The power struggle

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Two of Grand Prix racing’s most potent forces have lately been blunted by engine problems. We take a look at the underlying causes… and what might happen next

Two of Formula 1’s best teams, McLaren and Red Bull, are currently doing nothing more than making up the numbers. The performance shortfall of their respective Honda and Renault engines is making it impossible for them to compete at the front, such is their deficiency to the Mercedes power units. If we accept that there are only four truly front-rank teams – Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull – two of them have effectively been taken out of the game and there seems little prospect of Mercedes’ domination being threatened any time soon. Which is having an effect upon F1’s popularity. It’s placing huge strains on the relationships between the engine suppliers and their partner teams and is even raising questions about the F1 futures of Red Bull and McLaren. Furthermore, the public difficulties in cracking the hybrid F1 challenge for two such experienced entities is hardly making it inviting for other manufacturers to join in.

How could two organisations with the motor sport heritage of Renault and Honda get their sums so wrong? Where is it all heading, for the sport and the four organisations? Has the regulatory blend of the new formula (introduced in 2014) with a partial engine freeze been a contributory factor that needs to be addressed? Is the format of the engine regulations – whereby upgrades are progressively more restricted each year – forming a noose around the necks of Renault and Honda?

To be clear, at the time of writing Honda’s situation is rather bleaker than Renault’s. On the other hand, it’s Honda’s first season of the hybrid formula, Renault’s second. Only the exceptional job done by Mercedes HPP in answering the questions posed by the V6 hybrid formula has made for a competitive landscape in which the Renault is floundering. In 2014 its power shortfall was of a similar order to Ferrari’s, albeit for different reasons. A major constraint upon the 2014 Ferrari motor was the sizing and layout of the ersH, which made it particularly poor at recovering heat energy. This was corrected for 2015. The Renault’s limitation was – and remains – in its combustion chamber. The business part of the engine did not, in its conceptual stages, fully resolve the conflicts of power production and the onset of detonation. Even today, to keep it in one piece requires the timing to be set very conservatively – combustion has to be early to avoid knock, thereby compromising power and economy. It is currently giving away about 50bhp to the Mercedes – a deficit that accounts for roughly 0.6sec around a typical 100sec lap.

Because of a fundamental reliability problem with its ersH, the Honda cannot run with anything like maximum electrical boost and this in turn is compromising its mechanical performance. The heat energy recovered from rival engines is between 160-200bhp. Because of its necessarily conservative settings, the Honda ersH is contributing only about 70bhp. Because the turbo is part of the ersH system, it too is compromised, limiting the mechanical power of the internal combustion engine. Combined, it accounts for a horsepower shortfall of circa 130bhp – approximately 1.5sec per lap. Red Bull’s current qualifying deficit is about 1.0sec, McLaren’s 1.8.

The above numbers are educated estimates from engineers within the paddock, informed by sonic readings taken at the circuits. The numbers suggest that although the Red Bull RB11 and McLaren MP4-30 are not as good as the Mercedes W06 aerodynamically, most of their shortfall is from engine performance – and that with competitive power both cars would probably be giving the Mercedes a harder time than either Ferrari or Williams is currently doing. This also applies to the Renault-powered Toro Rosso STR8, a car with fast-corner performance that has caused a real stir. The stress on relationships between teams and engine partners is more openly apparent at Red Bull, with owner Dietrich Mateschitz recently claiming that Renault, “…takes from us not only time and money, but also motivation. There is no driver able to compensate for this lack of horsepower. What else has to happen that we will lose our motivation completely? How many teams left despite the fact they had contracts? You can’t force one to stay…”

The Red Bull-Renault relationship has always been spiky at best, positively adversarial at worst. Even when winning world titles together, they were hardly in love. A competitive turnaround from last year to this might have rescued a relationship that now looks doomed. But it’s clear now that the under-performance of the 2014 Renault was just symptomatic of deeper problems within the Viry base of Renault Sport – problems that have over-run into 2015. Its research programme began a full year later than that of Mercedes and there is a sense that it under-estimated the challenge, over-estimated its own level. “We got the impression there was a definite sense of Gallic pride,” says one engineer who worked with a Renault-supplied team last year, “a sense of ‘we know best’ that led them not to investigate the challenge as deeply as it might have, an under-estimation of the competition.”

Last year’s interpretation of the engine development token system was that no significant changes could be made during the season. This obliged Renault to run all of 2014 with what it knew to be a flawed engine. For 2015 it introduced changes to the combustion chamber that worked fine on the dyno – and instantly proved disastrous in the car. Under load a low frequency, high intensity harmonic was created and it destroyed pistons. The short-term solution to keeping the pistons in one piece during the opening few races was a software/mechanical configuration that gave awful driveability and an even bigger power deficit than last year.

