F1 frontline with Mark Hughes

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Behind the ongoing negotiations and attempted trades of the Formula 1 engine manufacturers, there’s a genuine fear that Mercedes has a built-in performance advantage over Renault and Ferrari… and it could last the duration of the formula under the regulations as currently written. Because very little can be changed during the season, any developments must wait until the homologation of the following year’s power unit. But while Renault and Ferrari might reasonably be expected to play catch-up to the 2014 Merc’s advantage with their new units, heat rejection figures Mercedes has supplied to its customer teams suggest it has found another 60bhp of its own. If true, its advantage – at least over Renault and Ferrari – is likely to be as big as ever in 2015. A decreasing number of changes is allowed in each subsequent year, thereby apparently hand-cuffing the two 2014 under-achievers to mediocrity until 2020!

That’s obviously not a satisfactory state of affairs. It’s one thing to be beaten, but another to have your long-term improvement limited by regulation. At the same time, the costs of the hybrid power units proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Marussia and Caterham and could yet prove fatal to the remaining smaller independents, Lotus, Force India and Sauber.

We all know that the situation has been exacerbated by the appallingly unjust income distribution of the sport but even so, amortising the development costs of these engines through the prices charged to the independent teams is – just like the built-in Mercedes advantage – not sustainable. Regardless of how we got here and how predictable these problems were (very) and how we and others pointed them out in advance, regardless of how unfair it might be to whip the carpet from beneath those who have done the best job, something has to change. At the moment we are heading for a long-term possibility of just five teams, with at least two of them running uncompetitive engines. That spells disaster and collapse.

In the middle of all this, the subject of our interview this month, Christian Horner, piped up at Abu Dhabi that maybe we should be thinking about a different engine formula for 2016, one with twin turbos and standardised energy recovery systems. On the surface it sounds bonkers: another new engine just two years after the first incurring yet-more development costs to be passed on and neutralising the very piece of technology – ers – that manufacturers are so keen to develop in F1. Also, the cynic in me immediately thinks hmm, twin turbos? Wouldn’t that make the Mercedes innovation of the front compressor impractical? Would having to put two of them up front negate the packaging advantages of the concept compared to a single turbo? Wouldn’t that be negating a key Mercedes advantage?

But hang on. What if F1 did take the opportunity of pushing through on a majority vote a tweaked formula for 2016 and, as well as trying to equalise the performance between the manufacturers, also attended to the cost and noise issues? What if you specified twin-turbo hybrid V6s using the existing engine architecture but specifying they had to be supplied at a maximum price of, say, eight million euros per team (about half the current price)? If the manufacturer wanted to spend more on development it could, but it could not be incorporated into the price – and there was every chance that any advantage it developed would be regulated aside anyway? Standardising the ers would be taking away the R&D appeal of hybrid development for the manufacturers, but they surely cannot have it all ways. If their R&D is potentially going to bankrupt the sport, it’s a luxury the sport cannot afford. Alternatively, let them keep developing their ers systems but insist that the price remains the same. It would have therefore to be incorporated into the manufacturer R&D budgets and not passed on to the independent teams. A car manufacturer typically invests about £2 billion when it makes an all-new platform for a road car. At a tenth of that per year, F1 gives great marketing bang for bucks. Current F1 budgets are cheap for manufacturers, unaffordable for independents, so why not even out the playing field out a little? Furthermore, a twin turbo with twin exhausts could more easily be made loud than the current engines, thereby attending to recent fan criticism and we might begin nudging up to 1,000bhp once more. Which would be dramatic, especially if current downforce levels were maintained.

Something needs to happen. Why not this?