All mod pros and cons

Rose-tinted spectacles are a wonderful invention, but they don’t always focus accurately. Modern life, then, is not necessarily rubbish…
Writer Andrew Frankel

Although it probably didn’t seem so at the time, as the grid assembled in Melbourne for the first Grand Prix of the new millennium, the world of Formula 1 was a somewhat simple place to be, at least relative to where it is today.

The cars were powered by conventional 3-litre, V10 engines allowed to rev as high as they liked (even newbie Jaguar had already seen 20,000rpm on the bench from its Cosworth motor), and if that caused one or more components to leap out of said engine and into the Albert Park lake, you just fitted another. And the same applied to the gearbox.

There were no driver-activated aerodynamic devices to enable overtaking, nor any designed to harvest and recycle energy that would otherwise have been lost.

Before the race you could test as much and as often as you liked and could continue to do so throughout the season. In qualifying there was a one-hour session on Saturday, in which everyone took part, and the car with the fastest lap took pole. In the race you could throw as many tyres at the car as you liked, and as much fuel too. You could start with a car groaning under the weight of all the petrol in its tank and plan to stop just once, or even not at all, or you could send it out on vapour in the hope of making an early break. And the same points were awarded wherever and whenever any given race happened to be.

Yes, it was simple. Very simple. There were problems, of course, but I think few would argue that the races weren’t more ‘real’ than those of today’s increasingly contrived F1.

Alex Hitzinger used to be in charge of advanced technology for Red Bull, but jumped ship in 2011 to mastermind Porsche’s return to Le Mans. And one reason he left was the technical freedom allowed by sports car regulations. “We have real choice,” he says. “I can build an engine with as many cylinders as I like, power it by petrol or diesel and put it in a car that can drive two wheels or four. And our hybrid systems can store their power in a flywheel, super-capacitors or batteries.”

The question is how racing’s premier formula managed to get itself into such an artificially-induced state? Did it arrive there of its own free will, always aware of the consequences of its actions, has it sleep-walked its way into the current situation or was it prodded from behind? And does it actually matter?

Few complex questions have straightforward answers and this isn’t one of them; but behind it all lies a driving force that historically never had a role to play in Formula 1, but is now probably the single most important factor considered by the rule-makers. It is a conviction bordering on compulsion that top-line motor sport in general, and F1 in particular, should be relevant. You can see it in F1, in sports car racing and now even in rallying. Hitzinger might be relishing his new-found freedom, but the very fact he gets to choose between petrol and diesel, and which hybrid system to run, speaks volumes about how the choices facing those making competition cars now mirror those buying road cars.

Before things got interesting in Bahrain this year, people were queuing up to call F1 ‘boring’ in 2014. Bernie Ecclestone hated the noise (or lack thereof) and Ferrari’s Luca di Montezemolo likened it to “taxi-cab driving”. Perhaps a little perspective is needed.

It is too easy to look back to a time where cars looked gorgeous, sounded even better, raced on pure circuits unfettered by safety considerations and conclude things ain’t what they used to be. And as no one has been killed in a modern Formula 1 car for 20 years, thank God for that.

But how interesting was it really?

Spool back to the very first round of the F1 world championship, also known as the 1950 British Grand Prix, at Silverstone. The riveting spectacle was that of Alfa Romeos cruising to a 1-2-3 victory, lapping the entire field twice.

Was it any more interesting when the combination of Alberto Ascari and Ferrari ensured an entire year passed without a single other car or driver winning a round of the championship? Or when Mercedes-Benz’s Silver Arrows needed to do little more than turn up to win? Throughout the history of the sport there have been periods where the racing has been genuinely close and thrilling, but too often these have been mere moments, punctuation marks in an otherwise fairly consistent narrative of one team or driver’s dominance over the rest.

Even within a season, things are often not as we choose to remember them as Patrick Head, co-founder of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, points out: “For as long as I was in Formula 1,” he says, “you’d have a season of, say, 15 to 18 races and, of them all, you’d probably only have three or four humdingers.”

