Matters of Moment, March 2013

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Damien Smith, Editor

They only let us hear it as a simulated lap of Monza, but as sales jobs go the men at Mercedes pulled out the stops to convince us that Formula 1 isn’t about to be muted when its new engine regulations come on line next year.

A visit to the manufacturer’s High Performance Powertrain division in Brixworth promised a sneak preview of what we should expect in 2014 and the message was clear: yes, Grand Prix racing is heading for massive change, but the basic premise of our sport — that the fastest driver in the fastest car will win the race — will not be lost in a technological overload.

As for that certain sound, the thrill of a spine-tingling on-the-limit racing engine, apparently those of us who care about such things need not worry. F1 engines will still sound as they should in 2014, although perhaps not like any we have ever heard before.

A wheel has yet to be turned in 2013, yet already so much focus is on next year, such is the scope and significance of the revolution that is coming. To recap, F1 is ditching its current 18,000rpm 2.4-litre normally aspirated V8s for compact 1.6-litre V6 turbos that max out at 15,000rpm. It’s dropping the ‘k’ too: forget KERS, we’ll all be talking about ERS in 2014.

At first sight, the downsizing caused widespread alarm, the V6 configuration a concession to those who said the original fourpot plan wouldn’t be ‘racy’ enough. Bernie Ecclestone waded in, fretting about the “terrible” noise such an engine would emit. But after years of ignoring the outside world, F1 wanted to fall in line with the automotive industry, reducing capacity and revs in the interests of pressing environmental needs, while offering a fresh carrot to apathetic, cashstrapped manufacturers.

If the rules echo the specs of their road cars, will Toyota, Honda and BMW return? Might even VW be tempted in? F1 wants to be ‘relevant’. It never used to have to justify itself. But these are different times.

So what will it all mean? I was concerned when Andy Cowell, managing director in Brixworth, said this would be “a new way of going racing”. Do we really need a new way? Apparently, yes.

The return of turbos for the first time since the 1980s also heralds the comeback of a so-called ‘fuel formula’. F1 cars will be limited to just 100 kilos of fuel, costs will be contained by a 15 per cent reduction in moving parts within engines, and just five units will be available to each driver for a season’s racing rather than the current eight, effectively doubling their life demand from 2000km to 4000. The V6 will also be an impressive 30 per cent more efficient than the V8, with a thermal efficiency rating that could match a Toyota Prius.

Yes folks, ‘efficiency’ is the new buzz-word. But wait, don’t go! Stop yawning at the back. It’s worthy, but the racing could also be fantastic.

For all the cuts, Mercedes reckons the “aspiration” is for cars to be as quick as they are today. That’s where the Energy Recovery System comes in.

Heat energy from the exhaust stream will join kinetic energy drawn from the rear axle as an extra power source next year, doubling the power store from 60kW to 120. At the moment, KERS allows a burst of 80hp for 6.7sec. In 2014, ERS will give 161hp for 33.3sec. How this energy is deployed will likely decide the outcome of races and ultimately world championships. As Cowell says: “It’s difficult to be quick without KERS. From 2014 it will be impossible to be quick without ERS.”

He also highlighted the wider powerband of the V6s, the extra torque and an increase of power over grip. The cars, he said, will slide.

As for fuel saving, Cowell reckons drivers won’t have to manage it any more than they have since the ban on inter-race refuelling in 2010. Intelligent strategy will be key to success, but it should widen the options for teams. The cars will start lighter than they do today because of the mandated lower fuel level, but they will finish heavier because of the higher weight of the powertrain, up from 95 kilos for the V8 engine to 145 for the whole unit in 2014. Most importantly, the guys at Mercedes are adamant: ultimate performance will still decide who wins the races.

Speaking of which, Lewis Hamilton has good reason to be confident that his team switch will pay off. At the moment, only the factory Mercedes team under Bob Bell is working with the Brixworth powertrain squad. Thanks to its customer contract, McLaren won’t get a look in until an unspecified time later this year. Here lies the advantage opportunity alluded to recently by Ross Brawn.

As for the sound of the little V6 (we were shown one sitting on a dyno — it’s tiny), what Cowell told us was promising. All six cylinders will feed into one exhaust to spin the single turbo. “With one turbo, all the noise will come through one tailpipe, so the frequency will be higher than with the V8s,” he said. “It will be pleasant to the car, loud and sweet-sounding.”

And most intriguing of all will be the noise the turbo itself, rotating a maximum speed of a 125,000rpm: “I we will hear the whine the turbo, especially on the exit of corners as drivers work to get the compressor spinning on acceleration,” said Cowell. “It will be very interesting to stand trackside for the first time when they run.”

There are still some big questions, the most prominent being cost. The powertrain won’t come cheap for customer teams. Greater technology also tends to widen the gap between front-runners and the rest. Then there’s understanding what the hell is going on if you’re watching the race on TV and, lest we forget, from the side of the track. Fl will need to work even harder to tell its already complicated story to a global audience.

All a long way from Stirling Moss twirling with abandon the wheel of a Maserati 250E is it not? There’s no point comparing it. Grand Prix racing survives today in a different world. As do we all.

*

Back in 2005, during my first stint as the editor of Motor Sport, I commissioned a feature on the late Jim Crawford. The writer has yet to deliver the story, but the commission — surely the longest in the magazine’s 89-year history — remains open. Now he’s stopped travelling the world as a paid-up member of the elite band of Fl freelancers, said writer might have time to finish that tale — especially as he’ll be sitting opposite me on a regular basis! I’m delighted to welcome former editor Simon Arron back to the staff, as our new features editor. We can’t wait to draw on his great wealth of knowledge, experience and sheer enthusiasm. Especially on Scottish Indycar racers of the 1980s.

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