Formula 1 has announced a new set of engine rules for 2021 and beyond, and it’s been a pretty hot topic recently to say the least. Rob Watts chats to BBC F1 pundit and ex-Cosworth engine boss Mark Gallagher to find out exactly how it will impact F1.
The unpopular V6 power units will finally be axed in three years time, to be replaced with a new model that F1 says will be cheaper, lighter, and louder. But with it seeming impossible to please everyone, what should we make of the new power unit proposals put forward, and is it enough to safeguard the F1’s future growth?
“I see it as an earnest effort to make the sport more attractive to new entrants, be they manufacturers or even an independent,” says Mark Gallagher. “In my view we need 10 year stability at least.”
Keeping the new set of regulations stable may prove to be crucial if the current grid is to close up and attract new entrants, and achieving both will be an enormous challenge for Liberty Media to overcome.
F1 boss Ross Brawn has spoken recently of the series being “at a crossroads”, and as Mark explains, the rate of development in the automotive industry makes it difficult to know for certain which direction is right for F1 to go in at this stage.
“Under the current FIA, F1 has endeavoured to remain ‘road relevant’, and if the sport gets its 2021 regulations wrong, the strides made by Formula E will appear small by comparison with what might happen in the next decade,” Mark warns.
“The sport needs to be careful that it does not ‘fiddle while Rome burns’, and Ross is therefore right to have this open debate about cost, technology and relevance right now.”
The move towards hybrid and electric technology has many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers switch their attention to Formula E of late, but for F1, attracting these same names to join its series has proved difficult.
F1’s desire to attract new entrants hasn’t been helped by Honda’s struggles. After all, if the might of Honda and all its resource cannot crack these current regulations, what chance would a much smaller corporation have with half the budget or even less?
Mark suggests that for manufacturers to consider joining F1 over Formula E, the series needs to demonstrate that costs are under control, but also that any new entrant has a reasonable chance of success.
“[A manufacturer like Porsche] is never going to come in if they cannot realistically expect to win – and quickly. We must remember that Formula E is a fantastic proving ground, and a great way of marketing an EV message, but in terms of the speed, technology and dynamics it represents, it remains a shadow compared to F1 and its audience size reflects that,” says Mark.
“What F1 must do is to play to its strengths, heritage, and position as the pinnacle of world motor sport. Formula E will itself start to see the challenges inherent in having lots of car manufacturers jostling for bragging rights; there can only be two or three winners, which means a fair few will become disenchanted.
“This is not unique to Formula E, but it’s too easy to say that they have cracked the manufacturer problem. Gaining lots of manufacturers can be counter productive, as F1 itself knows only too well.”
Part of the problem F1 faces right now can be traced back to the manufacturers themselves. Renault, who has ironically struggled since F1 returned to turbo power, threatened to quit the series a few years back if the current engines weren’t introduced.
The pressure on the manufacturers to develop new, cutting edge technology, while at the same time being forced to make it substantially more reliably than its predecessors has meant neither the fans, or many of F1’s stakeholders, are happy with the end product.
“It was always a bizarre decision to sign off on creating the most complex F1 power units of all time, and simultaneously place demands on them being the most reliable, longest-lived,” says Mark.
“The idea was to reduce costs through having a smaller supply of engines required, but the complexity of building such a unit and making it last for 5 Grands Prix weekends was always going to do the opposite.
“And the current grid penalties have to go. If you need to, penalise by deducting constructors points, rather than hurting the drivers, their fans and the spectacle.”
F1’s new commercial director, Sean Bratches, believes an element of unpredictability is crucial to keep fans interested, and he recently described his wish of seeing one of the midfield teams have their ‘Leicester City’ moment by winning a race against the odds; an outcome Mark can only see happening if today’s unfettered R&D budgets are reined in.
“At Jordan we won four Grands Prix, all with customer engines, when top teams either dropped the ball or had a weakness. But the tempo of R&D spend today, particularly on aero, has reached outlandish proportions, and unless development – and thus budgets – are reined in, expecting an independent to win now and again is unlikely,” says Mark.
“The top teams have always dominated F1, and that’s going to continue whatever happens, but if the regulations could at least allow Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and now-and-again a Force India and Williams to win, everyone would be very happy indeed.
“It’s going to require a lot of thought concerning the technical rules, budget cap and sporting regulations [to achieve that].
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff recently warned that the new engine regulations could actually have the opposite desired effect by increasing costs, but Mark believes he and his Ferrari counterpart Maurizio Arrivabene should be more concerned at the potential damage to the sport’s image if the manufacturers kick-start a new period of domination.
“’More of the same’ simply guarantees unending domination for the car manufacturer owned teams, and ultimately even Toto and Sergio Marchionne ought to recognise that as we head towards the 2020’s, if we do not make F1 compelling viewing for new generations, the sport is going to struggle to develop.
“Sports fans relish unpredictable results, and F1’s predictability has weighed against it in recent times. Thank goodness Red Bull Racing has made this year more than just a two-horse race, and we need more of that opportunity for others.”