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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.”
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.
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 , 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.
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. . .