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Even though it was only the first winter test, the indications are hard to miss that we might be looking at another year of utter malaise courtesy of Mercedes-Benz. Nico Rosberg drove more than half as many laps on the first day as the team did over all four days last year and by the looks of things, he did so with relative ease.
And the explanation is not really that hard to work out. Mercedes were – depending on the track – two seconds, sometimes even closer to three seconds ahead of even their own customer teams last year. They could easily afford to give some of that advantage away and only invest tokens in reliability upgrades while still maintaining a sizeable advantage. Nobody can close that kind of gap without risking to show up with a contraption that has all the durability qualities of a 1980’s Polski Fiat.
A certain portion of the audience will automatically come up with the “like the last four years?” rubbish line, but that argument crumbles like a cheap suit, if you look at the numbers:
2010: Poles (5 drivers from 4 teams), Wins (5 drivers from 3 teams), decided in last race
2011: Poles (3 drivers from 2 teams), Wins (4 drivers from 3 teams), decided early
2012: Poles (7 drivers from 4 teams), Wins (8 drivers from 6 teams), decided in last race
2013: Poles (4 drivers from 2 teams), Wins (5 drivers from 4 teams), decided early
2014: Poles (3 drivers from 2 teams). Wins (3 drivers from 2 teams), (artificially) decided in last race
None of the “Red Bull years” were as one-sided as last season and it becomes more damning if you consider that the singular non-Mercedes pole was scored by a Mercedes customer and that all three Red Bull wins were gracious gifts from Mercedes. It could easily have been (2 drivers from one team) in both categories.
And that’s where the problem is – instead of implementing some real cost cutting measures – the powers that be sent out a huge honking invitation for a spending war. Mercedes said ‘thank you’, threw twice as much men and dough at it than the competition and ended up with an advantage that even with the law of diminishing returns is insurmountable for years.
Could that have been avoided? Hippo says “yes!“. Unless Mercedes waste tokens by bolloxing up a development, the current development restrictions make catching up a Sisyphus ordeal until Mercedes have reached absolute perfection. And it’s not like Merc are a first-time offender in causing spiralling costs. They propelled themselves to the business end of the pack within 3 years in the mid-nineties by introducing materials that would have appeared too futuristic and unaffordable to the Romulans.
Had FIA been serious about cutting costs, they would have made it unattractive to outspend the competition for an advantage. Since the Hippo Resource Management found no takers in Paris, I came up with another proposal that makes too much sense:
The HBDS or “Hippo Balanced Development System”
Instead of the current over-regulated rules, the rules merely say:
Instead of components, the resulting engine is defined by four performance categories: Power, torque, fuel use (measured in energy consumed to make up for different fuels), reliability.
Fuel economy and reliability development is unrestricted. Each engine – comparable to chassis crash tests – is FIA tested before the first winter test. The best engine in power and/or torque is “development frozen” in the respective category (they can still develop further but not introduce on track), while the others are allowed to develop at will up to within +/- 2% of the best engine’s value. That doesn’t prevent anyone from gaining an advantage, but it avoids such advantage to be cemented for a long time.
That freeze model remains in practice until all others have caught up in both categories. Then the development is “unfrozen” for all until pre-first-winter-test of the next season the next year. To prevent any manufacturer deliberately sandbagging on power or torque because they have a significant advantage on reliability or fuel economy, the unfreeze happens after two seasons at the latest, regardless of catch-up status, because if someone can’t make significant progress in 2 years – that manufacturer is hopeless.
That way you don’t summarily punish those, who do a good job, because they still have reliability and fuel economy at their disposal to stay on top, but you have some measures to avoid a complete runaway leader and greater advancements in fuel economy is something that massively benefits the road car. Huge spending for an advantage is less attractive with less ROI, except if someone wants to spend a gazillion bucks on making the car run a hundred miles on a drop of lavender perfume and a breath of lukewarm air, which would instantly convert all ecomentalists, tree-huggers and horse riders into huge F1 fans – shrinking viewership numbers solved…
As an added bonus you don’t have to change the engine formula every few years as there isn’t an engine formula to begin with.
So let’s look at a hypothetical example:
The engines are tested and it turns out, the Merc engine has the most power and the Ferrari engine has the most torque. That means, Fezza can’t increase their torque while Merc isn’t allowed to increase their power. But Merc can increase increase their torque to within +/- 2% of Fezza and the same goes for the power of the Maranello power plant in relation to the Merc. Development is limited, but not forbidden. The others can catch up wherever they manage to, which in Renault’s case most likely means – nowhere.
With development not artificially reduced the others are allowed to gradually catch up.
“But Hippo,” I hear you say with a stern face. “That will just open up another spending war.”
“In theory, yes,” I counter. “But who says that the current model is better?”
The current situation has killed off two teams already and with Force India a third one is in dire straights. The exploding costs for the complicated hybrid PU’s are a major factor in that. Given free choice about their design, I doubt the manufacturers would have gone for the current formula. It is more likely that some would have gone for a turbo or twin-turbo layout with a ‘conventional’ KERS, which would have meant that even with all-out development going on, the costs would still have been lower than what Merc sunk into building the current breed of engines.
To save the teams from being the financiers of over-spending projects the engine costs are capped at 10 million, adjusted every two years for global inflation.
The key to this whole concept is the absence of an engine formula. Everyone is free to do what they want. It could perhaps motivate VW to give up their reluctance – Bernie’s removal assumed – and showcase their prowess in producing high performance turbo diesel engines.
It could also change the nature of racing. You could end up with one team relying on a power advantage of its Mercedes engine, while another one starts a little further down the grid, but with its cars 20 kilogram lighter, because its Audi turbo diesel units use much less fuel.
Every manufacturer could showcase their preferred concept, as long as they can make it reasonably competitive and I doubt anyone could secure such an insurmountable advantage as different approaches are going to vary in their suitability to certain tracks.
It may all just be romantic dreaming by a Fat Hippo, but in the current state of the sport, dreaming is much more rewarding than watching reality.