It is a phenomenon not restricted to F1, either. We recall Group C as a halcyon era for sports car racing, but was it really? Until Jaguar finally got its act together, I remember years where the only question at any given race was which dull-sounding Porsche 956 or 962 was going to win. Likewise in the modern era Audi, a company criticised for apparently doing its job too well.

And did Sébastien Loeb, without doubt the greatest single talent ever to sit in a rally car, actually do his sport more harm than good? Throughout the history of all forms of the sport at the top level, it seems ’twas ever thus.

Remember, too, the next time you’re feeling misty-eyed, that when you turn on the television to watch a race, you actually get to watch the race: every corner, every lap, every incident replayed in glorious slow motion, and analysed during and after the event in forensic detail. There are cameras in the cars and on the cars, graphics that will even tell you how every single driver on the grid is managing their fuel load. We might sit and look at YouTube, see and hear V12 Ferraris, Matras and BRMs and lament we were unable to watch them in their pomp, being driven in anger at Zandvoort, the old Spa or Nürburgring, but even if you could turn the clock back you’d rarely have seen or heard them unless you travelled to the races.

And while we might complain of the bland corporate speak of the drivers when they talk to the media, at least they do talk. Read old race reports in Motor Sport and you’ll see astonishing amounts of opinion from the likes of DSJ and startlingly few quotes. And without wishing to diminish in any way the achievements of our intrepid Continental Correspondent, just occasionally I’d like to have heard it from the horse’s mouth. But back then drivers were not obliged to talk to the press, so many simply chose not to.

They do today because they are part of a machine, and I don’t mean the one with four wheels and an engine. The machine is the car industry, and it is powered by the desire of those within it to use Formula 1 to sell cars to you and me. One of the key movers is Ola Kallenius, who has seen the sport and what it has to offer his company from every direction. He is currently head of sales and marketing for Mercedes-Benz, but he’s also been chairman of its AMG subsidiary, run its F1 engine facility in Brixworth and worked at McLaren. And he has no doubts as to why Mercedes-Benz is competing in F1.

“Tens of millions watch F1 on a Sunday, but by Monday evening 100s of millions are talking about it, many interested in a brand like ours. The only other sports that’ll get you close to that many people are the World Cup and the Olympic Games, but this is also directly relevant to our business and unlike them doesn’t happen only once every four years, but every other weekend for nine months of the year. We also use F1 as a spearhead for growth in emerging markets.”

For this strategy to work, what Mercedes does on the track has to be seen to be relevant to what it does on the road and the same can be said of Renault, Honda (who’ll join the ranks of engine suppliers next year) and, yes, even Ferrari. Although the Scuderia was unable to make anyone available for interview, it is no secret that, like almost every other car manufacturer on earth, it is looking to use downsized engines boosted by both conventional turbochargers and hybrid energy recovery systems to power its future road cars. Renault threatened to leave F1 if the new regulations were not introduced and recently Daimler’s R&D boss Dr Thomas Weber has said Mercedes would “probably have quit” if the new rules had not been introduced.

As for Honda, its position could not be clearer. Yasuhisa Arai is its chief officer for motor sports. He told me, “The new regulations were our biggest motivation for coming back to Formula 1 as an engine supplier. It means that environmental technologies and the pinnacle of racing are coming together.”

Others more closely linked to the teams take a different view. Adrian Newey has been openly critical of the direction F1 has taken, saying “It should be about man and machine performing at their maximum every single lap.” He has challenged the environmental friendliness of the energy cost of producing battery packs and the extra weight they’ve added to the cars, and suggested that weight reduction and sharp aerodynamics are more appropriate ways for F1 to increase its efficiency.

So how important is F1 today for developing technologies that will improve our lot by making the cars we drive better to own and use? How much of what car manufacturers say about the technical benefits of an F1 programme is offered as a genuine explanation, and how much as just an excuse for a marketing exercise?

