With the 2017 F1 season wrapped up we are now more than half way through the V6 hybrid era. In three years’ time the controversial high-tech power units will go the way of the V10s, V8s and DFVs before them and F1 will look and sound very different.
The end of an engine formula is always an interesting time as teams try to keep winning in the present while laying the groundwork to win in the future. With that in mind let’s take a look at some of the things to look out for as the turbo hybrids enter their twilight years.
1. Closer racing as gains become harder to find
Three things define the current power units: The sound, the cost and the fact that Mercedes are almost embarrassingly good at making them. The Silver Arrows have won 80% of races since 2014 and taken a staggering 95 percent of poles.
The further into a formula you get however the harder it is to maintain that kind of dominance. There is only so much ultimate performance that can be eked out of a power unit and the more the engineers find, the less there is left hidden to discover.
For that reason, the grid has a tendency to bunch up after a few years of stable regulations as the leading teams run out of new gains and the others close the gap.
Will this lead to Sauber challenging for the world championship? Probably not. But it should give us closer racing and perhaps even that mutli-team showdown that we’ve been craving for the past few years.
2. Someone to fall behind as they shift investment to the new engines
The key to the Silver Arrows’ incredible winning streak lies way back in 2011 when the turbo hybrids were first announced. From day one the team concentrated its focus on preparing for 2014 and treated the V8 program as something of an afterthought.
The results speak for themselves but they came at a cost with the team spending almost four years in the wilderness as it focused on the future at the expense of the present.
Having seen what gains can come of this kind of preparation, it’s not inconceivable to see one manufacture scaling back its efforts in a bit to get a jump on the competition come 2021.
3. A battle with Formula E for manufacturers
Back in 2014 the future looked rosy for factory team involvement in F1. Enticed by the new technology, Honda were coming back! Soon McLaren would be winning world championships and other car makers would be beating down the door to get in on the fun.
It didn’t quite work out like that and instead it has been Formula E – a championship that had yet to stage a race when the V6 hybrids made their debut – that has lured the manufacturers.
Renault, Audi, BMW, Jaguar and DS already compete in the electric series with Nissan and Mercedes on the way as well. Meanwhile the announcement of the 2021 F1 engines has been met with little more than cautious interest by automotive companies.
With Formula E budgets likely to balloon in the coming years as the development war gets going, car makers are less likely to want to run teams in both series. Decisions will have to be made.
F1 is still by far the big dog of motorsport but if it wants to attract new manufacturers and hold on to the ones it has then it’s going to have to work for them.
4. Ferrari and Liberty to go to war for control of F1
It wouldn’t be a rules change without the Ferrari threatening to quit the sport. It’s been happening for longer than anybody can remember. If you were to travel back in time to ancient Rome, you would see aqueducts, gladiators and some guys in red threatening to quit the chariot races because they didn’t like the new horses.
For decades Bernie Ecclestone and the Scuderia danced around one another in a kind of pretend battle that resulted in both making a lot of money. It also resulted in Ferrari receiving perks that would be inconceivable in any other sport.
But times change; Liberty Media is not Bernie Ecclestone and current Ferrari boss Sergio Marchionne is not Luca di Montezemolo. This time around the fight is very real.
Liberty are on a mission to remake the sport for the modern era and it’s hard to see how Ferrari’s considerable privileges won’t find themselves on the hit list.
They will need to be careful though. Marchionne is a hard-nosed businessman who is not romantically attached to F1 in the way his predecessors were. He knows very well that as a publicly traded company, Liberty has a duty to protect F1’s shareholders and an F1 without Ferrari is worth a lot less than one with it.
A war is coming and the 2021 regulations are just the first battle.
5. The last stand of one of F1’s great generations and the rise of the next
Whatever you may think about the quality of the racing, it’s hard to argue that we are being treated to a golden era of driving talent. Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel would all sit comfortably on any list of all-time greats and there have been plenty on the grid who are not far off their level.
But all eras come to an end. Of the world champions currently in F1, only Vettel will be under 35 come 2021. With Alonso eyeing Le Mans and Lewis already openly talking about life beyond the sport, there is a good chance that we will see these drivers begin to drift away over the next few years.
But as one age ends, so does another dawn and if the early indications are anything to go by it could be quite the age indeed. 2021 will be the era of Ocon, LeClerc, Vandoorne and of course, the mighty Max Verstappen.
We don’t yet know how this new generation will compare to the one they’re replacing, but it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.