Engine arms race ramps up as F1 development freeze looms


F1's engine development freeze will lock power unit performance for 3 or more years and manufacturers are racing to get their developments on track before time runs out, writes Adam Cooper

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes in pit garage

A new engine for Hamilton in Turkey. Will reliability play a further role in the title race?

Grand Prix Photo

One way or another Formula 1 power units have been a topic of conversation of late, whether in the context of grid penalties for the sport’s top names, or the bigger picture of what direction the future rules take.

Those two strands are not unrelated. As part of the build-up to new regulations all the manufacturers are currently racing against a deadline. The engines they homologate before the first race of the 2022 season will subsequently be frozen for the next three or four seasons, The exact timing depends on whether the new formula is eventually formally confirmed as starting in 2025 or 2026, although the latter is the expected choice.

In essence the freeze is to allow the manufacturers to focus their R&D resources on their new projects, with in theory only reliability fixes allowed on the existing designs.

It also puts all of the suppliers under pressure to be ready with their best possible packages at the start of next season given that they will have such an extended life – hence the current rush by some of them to get their latest kit on track, which is of course the best place to prove it.

This season development was already limited by regulation, with one upgrade of the major components allowed. Honda has a new energy store for example, first used by Sergio Perez at Zandvoort, and subsequently supplied to Max Verstappen. Ferrari meanwhile has introduced an upgrade to its hybrid system for its fourth unit of the season. Taking it sent Charles Leclerc to the back of the grid in Russia, and will do the same for Carlos Sainz in Turkey.


Verstappen lined up alongside Leclerc at the back of the grid in Sochi

Lars Baron /F1 via Getty Images

Both upgrades are public signs of the arms race that is mostly going on behind the scenes, as the four manufacturers work to hone those 2022 packages. The switch to using 10% ethanol in next year’s fuel provides a further challenge.

Meanwhile in the short term all teams face the problem of getting to the end of what is now set to be a 22-race season. It is pretty much impossible to do on three examples, without penalties for taking a fourth.

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All manufacturers are dancing on the edge on reliability, and all are pushing the performance envelope, especially the two title contenders. Some top runners have also lost engines to accident damage, further ramping up the stress.

Mercedes in particular has suffered with reliability issues, some very public – as with practice failures for Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel at Zandvoort – and others less so. A new unit that was supposed to run by Valtteri Bottas at Spa failed before it took to the track, and then the fresh one that he did eventually take at Monza had issues on Friday in Russia, and had to be replaced on race day in Sochi.

Lewis Hamilton stops on track at Zandvoort

Hamilton suffered engine failure in practice at Zandvoort

Dan Istitene/F1 via Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton took a new V6 on Turkey on Friday morning. It was just the one fresh PU element, as the team is confident that other older parts mated to it will survive the season. It thus generated a 10-place penalty rather than sending him to back of the grid.

Verstappen got lucky in Russia, taking a full penalty hit that put him to the back, and yet emerging from the chaos of the late rain on race day with second place, a pretty good reward in the circumstances.

It remains to be seen what Hamilton can get out of the Istanbul weekend, although the good news for him was that Verstappen and Red Bull have been struggling. A win here with Hamilton starting down the field is by no means guaranteed for the Dutchman.

Mercedes and Red Bull can only hope that power units play no further role in determining the destination of the 2021 championship.

Charles Leclerc Ferrari at Istanbul Park

Ferrari upbeat about new power unit spec

François Flamand / DPPI

It’s not just about the winners of course, and the latest Ferrari upgrade gives the Maranello outfit a useful boost in its battle for third with McLaren, as well as providing useful development for 2022.

“I feel like we are working very well as a team whether it’s on the car, the engine,” said Charles Leclerc. “Every time we’ve brought something, it was something in the right direction. And that was the case also at the last race for the new package.

“So it’s great to see that and it gives me the belief that we’ll keep doing positive steps in the right direction, especially for next year where it is a big opportunity for us to come back to winning. What I can say is that we are working the right way to perform at our best next year.”

“Obviously I’m excited about the power unit,” said Sainz. “I welcome all the development and all the effort that has been made to bring this forward these few races to try it this year. It looked promising in Sochi on Charles’s side.”

Sainz agreed that the best place to test new developments was on track: “Every month that we can anticipate these things, every month that we can go back to the dyno and keep chipping away at it, because as you have seen we have a deficit in power still, a decent deficit that we are trying to correct.”

Ferrari certainly seems to have momentum heading into next year. As far as 2022 is concerned the biggest question mark has hitherto hung over Honda, and the transition into the stewardship of Red Bull Powertrains. How could a racing team take over a works engine project and continue to run it at the same level, inevitably operating with one eye on the overall cost?

Red Bull Honda tribute livery

Honda/Red Bull relationship will continue into next year and beyond

Red Bull

Negotiations have been ongoing for months, and on Thursday the two parties revealed more details of how it will work.

No one expected that Honda would walk away after this year’s Abu Dhabi finale and simply hand Red Bull and AlphaTauri a stock of engines, and that has proved to be the case. It has now been confirmed that Honda will remain closely involved throughout the key transition year of 2022, while the new company in Milton Keynes finds its feet.

Honda says it “will support Red Bull Powertrains in building the 2022 PU and also provide trackside and race operation support from Japan throughout the 2022 season, and from 2023, Red Bull Powertrains will take responsibility for all manufacturing and servicing of Red Bull Racing and Scuderia AlphaTauri’s engines.”

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Crucially employees of Honda Racing Development UK, both Japanese and British, will transfer across to the new company, providing useful continuity.

The bottom line is that Honda will continue to work flat out through the winter and until the start of next season in an effort to provide Red Bull the best possible start to the new era – and we have to assume that it will push as hard as if it was continuing to run under its own name.

Indeed, asked how much will change from 2021 to 2022 Christian Horner said: “Very little. So that’s great news for Red Bull Powertrains, because it really helps hold our hand in this period.”

And even in 2023, when Red Bull will assemble the engines, there will be a lot of input from Japan – Horner even cast doubt on the official PR line that manufacturing will switch to the UK side.

“We will not manufacture any parts for 2023,” said Horner. “All components will need to come from Japan. It would be impossible to take on that, we don’t have the facilities or the infrastructure to do that.

“So the facilities we are building in Milton Keynes are very much focused on the new regulations. And of course, assembling a technical team to deal with the new regulations.”

Those new regulations have yet to be officially confirmed, but they are expected to see the removal of the MGU-H, and with will go it a layer of complexity and expense that Red Bull could do without as it prepares for the new era.

The big question now is what the VW Group plans to do when those new regulations come into play. Will the company finally commit to F1?