Disagreement over F1’s next engine formula
By Mat Coch
Saturday 24th July, 2021 - 8:30am
Discussions surrounding the next generation of Formula 1 power unit have sparked fierce debate within the paddock over how and where the sport should position itself going forward.
New regulations are due in 2025, with work currently underway on bedding down exactly what shape they will take, a process complicated by the input of existing and prospective stakeholders and their own vested interests and priorities.
Fundamentally, it’s widely agreed that costs need to be carefully managed and the unit needs to be cutting edge, but beyond that there is little cohesion between the major players.
Red Bull’s Christian Horner has suggested a return to high-revving internal combustion engines arguing that, provided the sport appeals to fans, it will continue to attract sponsors.
By contrast, Mercedes’ Toto Wolff is lobbying for greater electrification with a focus on maximising the engagement from manufacturers.
While both have merits, distilling them down to a workable compromise will be a sizeable endeavour.
Earlier this month, a meeting was held over the Austrian Grand Prix weekend with representatives from incumbent powertrain suppliers Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull (which will take over from Honda at year’s end), Renault, joined by other interested parties not currently involved in F1.
“It was a constructive meeting,” said Horner, who was one of those in attendance.
“It was an interesting meeting because you’ve got several different ideals with the incumbent manufacturers, potential new manufacturers, independent manufacturers, that Red Bull effectively will be.
“Where everybody was unified was they want something that gets cost under control, is sending the right message, delivering the right emotion.
“Sound, for example, is extremely important, or certainly was for us, and there’s varied ways to be able to achieve that.”
Cost control was a key element discussed, a point Horner noted was missed when the current engine regulations were drawn up ahead of their introduction in 2014.
With F1 now operating to cost cap regulations, teams and manufacturers are keen to see similar limitations put in place when it comes to engine development.
“In the past, we’ve operated under no umbrella in terms of cost,” explained Wolff.
“Now that it has been implemented with on the chassis side, I think it’s the logical way forward to do the same on the power unit side.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but we need to increase the electric power because this is where the world is going,” he added.
“The major point is that there will be millions and millions of vehicles on the streets for a long time and I think we can really help because the fastest laboratory in the world to develop sustainable fuels with our fuel and oil partners.
“And that is really the big differential, that even though we will be running internal combustion engines, they are going to be fuelled by high-tech fuel.”
Renault holds a similar view to that of Mercedes, in that whatever comes next needs to reflect the automotive industry.
“The reality is there’s a number of objectives, a number of boxes we’re trying to tick, and they’re difficult in terms of compromise to find,” said Marcin Budkowski, executive director at Alpine.
“At the end of the day, if we want manufacturers just to be involved in a sport, they need to have a story to tell and a technology that is relevant.
“But also cost is a factor,” he added.
“We know that this generation of engine is an expensive technology, it’s a fantastic technology, but it’s an expensive one.
“So cheaper, road relevant, more sustainable, because they’re completely part of the relevance, and exciting for the fans.
“That’s the compromise we’re trying to find, and it’s not easy.”
Highlighting the difference of opinions was Horner’s view that the sport should return to high-revving internal combustion engines.
The current formula produces a muted engine note, a far cry from the screaming V10s of the early 2000s which remain a fan favourite.
“The future of the combustion engine certainly feels like it’s limited in certain areas,” he said.
“If you take that to its extreme, and if by 2035 everybody’s going to be driving an electric car, what does Formula 1 become by then?
“Obviously, we’ve got an interim period between now and that point, but that’s why I feel we’re very much at a crossroads where we need to decide what is right for the sport.
“When you hear Fernando Alonso running his V10 around Abu Dhabi, the emotion and noise is still, for me, such a key factor that is missing from the sport.
“We need to turn the volume up, we need to do it in a responsible manner, in a cost effective manner in, a way that’s sustainable, that’s environmentally friendly, but it needs to be entertainment.”
Wolff countered: “I would disagree with Christian because it’s what we think, but we are not the most relevant generation anymore.
“When you ask an 18-year-old or 22-year-old what relevance noise is, most of these guys consume it via different screens where noise has little or no relevance.
“I’d like to have a 12 cylinder that screams down the street, the road, but as a matter of fact we are sport and we are a business.
“I think we would lose complete relevance with our partners, sponsors, and major stakeholders if we weren’t looking at the environment and the impact that that that we that we make.”
Sitting somewhere in the middle is McLaren’s Zak Brown who, as a customer of Mercedes, was not at the meeting.
The American hails from the marketing world prior to his role with McLaren, and is therefore in touch with how the sponsorship market thinks.
“What’s most important is that Formula 1 is sustainable, and you can get there a variety of different ways,” he volunteered.
“I do not think sponsors, as long as Formula 1 is sustainable, are concerned over how you get to sustainability.
“So if it’s in an ICE (internal combustion engine) unit with sustainable fuels, or if it’s electric, or hybrid, or what, the important thing is that Formula 1 is leading edge technology.
“I think what you heard there was more of you have an OEM, who probably wants the sustainability element to be consistent with how they go to market,” he said of the debate between Wolff and Horner.
“So I think you’ve got two different opinions there, but if the question is do I think fans and corporate partners would be turned off if Formula 1 was sustainable, but in a technology direction that was maybe different than the automotive industry, I do not think corporate partners and the fans would mind at all.
“But we do have to take into consideration the OEMs because they’re a massive part of the sport, huge contributors, and we need them.
“I don’t think either was right or wrong, but I think both of their solutions would satisfy the corporate world.”
Formula 1 currently operates a 1.6-litre turbo-hybrid power unit, a ruleset introduced in 2014 and set to continue, at this stage, until the end of the 2024 season.