“The regulations might have combined to make this a vintage season”

Until Max Verstappen blitzed the pre-season testing in his Red Bull-Honda, there was no real reason to suppose the competitive hierarchy of this season was going to differ significantly from the recent past: with Mercedes firmly on top.

It may ultimately turn out that way again, of course; it’s a long season. But there is at least some hope of a close contest. Honda, Red Bull and the tweaked floor regulations of ’21 have possibly combined in a way that just might make this a vintage season.

Honda’s racing personnel were deeply saddened at the parent company decision to withdraw from F1 at the end of this year and have responded with a very aggressive strategy for their final year. What was set to be the power unit for the new formula (initially set for this year, since postponed to next year) has been reinstated as the 2021 engine, having originally been postponed along with the regulations. Subsequently, the Honda pull-out would have meant the exciting new power unit would not have seen the light of day. This was unbearable for Yasuaki Asaki, the director of Honda R&D in Sakura, who had overseen the development of the radical new engine. So he went to see the boss. “When it was announced that we would withdraw in 2021 around autumn, I asked President Hachigo to admit that it would not be acceptable to finish without producing results, and he allowed us to resume development. I was able to make it in time.”

The RA621 is no mere update of the same basic unit used since 2017, but virtually all-new – and absolutely tiny, smaller than the infamous ‘size zero’ of 2015. Smaller, more powerful and representing a lot of new thinking. Pre-season, Honda’s F1 technical director Toyoharu Tanabe was claiming it exceeds the power of last year’s Mercedes, which was by some margin the most powerful in the field. How it compares to this year’s Merc we’ll get to see in the coming races.

“Asaki is sad but excited about Honda’s prospects in its last season as participant”

It was notable in the last couple of years that the Honda ran out of electrical deployment earlier than the Mercedes – at least on those tracks where there was insufficient braking to recover all the energy that might be demanded. In getting to the root of this, it seems that Honda has re-assessed the priorities between generating engine power and recovering energy from the exhaust via the ERS-H.

“The power unit in modern F1 is a complex system that uses the energy from the exhaust gas to generate electricity,” explained Asaki. “So it is not enough to just aim at increasing the efficiency and power of the engine… The law of conservation of energy says that if you increase the horsepower of the crank, the energy of the exhaust will decrease. That’s what we’re trying to address with the new framework, so we can increase both.

“MGU-H is a system that regenerates energy from exhaust gas. The amount of power of MGU-H is unlimited. For this reason, that is the heart of the game. The boost pressure is raised by the motor, and when the waste gate opens, the exhaust pressure drops and power comes out. It is called e-boost, but the usage is to aim for control that maximises competitiveness with complicated electrical management.”

The extension of that line of reasoning seems to have liberated the design of the engine’s cylinder head. If greater exhaust back pressure has been deemed acceptable – because the recovery systems can deliver more lap time from it by converting it to stored electricity – then a completely different combustion chamber with a greater valve angle can be enabled. This in turn can allow the camshafts to be lower. Those camshafts have also been reduced in diameter.

“The centre of gravity is lowered and the freedom of air flow over the camshaft is increased,” says Asaki. Different material for the block has also allowed the gap between
the cylinders to be smaller, thereby making the engine yet more compact.

This downsizing has been gratefully accepted by Red Bull and used to enhance the aerodynamics of the RB16B. The team was already on a good productive path with the car’s aero by the end of last season (it started from pole in Abu Dhabi and was within hundredths in the preceding Sakhir race) and it just may be that the reduced floor area demanded by the ’21 regulations has impacted less upon the shorter, higher-rake Red Bull than the longer, lower-rake Mercedes. The regulation diagonal line running from the front of the outer floor to the back robs the Mercedes of more floor area. The aero advantage of the swept back rear suspension of last year’s Mercedes has been nullified by Red Bull accomplishing something similar even within the constraints of the development tokens. Certainly the RB16B looks a sweeter, more benign drive than its quick but demanding predecessor.

But still, this is Mercedes. Regardless of the improvements of Red Bull and Honda, Merc will have made plenty of its own. An epic contest could yet be in store. Asaki is sad but excited about Honda’s prospects in its last season as an official participant. “We’ll have to wait and see what other companies can do… I have expectations and concerns about what will happen but I have a great feeling that I’ve done what I can, so I’d like to manage to fight this year and instil confidence in the feelings of engineers at the end of the F1 activities.”

Since he began covering grand prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation
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