The answer is almost impossible to provide. Head maintains that nothing found on a modern F1 will ever have “any kind of direct spin-off into the cars we drive”. But he adds that increasing thermal efficiency of F1 powertrains from 30 to 40 per cent will in time inevitably contribute to increased efficiencies in the road arena. Kallenius goes much further: “The new rules mean there are effectively two turbos, one big one for power and a smaller one for response. This goes hand in hand with our road car development and will be seen on cars we sell in as little as five to seven years.”

Of course this is all well and good. But what of the fan, the man, woman or child stood in the grandstand or sat at home? Where do they fit into the grand schemes of the car manufacturers whose money propels this sport, other than as targets for their marketing people?

I expect most of us have designed our ideal F1 car, even if only in our heads. Mine would look like a Lotus 79, sound like a Ferrari 312B and slide like a MkII Escort. It would provide a magnificent spectacle, but you can get all that at the Goodwood Revival. When in 1999 I asked Gordon Murray to turn his ever-fertile mind to the same task the result was driven by a 1200 shaft horsepower gas turbine with technological tricks including surface cooling, steering by wire, fan-assisted downforce, fully active suspension and an ejector seat programmed to throw the driver clear of the car in a crash. But what kind of spectacle would they have made? They’d have sounded like Boeings, would generate so much downforce the driver would need a G-suit and be no more likely to oversteer than perform a convincing samba.

I’d suggest that somewhere between my antediluvian vision and Gordon’s post-modern solution is what’s required and, flawed and open to criticism though it is, I think that’s roughly where the sport is today. F1 has to be at the cutting edge of technology: it has to be doing things cars have until that very moment not been able to do. That is its USP, that is what makes a round of the Formula 1 World Championship the best-attended annual sporting event in this and, I am sure, many other countries. I have whinged about F1 and the direction it has taken for years, but come Sunday afternoon you’ll know where to find me.

“I think the argument that says modern F1 has to be relevant is very strong,” says Max Mosley, the former race driver, team owner and the man who was at the helm of the FIA when the current rules were negotiated with the teams. “Formula 1 is like war,” he adds. “It makes people do things very quickly and progress far faster than they otherwise might. And it is right that it should be that way. But for that to happen you need huge amounts of money to be poured into R&D, so ensuring that investment has some relevance to road cars just makes sense.”

What Mosley is doing here is tacitly acknowledging the role of car manufacturers as opposed to race teams in the sport. Manufacturers have been integrally involved in the sport since its inception, as Kallenius is keen to point out: “We’ve been involved since both declared winners of the 1894 Paris-Rouen race were powered by Daimler-designed engines.” And while some areas of the sport – F1 in particular – came to be dominated by what Enzo Ferrari referred to as ‘garagistas’, sports car racing and rallying have always been the domain of the big brands. And if you think the world of racing is competitive, it’s a Buckingham Palace garden party compared to the cut-throat world of selling road cars. Whether it is right for their voices to become increasingly heard by rule is perhaps not the point. It is simply inevitable.

Some still rail against it and understandably so: of all car manufacturers ever to get involved in F1, few have hung around for long, choosing moments when it suits current strategy and exhibiting little long-term loyalty. Indeed only Ferrari has been there from the start and he never raced to sell cars but the reverse, viewing his customers, according to his very unofficial biographer Brock Yates, as “slathering nouveaux and empty aristocrats”.

The clout manufacturers now wield still clearly rankles with Head. “The regulations as they stand today have come about through the FIA. First Max and then Jean Todt talked to car manufacturers, who told them that unless the rules allowed them to pursue technical challenges that were of relevance to the cars they sold the public, they’d have no interest in being involved. It’s not that those of us in the sport wanted to go in that direction. We had it imposed on us by the FIA.”

Even so, Head finds himself torn. “As an enthusiast you could say you don’t give a damn about improving efficiency. F1 is in the entertainment business and all the cars should sound incredible, have at least 1000bhp and smoke their tyres coming out of every corner. You could then leave developing technical solutions for road cars to a perhaps more appropriate Le Mans-type arena. As a position I find that entirely defensible, but the engineer in me still finds it fascinating that you can cover the same distance on 100kg of fuel this year as you did on 145-150kg last year, and do it to within a minute of the same time…”

Time will tell whether the drive to make sports racing cars more relevant will find favour with the public, but if car manufacturers like the rules enough to take part, that increases competition and therefore the likelihood of close racing. With Audi, Porsche and Toyota already signed up as WEC works teams and with Nissan on the brink, sports car racing has rarely looked so enticing.