“This was traced to a problem in the verification process of the simulation,” explains Rob White (right), Renault Sport’s chief technical officer. “So that gave us two problems to attend to before we could begin bringing performance to the engine.” In the meantime, several of the seasonal allocation of each car’s four engines had been used up by seizures or other failures. As for the performance modifications – which under the 2015 interpretation of the regulations are allowed to be made during the season – there are currently two competing programmes. There is Renault Sport’s own and that of Ilmor’s Mario Illien, brought in by Red Bull late last year as a consultant. Illien, one of the great names in F1 engine design, the architect of multiple race and title-winning Mercedes motors in the McLaren era, would – at Red Bull’s expense – liaise with Renault Sport in getting to the bottom of its combustion problems. Partly because of the difficult Red Bull/Renault relationship and issues of intellectual property, perhaps partly because of the aforementioned Gallic pride, this has been an excruciatingly difficult working relationship. At the engineer level it works fine and there is mutual respect, but at the management level there are so many restrictions in place, so much desire for the solution to come from Renault Sport’s own people rather than the consultant, that it has proceeded slowly. Illien does not even get to see the Viry dyno figures of his own prototype…

Illien’s initial single-cylinder study, produced early this year, was no better than the best of Renault Sport’s parallel studies – and not up to Mercedes levels. But the specifics suggested a direction he was confident would bring much fuller benefits when applied to a second single-cylinder prototype, which was ready to test from around the time of the Canadian Grand Prix. The test finally happened after the Austrian Grand Prix more than two weeks later – and showed a four per cent improvement over the current engine. Since its piston reliability problem was solved, the Renault is thought to be giving about 850bhp and a four per cent improvement – if carried over into the full V6 – suggests a figure of 885bhp, about 15bhp short of what Mercedes is believed to be delivering. The Renault guys concede that it is better than anything that they have so far seen from their own projects. But there is another Renault Sport single-cylinder project, not quite ready at the time of writing – and the results of that were awaited before any decision was made over which concept to use for the modified engine. Given that Red Bull is pushing to have the new engine in the car by the time of the Russian Grand Prix in October, any delay could be crucial.

Meantime, the prospects of the Red Bull-Renault contract being renewed beyond the end of 2016 must currently be assessed as slim. Renault president Carlos Ghosn has openly admitted that the options include pulling out of F1 or buying its own team. At the time of writing, the latter option was being pursued with the Enstone-based Lotus team, ironically the team formerly owned by Renault.

At McLaren it would be fair to say there is a measure of exasperation – not at Honda’s level so much as its apparent lack of urgency in progressing. The ersH reliability problem has been there since the beginning of the season and, after a few races running a more adventurous setting, it was back to Melbourne levels again by Austria, at just 35 per cent of capacity. Until that problem is resolved and the ers can run at full capacity, the potential of the Honda is impossible to know. It could be a world-beater, it could be mediocre – but Honda needs to find out sooner rather than later. McLaren team principal Eric Boullier, after keeping a lid on the building tensions in the season so far, finally revealed some of that frustration at the British GP, saying: “The pain is real. There is nothing we can hide. You are asking the right questions. Everything you ask has already been raised 100 times internally. We put pressure on Honda, they put pressure on us. Maybe more on them so far because we need to have more performance. Everybody knows this. It is true there is a timing issue: Honda is in F1 but its main business is selling cars, we are in F1 to win races. We have to make sure the timing of both projects is aligned.”

Which neatly summarises the conflict of priority. Honda is research and development-driven. It is viewing this project as an interesting R&D exercise whereas racing, and particularly F1, carries with it an implicit urgency. A satisfactory timeframe for the fruits of an R&D programme can be many years – a timeframe in which lack of results could have disastrous consequences for a team. Asked about the commercial implications of a possible long-term lack of success, Boullier answered, “I keep telling [Honda motor sport chief] Arai-san every day that we need to be successful as soon as possible. The damage is easy to understand. You establish the brand with your success and then by repeating it. McLaren has a number of wins and championships and has established its excellence. Commercially it does hurt because a lot of companies are interested in joining us but some people in their organisation question the lack of results, and I don’t think we can wait for very long any more.” Ironically, had McLaren not insisted on top rate for a title sponsorship deal two years ago, it could have afforded to run this year with customer Mercedes engines while Honda readied itself more thoroughly. But it needed the Honda money that came with the engine supply and so was essentially obliged to begin after Honda’s programme had been running for only 18 months, half the time invested by Mercedes before it raced.

Asked if he would be recruiting engineers from other manufacturers in order to speed up the process Yasuhisa Arai replied, “No. We have enough resources already.” As with Renault, there is a sense that solutions must come from within, for the sake of pride. It’s an attitude that cuts little ice with racing teams, as Boullier articulated at Silverstone: “We need to forget all this bullshit. This is Formula 1. If you are in F1 it is to do F1 – whether you are African, English or Japanese. If you are in F1, you have to do things the F1 way and at the standard of F1. Nothing else.”

An impatient team, an inscrutable engine partner in no apparent hurry: sounds potentially more combustible than anything going on inside the engine.

But the one thing both Renault Sport and Honda agree upon is that the engine token system is not at the root of their problems. “I don’t think either the homologation or the development token system has so far limited any of any of the current suppliers in terms of what they want to do,” says White. “Certainly, for Renault Sport they are not obstacles to correcting our performance deficit. It’s our responsibility to fix our deficit and the current technical and sporting regs allow us to do that. Clearly we need to manage our development and homologation processes and we need to choose our subjects correctly, but our evaluation of where our shortcomings are and our potential solutions to overcome them are not fundamentally limited by the regulations.”

With between 25 and 33 tokens to spend this year (varying between each manufacturer), and even a combustion upgrade costing only three, an engine could be totally redesigned if desired. The permitted token spend gets reduced each year, but it’s the responsibility of the engine manufacturer to progress fast enough to outrun a very gradual multi-year freeze process. It’s clear that the V6 hybrids have introduced unintended consequences to F1, but they have arisen only from under-performance by two of its legendary engine manufacturers.

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