VW steers F1 towards simpler engines: Mark Hughes

“Williams’ recruitment of Alex Albon was part of a seismic political shift”

With the long-overdue confirmation that George Russell will replace Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes next year, a sequence of other driver moves was triggered. One of these – the recruitment of Alex Albon to replace Russell at Williams – was part of a seismic political shift within the sport, one which may have determined the format of the new power unit formula, due for 2025 (but probably set to be delayed to ’26).

The disruptor in this whole story is Volkswagen. It was poised to enter the original hybrid formula and was a participant in the discussion stages of it, just as it has been this time around. But then ‘dieselgate’ came along. Such was the commercial damage inflicted by that scandal, it’s taken this long to make a VW F1 programme feasible again.

Formula One Management (FOM) decided some time ago that the new power unit formula would be another internal combustion/electric hybrid one. There was very little further discussion on that. The differences in opinion centred around how to make them cheaper and simpler. One way of doing that – which VW heavily favoured – was to abandon the ERS-h which is such a significant part of the massive thermal efficiency of the current power units. VW’s motivation in this isn’t difficult to divine; it’s a complex technology impacting upon the whole concept of the PU and of which the existing manufacturers have many years’ experience. Nullifying the head start of the others would have obvious appeal to VW.

At much the same time all this was evolving, Honda had decided it was leaving F1 at the end of this season. In response, Red Bull established Red Bull Powertrains, an all-new engine manufacturing entity which will for the remainder of this formula run a Honda continuation power unit under a different name. But what about under the new formula, when Red Bull would have to go it alone?

“The Red Bull and VW programmes seem set to being one and the same”

Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault all wished to retain the ERS-h feature. The technology ostensibly uses exhaust gases to feed power to the battery but can be spooled up electrically to make turbo lag an obsolete concept. The H part of the ERS equation allows the energy flows to be sent back and forward in hugely sophisticated ways, and mastering that is very much at the root of what makes a successful hybrid F1 engine. Mercedes was first to understand its full possibilities and the others steadily came to reach a similar level of understanding. But it took several years. Honda’s initially disastrous programme sent a terrible message to any other would-be F1 power unit manufacturers. The PR was negative for a long time before reaching the glory days of now (ironically, just as it’s about to pull out).

Part of the idea of the new PU regulations is to meet the commercial imperative from Formula 1 to bring in another manufacturer – and the only one interested didn’t want this ERS-h technology. VW and Red Bull could see some common ground here. Red Bull wasn’t necessarily committed to the ERS-h. So that was potentially two votes against three and with FOM very keen for VW to become involved. But time was pressing if the regulations were to be drawn up and the PUs readied for 2025. It needed to be voted on very soon.

At the Dutch Grand Prix Toto Wolff was campaigning that the ideal Russell replacement for Williams would be the Mercedes Formula E champion Nyck de Vries. Albon, he said, was a concern to him because of his ties to Red Bull. He didn’t want Albon to learn all about the Mercedes PU in the Williams and report it all back to Red Bull. Given that Williams has long been closely aligned with Mercedes, it seemed that might be that.

But Albon’s confirmation as a Williams driver while still retaining links to Red Bull suggested a new alliance between VW and Red Bull. With Williams involved as well. Why? Because the CEO of Williams, now under new management since its sale to private equity group Dorilton, is Jost Capito. Who just happens to have deep ties to VW after heading up its motor sport operation between 2012-16 and more recently running its performance road car division.

The Red Bull Powertrains programme for the next gen engine and the VW programme seem set to being one and the same. But they each have their own vote in the engine manufacturer group. If just one of the three pro-H manufacturers could be persuaded to change its mind, suddenly it would be a fait accompli and H would be gone.

The engine manufacturers meeting at Monza are understood to have agreed a new power unit without ERS-h technology and which will be simpler and cheaper. The FIA issued a short statement about it afterwards: “The discussion was positive, and progress was made – some details remain to be addressed; however we expect these to be resolved in the coming weeks.”

Although it is widely expected that the new formula will be delayed by a year to 2026, the deal is essentially done and F1’s political landscape may just have shifted quite dramatically.

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