Voice of #F1 Fans: Why does everyone seem to think that it’s all down to the Power Unit now?

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Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler landroni 

There seems to be some degree of confusion as to the importance of engines… ahem… power units in F1 these days. When it comes to winning GP’s and fighting for the world championships – some seem to think that it’s all down to the Power Unit now. While some others will go as far as pointing to the need of being a works team, to do well.

The truth is that there is probably great potential for pleasure, so to speak, in being able to fiddle with your own engine these days. The trouble with Power Units is that these new beasts are incredibly complex. It’s not like in days gone by: you fired them up, and they worked. Now many variables come in to play and understanding how they interact is key to having an engine that could, so to speak.

This includes fuel characteristics, operating temps, most efficient packaging layout, etc. The question is whether all of these key items are (fully) disclosed to customer teams, as some of them would naturally be part of the competitive advantage of the works team? For instance. A number of F1 publications suggested that in 2014 McLaren had no access to the PU outside race weekends, with Mercedes removing it after each GP. Now why on Earth would Mercedes do this?

Then there is also the issue of software, in this day and age the external software which manages the engines requires constant tweaking. Would it not be the case that an engine manufacturer would be the first to test new developments and features on their own machinery, before deciding its good enough and pass it down to customers?

This unavoidable lag, even without any malevolent intent from the manufacturer, would ensure that customers are generally one step behind the works team. As TJ13 pointed out earlier this year, “Mercedes customer teams obviously have an engine with the same advantages, yet they received delivery of the power unit much later in the chassis design process, and have had less time to consider how best to adapt the installation.

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Mercedes über alles

What about Red Bull? Out of all the Renault powered steeds, they were the only ones to benefit significantly from improved Renault performance last year – arguably, as a result of busing Austrian programmers in to Viry-Châtillon. When things were getting better, some of this knowledge/fixes/features trickled down to Toro Rosso, but looking at results for Lotus and Caterham was it the same for them?

Once again, only the (de facto) works was in with any shout of a win, and win they did against odds.


Fondue savoyarde

And Ferrari? Well, Renault may have royally messed themselves up at the start of 2014, by what amounted to a 20 week delay but  as some will no doubt point out – Red Bull still had a seriously efficient chassis.

Ferrari however were hampered both with their anemic PU and dysfunctional chassis, the latter a bitter legacy of Alonso’s. And if someone powered by Ferrari had any shout at a win, history shows it it will likely still be the works Ferrari that will win (Perez anyone?).

For those in the mood for some Ron-speak, here’s what the inimitable Brit had to say on the matter: “The one thing that jumps at you, if you look at all the qualifications this year [2014], is the time difference between the Mercedes-Benz works team and other teams.”

Dennis revealed that McLaren as a customer were unlikely to be benefiting from the best package (i.e. the optimal package available to the works team) or from the best understanding of the supplied package:

My opinion, and it is an opinion held by many people within our organisation, is that you have no chance of winning the world championship if you are not receiving the best engines from whoever is manufacturing your engines. And a modern grand prix engine at this moment in time is not about sheer power, it is about how you harvest the energy, it is about how you store the energy.

According to Dennis, in 2014, McLaren had no access to key data regarding the Mercedes power unit, implying that no access to the source code of a modern power unit would be unhelpful in the team’s quest to optimize the chassis around the power unit:

Effectively, if you don’t have the control of that process, meaning access to source code, then you are not going to be able to stabilise your car in the entry to corners etc., and you lose lots of lap time. Even though you have the same brand of engine that does not mean you have the ability to optimise the engine.

So it quickly becomes clear that, in this exciting new era, for McLaren it was a vital necessity to become a works team: whether with Honda, Cosworth or Tatra. Being able to fiddle with their own engine, in their own backyard, would certainly bring them considerable pleasure. Well, as long as it doesn’t burn, that is. . .

Still remember how Mercedes honoured a 20-year shared history with their partner by removing the PU after each GP and letting McLaren fly home empty-handed? McLaren can now be privy to the engine’s inner workings, and request of their fuel supplier to R&D and optimise the fuel to the needs of the engine.

They now have all the genuine operating ranges for the PU, complete with understanding of error margins, do’s and don’ts. They are the ones filing the bug reports, and these have absolute priority.

Whether the PU shall bring inner happiness and satisfaction to McLaren remains to be seen. TJ13 types may be mocking Big Ron and sidekick Éric, but the imperious Brit seems to have effected in the MTC what the fabled Sergio Marchionne, the frighteningly smiling Bespectacled Ripper, has heaped upon Ferrari: a refreshing dose of autophagy, i.e. disposing of unnecessary or dysfunctional components.


Il assassino occhialuto

Gone is Martin Whitmarsh, an aerospace engineer at heart, not a racer. As is Paddy Lowe, willingly; even if chances are that he had simply avoided a pitchfork by running for the hills even before any sign of torches became apparent. Gone, too, is the head of aerodynamics Marcin Budkowski, a key player—along with Paddy Lowe—in the miserable MP4-28 creation.

(It is curious that both Lowe and Budkowski were promoted to key senior positions not long before the ill-fated MP4-28, all under the eyes of Martin Whitmarsh. Some may say that they had a point to prove, and prove it they did!)

Sergio Pérez was also unceremoniously dropped, replaced with a very promising talent in Kevin Magnussen. Out with the old, in with the new. . . Or so they say. Jonathan Neale was kept with a guillotine suspended above his head, for good measure.

Whitmarsh got replaced by Éric Boullier, a relative neophyte, but a racer nonetheless who has proven some worth in keeping together for several years a slowly sinking Enstone.

Former Red Bull aero chief Peter Prodromou, one of Newey’s right hand men, was also poached. And there was of course the aborted poaching of Dan Fallows, also from Red Bull, who turned his back on his recently forged contract when promised the moon by Christian Horner.

