F1: The Lernaean Hydra

“Cut off one head and two more will take its place”


In Greek mythology, this was said of the Lernaean Hydra – an ancient serpent-like water monster with reptilian traits. It had poisonous breath and blood that was so virulent that even its tracks were deadly

In more ways than one, Modern Formula One bears a number of similarities to the Hydra, though the concept of many heads acting independently of each other is probably the closest.

One year on from the introduction of the new V6 engines, and the paddock is still divided over the new F1 engine regulations

Reflecting on the events at the Australian GP, David Coulthard says, “I think maybe the sport is trying too hard to save the planet. One grand prix season burns less fuel that one transatlantic flight, so the fuel usage in Formula One is not really going to save the planet”.

Coulthard is of course an ambassador for Red Bull and his comments follow those of Christian Horner and Helmet Marko who want the new engine regulations changing.

“So I think we have to be a little bit careful that Formula One doesn’t try to save the world through rules and regulations,” adds the Scot. He calls for Formula One to “be as competitive as is possible in any elite sport.”

Head of team Williams, Claire, sees things quite differently.

“From my perspective as a commercial director, the change in the engine regulations has definitely alleviated pressure talking to companies that look at Formula One as a sport and are put off by the environmental questions around it.”

Williams recognises that the new engines have not had the best PR since their introduction.

“I think we need to tell the story around these new engines. I don’t think it is a story that has been told enough yet and I think that would do us more favour if we did.

“But I do believe that from an environmental perspective it was the right way to go.”

Oh dear me. Now which head shall we chop off?

Coulthard is right when he states Formula One is a racing competition, and Williams is correct to observe that Formula One is also a story of technological advancement.

Yet neither have really grasped the point about the new F1 engines and their environmental value.

The pinnacle of motorsport engineering and design has brought many far-reaching changes to hundreds of millions of people’s lives.

Traction control, flappy paddle gear boxes, NCAP crash testing, crumple zones, aerodynamic efficient design, carbon fibre brakes, carbon cell construction, fuel and lubricants, adaptive suspension – ALL, have and are all being incorporated into the road cars driven across the planet.

And so designing the engines of the future is a natural space for Formula One to occupy. Particularly if the regulated 40% improvements in fuel efficiency can influence road car engine design. Millions of more efficient road cars will save trillions of currency units spent on fuel – and could indeed go quite some way to saving mother earth.

However, there is the small matter of 20 (well 19 now) races to consider. The engine manufacturers want to showcase their brands and they do bring huge amounts of finance to the table in order to fulfil this requirement.

But Formula One is also about racing!!!

And racing costs money. And the more money you spend, the more competitive you are. Give even Ferrari an unlimited budget and they will contrive to win F1 world championships – despite themselves.

So who decides how much is enough? Is it fair that one team has so much cash they could afford to take three or four new front wing designs to most races in 2013, whilst another bring an update every third or fourth race?

Is it fair that one engine manufacturer could afford to hire the finest engineering minds in the universe and gave them a blank cheque book to design a power unit which becomes unbeatable?

One’s fame and glory sold gazillions of fizzy drinks, whilst the other gains kudos and road car market share.

And both see value in the vast amounts they spend, which could fund a small country each year.

But not all the F1 players have that amount of cash, and the poor and desolate F1 folk – with a mere $100m to spend a year – can never hope to win. They pray for survival and at best to come second from last when the races are run.

Debates about making F1 racing competitive are a nonsense if they fail to address the issue of the totality of spending in Formula One. It’s like chopping off a head from the Hydra, then watching two more grow in its place.

28 responses to “F1: The Lernaean Hydra

    • Even if there’s a spending cap, someone will find away to get an advantage and someone will complain that it’s not fair. And the cycle will continue.

  1. Yeah, I know, I’ve been a bit contrary recently, but I can’t agree with a lot of this.

    Leaving aside a bunch of objections, I’d like to submit that absolutely first and foremost F1 is a marketing platform targeted at well-heeled sponsors who want to put their products in front of a particular demographic. The “attention” of the fans is the commodity F1 is selling to the sponsors. The key driver of the amount of “attention” on offer is entertaining racing.

    Like it or not, the mugs like us here on this forum aren’t Bernie’s / F1’s main target. There’s just not enough of us and we’re not all that fired up about the sponsors products. That comes with being a techy / geeky type. No shame in that – it’s just how it is 🙂

    The main target of F1 are the great unwashed masses of casual fans who merely like motorsport but only if it comes with interesting stories. Drivers / personalities / celebrities are good stories. The technology involved is a good story. But the best story by a long shot is close / exciting racing on the weekends and a close fight for the titles over the season.