As for rallying, it is too early to know whether changes wrought to make the WRC more relevant – and the retirement from full-time competition of Sébastien Loeb – will rekindle interest. To an extent the domination of Loeb has been replaced by that of Volkswagen. “Last year Wales Rally GB was the most successful there has been,” says Ben Taylor, communications director for the Motor Sports Association, “but I’d put that down to relocating the event to North Wales and not at all to Loeb no longer being there, nor to changes in the technical regulations.”

It is certain there will be no stopping the trend towards making competition cars more closely related to their distantly related road-going relatives. And you can view that in two distinct ways. You can see our sport providing perfect breeding conditions for new technologies, which will improve the quality of our lives on the road while reducing our impact on the environment; or you can see it as a cynical marketing exercise with the sport providing the excuse rather than the explanation for the manufacturers’ involvement.

I incline to parts of each argument. I believe that, more now than ever, what is learned on the track will affect what we drive on the road, however indirectly that might be and however much time that will take. It really is inconceivable that in a generation’s time the energy currently lost in heat from braking and turbocharging won’t be recycled in road cars, and this is ground being pioneered in F1 today. But in the same way I never really bought the hunt’s argument that the best way to control red fox numbers was for hounds to tear foxes to pieces, so too I find it just a little too convenient that, with all the resources at the manufacturers’ disposal, the one that just happens to be best for developing new technologies is to scream around and around in circles as cars have done since the century before last.

As for the future, there are already developments such as the all-electric Formula E and further new solutions will be found.

I would not bet against a new generation of fuel cell-powered competition cars with hydrogen fed in one end and nothing more polluting than water coming out of the other.

But Max Mosley, the man who has done more than any other to shape the regulatory direction of Formula 1 in recent years, sees a more immediate problem. “If one team has three times more money than another, effectively that equates to having a bigger engine, and no one would say that was fair. Right now there could be a gifted young engineer at Caterham or Marussia, but what chance do they have of making a difference against the might of the top teams?” His answer is a budget cap. “Take all of what I call the Bernie money, put it into a pot and then divide it equally between the teams and that’s what they can spend. Any additional money they can raise through sponsorship would then just be profit. It would make no difference to the spectacle other than to provide closer racing. And it would hand the power back to the engineers. Keith Duckworth defined a good engineer as someone who could do for £1 what any idiot could do for £100. And he was right.”

In theory the idea has merit, but in reality can you see Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari agreeing to invest the same amount in their cars as Marussia and Caterham? Me neither. The one seam running uninterrupted through all motor sport, from F1 to historics, is that by and large over time the greatest success will come to those that spend the most. It always has and, I very strongly suspect, always will.

Greatest cars
Website poll results

1 Ferrari F2004
Remarkably, the only Ferrari to top our decade polls. It won 15 of 18 Grands Prix in 2004, 13 with Michael Schumacher and two with Rubens Barrichello.

2 Audi R8
The car that put Audi on the map at Le Mans. Won the 24 Hours five times in six years. Also managed six out of six at the Sebring 12 Hours.

3 Audi R10 TDi
Pipped by the R8 in our poll, but historically was it more significant? The first diesel to win Le Mans, where it scored a hat trick between 2006-08.

Greatest drivers
Website poll results

1 Michael Schumacher
Took five straight F1 titles for Ferrari, following two for Benetton in the 1990s. Didn’t add to record 91 GP wins with Mercedes, but comeback was admirably brave.

2 Sébastien Loeb
Those nine world rally titles didn’t do much for the popularity of his sport. But that’s not his fault. All-rounder credentials are high following Le Mans podium. Now in the WTCC.