Red Bull know-how is now quite obviously present in McLaren’s newest creation. Who said that McLaren needed to be handed copies of confidential documents from rival teams by disgruntled ex-employees?! Too risky to handle the documents? Poach the employees! So this week in Jerez emerged the graciously tightly packed rear of the McLaren MP4-30, with a matching elegant and sexy front. Coupled with an engine that one day rattles like a baby while the other roars like a tiger, it makes for an intriguing, even if strange combination. Perhaps a cougar? But I digress.

Here’s to hoping that the Merc boys shall be checking their mirrors a tad more often this year, whether troubled by the Bespectacled Ripper minions, smiling bulls in camouflage, their very own alcoholic smaller brothers, or Big Ron’s roaring tigers. . .


A roaring cub?

6 responses to “Voice of #F1 Fans: Why does everyone seem to think that it’s all down to the Power Unit now?

  1. Don’t forget Sam Michael has had the chop/gone home (same thing really) from McLaren too. Ron pruned back to the dead wood in a very ruthless way. But it needed doing. McLaren stopped doing so well when Ron tried to build up the road car business and run the race team, eventually promoting Whitmarsh. So it is very possible that with a full committed Ron once more, McLaren could easily become regular title contenders again.

    • Sam Michael! I knew there was one more head on a spike, but couldn’t remember who!

      “So it is very possible that with a full committed Ron once more, McLaren could easily become regular title contenders again.”

      I have a feeling that things go a little bit deeper than this.

      Many have reproached Dennis that even with him at the helm, McLaren hasn’t won much of note in the past 10 years or so prior to being pushed out by Spanky in 2009. And many are arguing that McLaren have too rigid an approach to building cars, relying incredibly on their models, and allowing designers little in terms of freedom. Newey famously couldn’t stand the rigidity and flew away to a budding Red Bull who organized the team around the guy, culminating in 4 WDC and 4 WCC titles. (As an aside, now that the guy stepped sideways, things don’t look rosy for the Bulls, and they may all of a sudden metamorphose to a Red Cow… Maybe that’s what the camouflage was for?)

      As mentioned in the piece, Whitmarsh is an aerospace engineer at heart. He entered McLaren in 1989 as Head of Operations, and then got promoted to Managing Director in 1997, and to CEO of the F1 team in 2004. I have a theory that it was Whitmarsh who brought into McLaren this rigid, model-based approach, from his aerospace engineering years. And while under Big Ron’s supervision this approach has reliably kept McLaren fighting at the front, it has also proved to have a clear ceiling as it has reliably kept McLaren from winning championships. The approach left to Whitmarsh himself and without Big Ron’s babysitting brought the team to its knees, as witnessed in 2013 and 2014. And Whitmarsh was always clearly slightly out of his depth in the F1 world, whether in his unwavering support for Jense, or his choice of drivers in Perez, or in giving in to his senior engineers, twice (first allowing Lowe to revolutionize the quickest car on the grid; and second believing his engineers’ talk of sorting out the car, instead of quickly reverting to the previous year’s flier). And his “good citizen” approach brought McLaren nothing good in this Piranha Club, as Dennis mentioned, distracting McLaren from their core business priorities.

      And I think it’s under this light that people should be looking at the new rhetoric emanating from the MTC recently.

      “With aerodynamic performance so critical in F1, McLaren traditionally chased peak downforce figures in its quest for success.

      But while maximum downforce has its benefits, it can result in teams producing a car that shows good figures in the windtunnel then cannot replicate them on track.

      That can lead to a car that performs inconsistently, or where the downforce only exists within a very narrow operating window.

      This is something McLaren has experience of, which is why its car has often run with very stiff settings in a bid to try to find performance that it feels is theoretically there. [..]

      The priority is no longer pursuing theoretical peak downforce figures – it is about achieving maximum useable downforce. [..]

      McLaren racing director Eric Boullier said after the unveiling of the new McLaren MP4-30 that chasing peak figures that cannot be replicated on track is now a thing of the past.

      “This concept of driver friendly, it is maybe new – and part of this new philosophy,” explained the Frenchman.

      “We are trying to make sure we can give our drivers the ability to exploit the car to the limits, which means getting this performance package.

      “If you have a performing car and a driver cannot drive it, then it is obviously a waste.

      “We want to make sure our drivers can drive the car to the limit, which means we will exploit to the limit. And this is where the new philosophy is turning to.”

      It’s something that even Jenson Button has noticed as he embarks on his sixth season with the team.

      “This year’s car is very different to the last two years,” he said.

      “The mechanics say everything just fits, rather than different departments building different bits of the car and then putting it together.”

      Of course it’s easy to dismiss this as Ron-speak or Eric-speak (and I wouldn’t put too much weight on some of Jense’s public musings), but it does seem to make sense in the broader context. With Whitmarsh firmly out, this shall the first year in McLaren’s return to its roots, of sorts: dropping the aerospace engineering approach of different departments turning up the bits and the models ensuring that they fit; and switching to a racer, Boullier, trying to spearhead the devel team into a sane direction.

      Whether this shall work or not remains to be seen, but Dennis’ head is no doubt on the line. Either way, it seems to me that this is what was going through Dennis’ head when he embarked on his own version of Maranello’s bloodbath… (Even before Marchionne stepped into the limelight, it must be said…)

      • That was a very decent piece, landroni, thank you.
        Wouldn’t worry about overlooking Sam Michael; he always seemed a character very easy to forget – like Lowe really.

  2. “Ferrari however were screwed both with their anemic PU and dysfunctional chassis, the latter a bitter legacy of Alonso’s.”

    So now Alonso is also responsible for a dysfunctional chassis? …

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