F1 frontline: September 2018

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Another month, another stumbling block as conflicting interests complicate plans to finalise the next generation of Formula 1 engines

The long-anticipated new engine formula of 2021 looks likely not to happen. Just as the agreement between the manufacturers, Liberty and the FIA was due to be signed off and the regulations published, the four existing manufacturers have applied the brakes. They now wish to retain the existing concept of engine – including the ERS-h, which had been due to be deleted. The major motivation for dispensing with it was to simplify the technical challenge so as to encourage new manufacturers to enter. Porsche was planning on doing so from 2021 but feels it cannot commit at this stage, as the parent VW Group is caught up in the still-unfolding emissions scandal.

So, without any new manufacturer coming on board, say the existing manufacturers, why go to the expense of changing?

This is a format of engine described by Liberty’s Ross Brawn last year as, “An incredible piece of engineering but it’s not a great racing engine. It is very expensive, it doesn’t make any noise, it has componentry that in order to control the number of uses is creating grid penalties that make a farce of F1, there are big differentials of performance between the competitors and we are never going to get anyone else to come in and make engines.”

This is a potentially huge deal in determining who holds the power going forwards after the current deal between Liberty, the FIA and the teams expires at the end of 2020. Liberty wants a great show to promote, the FIA wants healthy manufacturer participation and the manufacturers want to minimise their costs while still enjoying F1’s image and reach.

In this, Liberty’s wishes are most closely aligned with those of the fans. Yet again, it is the manufacturers who are effectively imposing a formula that fans do not like while the FIA is caught in the middle.

Let’s suppose that some sort of compromise can be reached, where the ERS-h remains but a way is found to increase the volume and reduce the price charged to independent teams. Liberty still has the challenge of trying to impose a cost cap on the manufacturer teams, an idea to which they are generally hostile but forms a key part of the ‘new F1’ package of 2021 onwards.

Given how the manufacturers have just thrown their weight around on the engines, we can assume they will do the same when push comes to shove on budget caps. We are already seeing how closer ties between Ferrari and the independent Ferrari-powered teams Haas and Sauber have helped the latter pair become much more competitive of late. These two small teams now field cars that can – and do – regularly beat those of independents McLaren and Williams. Haas has even been outperforming the works Renault team, with just a couple of hundred people. When Ferrari makes a power unit update and works out all the operating parameters, cooling requirements and so on, the customer teams receive it as a turn-key package that works.

Let’s suppose that Mercedes sees the benefit of this and begins assisting, say, Williams and Force India, turning them into effectively Mercedes satellite teams. It would be a convenient solution to the financial headaches facing these two independents and Force India is already structured in a way that lends itself to becoming a B-team, with so much of its manufacturing work contracted out.

In this way, the aim of the budget caps could be subverted. If a manufacturer feels it needs to spend $400 million a year to beat the others, but the budget cap is $150 million, then it can simply distribute that spend between three entities to make the books balance. The independent teams wouldn’t really be independent and the chances of any competitive volatility would be tending towards zero.

Honda already has Red Bull and Toro Rosso. Which would all rather leave McLaren out in the cold. Could it cosy up to Renault? That might be awkward, given the size of the facility and status of the McLaren brand. McLaren operating as Renault’s satellite team?

The latest development regarding the engines will likely be smoothed over and some sort of compromise reached – just as with the cost cap. But it will mean an F1 less good than it could be and it illustrates again that the car manufacturers have way too much clout in determining how Grand Prix racing is. It was as a result of allowing the manufacturers to dictate what sort of engine they would like that we got to the current ‘not great racing engine, very expensive, that doesn’t make any noise, with componentry that in order to control the number of uses is creating grid penalties that make a farce of F1, with big differentials of performance between the competitors and we are never going to get anyone else to come in and make engines.’ The introduction of that engine has only given those manufacturers yet more power, as it has removed the possibility of competing against them. The independents – teams with as proud a history as McLaren and Williams – are now there to make some noise and fill in the gaps between the manufacturer cars. And to give the least performing manufacturer someone to beat to save on embarrassment and pulled budgets.

F1’s backbone needs to be that of a group of entities whose only reason for existence is to race in F1. There are only a few of those left and, the way things are going, the cost cap looks likely to neuter them. The power of the manufacturers needs to be severely limited, but in the consensus-driven structure in place at the moment, that isn’t going to happen. Especially with the ever-present unspoken threat of a breakaway championship.

How brave does Liberty want to get? It wants to look after its investment, so probably not very.

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