    2014 was kinda OK, ‘cos it took a while for Lewis to bash Nico into submission for various reasons. I think Lewis will win a record number of races by himself this year barring reliability issues (& Nico with a record number of seconds) . Some will like that (Hi, Fortis 🙂 ), but I’d suggest that a lot of casual fans will think it’s boring and go “spend” their attention somewhere else.

    For mine, make no mistake: The sport’s absolute #1 priority is sponsor coin. The engineering competition that develops the cars is totally subservient to the need for entertaining racing otherwise the fuel that powers the development (bulk dollars) will disappear with the sponsors as they follow audiences / demographics to other arenas.

    Joe Punter doesn’t give a toss that MB have done the best job and ‘deserve’ the spoils of their efforts. Meh. What’s on the other channel?

    There will be NO prize money to more evenly distribute if the sponsors evaporate.

    F1’s problems are a multi-headed beast. Hydra-like? Eh, Maybe. The way that Hercules killed the Hydra was to cauterise the wounds as he lopped off each head (effective regulation, anyone). I’d suggest that the last head, the immortal head that Hercules had to deal with, is “crap racing” – or at least the perception thereof.

    Between RBR and MB we’ve had five seasons of one team seeming (to a casual fan) to win everything.

    That’s a bad thing.

    • I don’t disagree in its entirety, bust I must say: if the idea that Bernie’s targets are the ‘casual’ Motorsport fan, and thus, that this is where he can achieve the most bang-for-buck for his sponsors and advertisers, then why do we see the continuing blockade of accessible coverage (whether that be free-to-air TV or short YouTube clips) in favour of closed, external subscription service providers with broadcast agendas and material outside the control of FOM?

  2. “Debates about making F1 racing competitive are a nonsense if they fail to address the issue of the totality of spending in Formula One. It’s like chopping off a head from the Hydra, then watching two more grow in its place.”

    Spending and distribution of funds. F1 needs a budget cap. Yes, maybe teams would find ways to circumvent it to a certain degree, but it’s mere existence would prevent the current excesses in spending, because even the most clever teams couldn’t hide spending 500m if the budget cap was set at 100m. And a bigger share and more equal distribution of the money generated by f1 would equal the playing field and make teams less dependent on outside sources e.g. excentric but unreliable billionaires, fickle sponsors or large manufacturers.

      • How can you manage a budget cap? This isn’t a sport where the money is spent on a athlete wages. F1 has much more area for trickery. When did F1 need/use a budget cap in the past? Maybe you can’t hide spending $500m with a $100m budget cap, but if you can get away with spending $150m that is a 50% advantage.

        Teams don’t need a bigger share because they really don’t need to spend $200-300mln/yr to begin with.

        The prize fund idea has served motorsports since its inception. NASCAR and Indy car still use it. For decades different teams got paid vastly different appearance fees. All this isn’t anything new.

        TV money is created from people watching what is going on at the front, the winners and almost winners. So if those types draw the revenue why shouldn’t they get the bigger piece? Why does Marussia deserve a $100m pay day from FOM? F1 never need welfare before.

        • “Why does Marussia deserve a $100m pay day from FOM?”

          I have no problem with Ferrari getting $100m payout. Then, however, I expect Marussia to be getting AT LEAST a $50m payout from FOM. A 2x differential. This is both economically reasonable and sane. And it’s not the welfare games.

          For a useful parallel look at the Premier League. There Manchester United (i.e. Premier League’s rough equivalent of Ferrari) gets less than 50% more than the last placed club:

          “Here the bottom club received 65.1% of the monies awarded to Manchester City, who won the league. Or put another way, the winner only received around 50% more than the last placed club.

          In Formula 1 the bottom placed team receives around 10% of the highest remunerated and the gulf from last to first – as a mark up – is over 1000%.”

          Currently we have an insane 10x differential in F1. This has to stop.

  3. From the moment f1 entered into these regulations it’s been so many people offering their views. I think of the following

    1. F1 should market to the world their engineering marvel of completing a race with 100 kilos of fuel. After all for how long we would have enough resources to fuel our bikes cars and many more. May be ten more general ions
    2. Equitable distribution of prize money and disbursing 50% by November end of the same year and balance in February the following year

    3. Though engine penalties are harsh they are there. Friday engines are a good idea. Further it can think of one additional engine at least for one year and f1 should provide incentives for those who use the required number of engines.

