Why F1 shouldn’t be so fast to write off its current engines

At this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix F1 bosses will reveal to teams and power unit manufacturers its vision for the sport from 2021. Not all those stakeholders will walk away happy.

Like just about everything in Formula One, the post-2020 commercial and regulatory package will be subject to negotiation and threats from Ferrari to quit, particularly given not all the components of the plan will require immediate agreement.

However, one aspect of the regulations has rapidly become an urgent item for consideration, and not just because it has proved a perpetual point of complaint in some quarters since 2014: F1’s engine formula.

The current turbocharged 1.6-litre V6 hybrid power unit is as technologically advanced as motorsport engines come. Thermal efficiency — the percentage of energy derived from fuel that can be used to power the car — exceeded 50 per cent last year and is likely higher this year.

The average road car is only around half as efficient, while the previous generation V8 engine operated at 29 per cent efficiency.

But technological innovation hasn’t come cheaply or easily. These are the most expensive Formula One engines ever, a fact not helped by developmental free rein, and the ongoing performance disparity between power unit manufacturers has caused dismay for some of the sport’s big hitters.

Red Bull Racing and McLaren have been most aggrieved given neither builds its own power unit and both have been encumbered with the weakest engines on the grid.

Leaving Honda and its unique problems to one side, lacking for Renault is the peak power mode Mercedes and to a lesser extent Ferrari can deploy in qualifying — ‘party mode’, as coined by Lewis Hamilton — that almost guarantees Saturday’s top spot.

Mercedes’s qualifying advantage over the fastest Renault-powered car in Australia was more than seven-tenths of a second, and the Silver Arrows seized all but four pole positions over 20 races last season.

The relative race pace between the Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault engines are comparable — Red Bull Racing won races on merit last season — but given how difficult overtaking is with the current breed of car, a qualifying disadvantage can throw off the entire weekend.

Christian Horner, impatient that his team’s good work is hamstrung by a third party, suggested in Melbourne the abolition of qualifying modes to level the playing field.

“When the cars leave for qualifying maybe the engine mode should be the same from the moment you leave the garage to the end of the grand prix,” he suggested.

Mercedes would therefore be unable to use its high-power mode in qualifying given it uses more fuel and reduces the life expectancy of its engines, bringing it into Renault’s range.

Renault, keen to emphasise that its power unit isn’t so far behind in racing conditions, has suggested a total engine development freeze, at least to save on costs — if the engines were to change in 2021, Renault argues, developing two power units at once would be prohibitively expensive and therefore potentially advantage a new entrant with just one programme to focus on.

The idea is not so farfetched, with only FIA-approved engine reliability upgrades allowed between 2007 and 2013.

Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko would prefer an even more dramatic model with which the FIA limits power output so that the fastest engine could produce only 3 per cent more power than the slowest.

Such a proposal might yet take advantage of almost universal unwillingness for change amongst the engine manufacturer ranks, as exposed after the FIA released a proposal for less sophisticated power units late last year.

Ferrari is philosophically opposed to regulatory simplification, Mercedes has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and Renault disputes new changes on cost grounds.

Each position has merit As Ferrari argues, Formula One should be about technological sophistication. The current engines may be difficult to master, but F1, the pinnacle of motorsport, isn’t supposed to be easy.

Mercedes is right to say that the longer the regulations stay the same, the closer the gaps become. Compared to 2014, when Mercedes lost only three races due to circumstance, last year Ferrari challenged for the championship and this year Red Bull Racing might make it a three-way fight.

Renault’s argument strikes a balance between the two and is therefore perhaps the most important. Rewriting regulations for the engine — the most expensive part of the car — would cost an enormous amount and risk spreading out the field to repair perceived problems minor tweaks could remedy.

The want for new manufacturers and increased sound are primary drivers for change, but performance controls, as suggested by Red Bull Racing and Renault, could achieve the former while alterations to, say, fuel flow rules to raise RPM could ameliorate the latter.

Superficially wholesale engine changes are appealing, but when a redesign risks undoing what will by 2021 be seven years of natural performance convergence and the gamble will cost collectively hundreds of millions of dollars and more, a hasty engine write-off might take the sport only further backwards.