F1 frontline

Although the first few Grands Prix painted a picture of continuing Mercedes domination, things are afoot that will probably make this a far less one-sided season than those of 2014 or ’15. An inopportunely timed safety car might well have cost Ferrari victory in Melbourne, a Kimi Räikkönen startline error maybe lost it another in Bahrain. Then there’s Red Bull. Here’s an observation made by Williams’ Pat Symonds: “We can see from GPS just how staggeringly quick the Red Bull is in slow corners – definitely faster than the Mercedes.” 

While it’s true that the Merc’s aero excels in the higher speed sections and has a superb spread throughout the speed range, it’s probably also true that its power unit superiority is playing the largest part in keeping it ahead of Red Bull. That has also been so for each of the past couple of seasons, but the difference this time is that there is genuine excitement about what Renault Sport is set to deliver in time for Canada. An extra 30bhp on top of a similar gain made over the winter should put the TAG-labelled motor within 20bhp of the Merc (assuming the latter is not about to make another big jump), and with perhaps more to come. That should get Red Bull somewhere very close to performance parity – and the prospect of three teams fighting over race wins in the season’s second half seems realistic. 

As the hybrid formula matures, so the performance is beginning to converge, as would be expected. But the process has needed some help, such was the enormous lead Mercedes HPP established at the first time of asking. 

‘Convergence’ is one of the four objectives set by the FIA to the engine manufacturers (along with price reduction, guaranteed supply and an increase in noise). They have to agree a way between themselves of limiting the difference between them to no more than two per cent by 2018. Based upon the current Mercedes – believed to be topping out at about 960bhp – that would mean the least powerful having a deficit of no more than 19bhp. In other words, about where Renault is set to arrive at in Canada. As things stand, from Canada onwards only Honda will not be within the convergence limit set for ’18, but it might well have arrived there by later this season.  

It raises the question why an artificial limit is needed at all. Is turning the engines back to the status of plug-in components that don’t have the potential to make a difference – as was the case in the engine-frozen V8 era – really what we want to see? Is the idea of a bunch of manufacturers getting around a table to make sure they all have engines as good as each other really what a sporting competition should be? Even before we arrive at the convergence requirement, there will be a freeze on a key part of the hybrid technology. Neither batteries nor ERS components will be allowed to be any smaller than the best of the current units – thereby ending a key area of technology gain.

In getting to within sniffing distance of Mercedes power, one of the key breakthroughs made by Ferrari last year – and believed to be what’s behind the big improvement in the upcoming Renault – was the adoption of trick new combustion technology. In the case of Ferrari at least, this
has come from ‘turbulent jet ignition’, a new technology separating combustion into a pre-chamber and main chamber that allows huge efficiency gains. When applied to road cars it promises to deliver diesel economy in a petrol engine. When applied to F1 it makes a much bigger bang. It’s clear there has been some cross-pollination of ideas – with Mercedes said to have provided help to its rivals. 

But rather than require everyone to be equal by regulation– and thus taking a fascinating dimension out of a multi-dimensional competition – what about requiring every engine manufacturer to make its engine available for inspection to an engineering body at the end of each season, with the results made public in a paper? That way, the technology would spread and we would be able to explain to the world at large just how these fantastic leaps are being made – rather than desperately trying to eke out secrets from competitive engineers. 

We presently have a closed shop sharing secrets with each other but keeping out everybody else, which is surely the worst of both worlds.