F1 2017 continues to be a fight between two teams: Ferrari and Mercedes. Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton took the spoils in Russia and Spain – the former scoring his first GP win – but Sebastian Vettel (pictured with Hamilton) was second each time to maintain his points advantage.
Why winning teams are being compelled to help weaker rivals
Here’s a difficult one, given the current humdinger of a battle between Ferrari and Mercedes: is it fundamentally wrong for one competitor to help another be more competitive?
It’s a topical question because as part of the FIA ‘convergence process’ regarding F1 power units, Mercedes is about to give unofficial technical help to Honda. Furthermore, it was strongly rumoured back in 2014 that it had aided Ferrari in better understanding some of the challenges in getting the most from the complex hybrid motors with their thermal and kinetic energy recapture. Obviously this is a hugely sensitive area, especially for any manufacturer receiving the help. It potentially presents a credibility problem for the sport too, as there is a general assumption that participants are all-out trying to beat each other. Is that fundamental principle being over-ridden for the sake of the show?
Essentially the Mercedes High Performance Powertrain group did far too good a job, committed more deeply, prepared more thoroughly than anyone else for what was an incredibly complex new technology right at the auto industry’s cutting edge. Fresh off the back of the close-to-parity ‘frozen spec’ naturally aspirated V8s, it was always expected that the new engine formula for 2014 onwards, incorporating a new technology, would spread the field. What was not appreciated at the time was by just how much and how long it would take the others to catch up.
Ferrari was back in the game, generally competitive, by 2015 and Renault by 2016. Honda, entering a year after the formula’s introduction but probably still a year too early for its own understanding, began with a flawed concept. For year three (this season) it has introduced two key technologies that were on the Mercedes from the start, but is suffering considerable difficulties in making them work. At a recent meeting with the engine manufacturers the FIA reported that it was satisfied that three of the four engines were within 0.3sec per lap of each other – the loose terms laid out last year by the governing body for the convergence process. Simultaneous with that were specific limits set on certain key component weights and dimensions and on inlet temperature, all this in exchange for abolishing the development token system.
Red Bull’s Christian Horner – who has always been fundamentally opposed to the hybrid formula – argued at the meeting that by their numbers, the current Renault motor was more than 0.3sec adrift of the current Mercedes, that it was more like 0.5sec. He was deeply disappointed that the FIA saw no reason to take further action on equalising the performance of the top three for the time being. For the longer term Liberty’s Ross Brawn is putting his technical group onto more fully researching how the power units compare, as his group is more fully resourced than the FIA’s. Meantime the fourth manufacturer – Honda – will get some back-door assistance. No one will admit this publicly, but that is what is happening.
At Barcelona’s FIA press conference Mercedes AMG boss Toto Wolff was asked about the Honda assistance. It was clearly a very awkward question for him. “At this stage I wouldn’t want to comment,” he said. So he wasn’t denying it? “I’m not commenting.”
At this point, Force India’s Bob Fernley, a Mercedes customer said: “As a team that’s not only paid for its engines but contributed to the development of them, I would certainly be very negative towards sharing that technology with another team [McLaren] that is a competitor of ours.”
Right there is one of the key problems of the process and it was evident that Wolff realised that Fernley’s comments now put him in an even more awkward position. As the question was followed up, Wolff adapted his stance by saying, “We are not doing anything for Honda. That is the current status quo. So, unless that situation changes, I don’t want to contribute to rumours out there that are false and I think are damaging for Honda and create hardened standpoints from teams or from other stakeholders. We’ll see what happens.” That was quite a nuanced position – that they were not doing anything at the moment. It wasn’t an untruth, just a diplomatic way of covering a very awkward position.
Formula 1 is enjoying a vintage battle up front and it’s an unpopular thing to be looking up its skirts to see how it all works, what it looks like where show meets sport. But the essential awkwardness has been created by this engine formula being just too difficult and cutting edge.