3 Fernando Alonso
Ended the Schumacher era with back-to-back F1 titles for Renault. We’re still waiting for the third with Ferrari, but peers regard Alonso as top dog in cars that are mostly inferior.

From Motor Sport September 2008

Max Mosley is introducing energy recovery systems into Formula 1 from 2009, in an attempt to protect the sport from the inevitable criticisms that will come its way as climate change worsens and pressure inexorably increases on the world’s oil supplies. It is a responsible approach, yet the history of energy recovery and storage in F1 is not quite as straightforward as that. In fact, F1 cars would have been using energy recovery systems for the past decade, had the FIA, with Mosley as the governing body’s president, not prevented it.

In 1998, McLaren-Mercedes was developing a system designed to perform the same function as KERS. But after initially approving it, the FIA changed its mind and banned it. The system was the brainchild of McLaren technical director Adrian Newey and his long-time friend Mario IIlien, his counterpart at Mercedes engine builder Ilmor.

“Mario’s a very good all-round engineer,” Newey says. “He has a broad interest in engineering matters, not simply motor racing, and has always been keen on energy conservation, which he demonstrated in the Ilmor factory, (with) little things like using the heat from the dynamometer water to heat the factory in winter. He doesn’t like wastage. He likes to be efficient. We discussed the fact that energy storage is used commercially in various areas, and we started to think this was something that could apply to F1.”

They explored various possibilities: a system based on batteries, which will probably be most commonly used in 2009, a flywheel or hydraulics, then settled on hydraulics, even though Newey admits it is “technically least favourable”.

“We already had what’s known as a squish-plate pump, which is borrowed from aircraft hydraulic pumps,” Newey says. “So Mario had the idea, why don’t we go for a much higher output squish-plate pump and use that as a way of absorbing power from the rear axle under braking and being the motor for putting it back in under acceleration?”

The system, they calculated, would have given them a lap time gain in the region of 0.2sec, about half that being talked about with KERS for next year. “But we had a slightly different set of criteria,” Newey says, “in that we didn’t have any rules to work to, but we did have a tight budget and timescale. So we felt a guaranteed 0.2sec reasonably quickly was a much better route than a theoretical 0.4sec two years away.”

The problem was the wording of the regulations, which said that propulsion had to come solely from a 3-litre, four-stroke internal combustion engine. “Of course,” Newey says, “the propulsion is initially being made by that, you’re simply harnessing it, then reapplying it. But clearly there was going to be a debate on its legality, so we approached the FIA and they came back and said, ‘It’s good, it’s exactly what we want.’

“So, as far as we were concerned, we had the green light, regulation-wise, and then as we started to progress, suddenly we got a clarification saying, ‘No, we’ve reconsidered and it’s not legal’.”

Even now, Newey finds it difficult to hide his frustration. It was not the first nor the last time a team he was working for had a new technology outlawed in this way. In this case, though, that feeling is heightened by what he feels was a missed opportunity for F1 as a whole. Japanese manufacturers had just started putting hybrid systems on their road cars, and this, Newey feels, would have accelerated their adoption.

“Not as a direct piece of technology,” he says, “in as much as you wouldn’t choose hydraulics as the route for energy storage in road cars. But philosophically, yes. I’ve had a feeling for a long time that very rarely now, if ever, does a piece of Formula 1 technology directly transfer on to a road car. But F1 does popularise general technologies.

“When F1 was using turbocharged engines there were more turbocharged sports cars around. Nowadays, every self-respecting boy racer wants flipper gear changes on his steering wheel. He also wants fake carbon-fibre trim. There is no doubt F1 technology in general does create showroom demand. Equally, once energy storage had been adopted in F1 by one team, there would have been a rush by the others to catch up. And inevitably that would have led to more efficient systems such as battery-based technology.”

Despite his frustration, Newey welcomes the introduction of energy storage into F1. “Quite rightly, Max Mosley feels that potentially F1 could easily be criticised in this green age as being a wasteful and extravagant arena. So trying to show an awareness of that with a regulation designed to encourage the development of fuel-efficient cars is good for F1. By doing so it protects itself from that allegation.”