that interests me is the idea environmentalists will turn on Formula One thus it is imperative to make the sport greener (or at least pay lip-service) before they do. I have yet to hear of such eco-campaigners’ protests. Yes, they object to Chelsea tractors, outdoor heaters, casual air travel and other excessive wastes of world resources that belch greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but I do believe they understand that since so many hundreds of millions enjoy Formula One, the petrol the cars use is not disproportionate.