F1 frontline with Mark Hughes

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Mercedes would be justified in believing otherwise, but allowing Formula 1 engines to be modified during the year (a belated concession, in Honda’s case) – as opposed to having to race whatever they homologated pre-season – was a pragmatic solution to a vexing problem.

Without that contrived interpretation of the previously agreed (but poorly worded) rules, there would have been very little chance of Renault or Ferrari digging themselves out of the major disadvantage into which they’d engineered themselves. F1 was in danger of having a frozen competitive engine order for the duration of a formula scheduled to run until 2020 (though that is another previously agreed thing that might not actually happen). What would be the purpose of staying in, already resigned to being beaten year after year?

The difficulty has been created by trying to combine the principle of an engine freeze – which had successfully reduced costs in the 2.4-litre V8 era – with a new formula.

By definition, the likely performance spread between everyone’s ‘first go’ at a new engine is going to be far greater than that between the mature, extensively developed engines we had when the V8 specs were frozen. A new engine, what’s more, incorporating new cutting-edge technology was even more likely to give an increased performance spread.

As originally conceived, the hybrid turbo V6 engine formula specified that, after pre-season homologation, the power unit’s specification was essentially frozen for that year (pending minor pre-approved changes for reliability reasons). Development could be done between campaigns, with the new specification then homologated before the season. Some hard points of the design – the block, crankshaft height, crankcase, cylinder spacings, inlet system – cannot be changed. But most of the other components can be redesigned, resited and so on – but on a points system. Each component change carries a pre-specified points weighting and the manufacturer could make any changes between seasons up to a total of 32 points or tokens. But that number of tokens decreases each year, until by the end of the formula the spec is essentially frozen.

In theory it gave those getting their initial sums wrong plenty of scope to catch up, albeit only at the end of each season – and with this 2014-15 off-season the biggest point of opportunity before the decreasing token allowance tightened the noose. The 2014 season unfolded with a devastating Mercedes advantage of up to 70bhp over Renault and Ferrari and it seems the latter two became increasingly concerned they could not bridge that gap by the new season’s dawn. There are also very credible stories of Mercedes having found a further 60bhp with its 2015 engine. A campaign to change the rule so the tokens could be used throughout the season – to permit constant development – required unanimous consent of the manufacturers and was blocked, quite justifiably, by Mercedes.

Ferrari’s James Allison then pointed out that the regulations did not actually state a homologation date. One senses it was actually with some relief that the FIA agreed that the intent of its own regulation was therefore unenforceable. It has now been agreed that the tokens can be used through the season. That does not necessarily mean Renault and Ferrari will catch up – the new freedom also applies to Mercedes, after all – but at least they no longer have their fates saddled to a frozen-in disadvantage.

For newcomer Honda, however, things looked a little different. McLaren’s returning partner was told that in its first year it must comply to the pre-season homologation requirement – because the other three manufacturers had to in their first year. Honda subsequently met with the FIA to discuss this, feeling it was unfair that it should be competing with its hands tied behind its back when the others were free to develop during the season. The FIA subsequently agreed.

It’s easy to see the logic in all the opposing points of view – and to say that a complete ‘butchers’ had been made of the whole process. But that’s hindsight. The actual problem goes deeper than process and wording of regulations; it’s about the whole flawed concept of trying to combine a freeze with a new formula. It was always going to be a miracle if that resulted in a closely matched set of engines – and it duly failed to happen.

It only reinforces the message that a way must be found to cap spend directly and to allow full-on competition and development to flower within those constraints.

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