    Restricting aero updates for one in four races and spending on aero as a % of total budget and Incentives for teams adhering to these limits

    • Too sensible! Imagine F1 actually telling people how wonderful they are. I agree re the engines, like em or not, almost a 1000bhp with 100kg/h fuel flow limit. That’s good power!

    • Question: Who knows how much 100 kilos of fuel is, in liters/gallons? My car tank holds about 15 gallons, less than 60 liters, I understand some blends of fuel may weigh out a bit differently from other blends, probably not significantly, but a few grams can make a slight difference, and we all know teams count grams. We also know that finishing with less than a liter in the tank will draw a fine.

      • I believe one liter of fuel weighs about 0,7 kg. But that was for the one you find at your local petrol station. Don’t know how much F1 feel weighs. I’d guess a little bit more. So Let say 0,8 kg per Liter.

        • More potent high octane fuels are often less viscous that those that are recovered at higher temperatures as they are less stable and much more volatile. This would indicate that a very potent race fuel would actually weight a little less than standard fuel from a pump, but the difference is almost negligible, certainly not 100g difference, more like 1 or 2 grams at most.

      • I believe that the volume of a kg of fuel changes with temperature, but the weight stats that same, that is why it is measured in kg (mass) not litres/gallons (volume) there can be up to 20℃ difference between the warmest race and the coldest race, this can have a considerable effect of the volume of the fuel and so to ensure accurate fuelling as a few grams may be critical, mass is the only constant.

  4. if the world was full of engines that sound like f1 engines (the turbo part) I’d probably kill myself. I HATE the high frequency whizzing it makes.

  5. Some say that if the FiA had set a maximum that a years worth of engines could cost, all the manufacturers would have spent about the same on development as the returns were capped.
    What a load of rubbish, I’m sure Mercedes make a massive loss on the engines the sell, given their capital investment, but this for them translates in marketing spend so its quite easy to write it off a ‘worth it’.
    I’m sure that even Ferrari could not justify spending the same as Merc, given that they sell low volume, high end cars to the elite, increasing their market share is much harder in such a small market place.

    F1 has always been about spending power, since it’s inception. It’s impossible to audit a company like Mercedes AMG F1 or the Ferrari F1 concern, as they have tools belonging to their respective parent companies at their disposal, so separating the 2 is nigh on impossible. Clever accounts spend all their time looking for ways to obscure financial results in the favour of the company they work for. So how would the FIA go about this task.

    I believe that limiting aero updates, or a team must nominate 4 complete aero packages at the seasons start and no in-season updates allowed, they must stick to 1 of the 4. (then spend the entire season working on aero kits for next year’s car)
    It’s a bit Indy car though, I would prefer a limit on updates to 5 in each area of the car in a season (front wing, side pods, engine cover, floor, rear wing) and can be implemented when the team feels fit. Its already been proven many times over, the more a team has to spend the more ‘failed’ aero parts they produce, where teams like Force India for example can only afford 4 New design front wings a season, so they make them count.

    Costs in F1 will never be fully under control, but the bottom line is, until there is a fairer distribution of prize money, the scales will always be weighted in favour of the big teams.

    • Just to play devil’s advocate.

      The engines are difficult for the FIA to scrutinise completely. There is a large element of ‘trust’ that the teams do not break the rules. Further, there is ‘fear’, that if caught the teams will be very heavily penalised. Even thrown out of the championship.

      Spending could be treated in a similar manner.

      Recently a football club tried to claim their stadium sponsor was committed to giving them £100m a year. In fact much if it was money from a sheik.

      Under the financial fair play rules this amount was discounted by EUFA to a more ‘reasonable’ amount. The team were then penalised for spending too much.

  6. “The pinnacle of motorsport engineering and design has brought many far reaching changes to hundreds of millions of people’s lives.

    Traction control, flappy paddle gear boxes, NCAP crash testing, crumple zones, aerodynamic efficient design, carbon fibre brakes, carbon cell construction, fuel and lubricants, adaptive suspension – ALL, have and are all being incorporated into the road cars driven across the planet.”

    Actually, from what I hear, this is a very rose-tinted way to look at F1.

    Here’s what The Economist had to say on this matter, when discussing the introduction of KERS in 2009:
    “WITH the Formula One season opening in Melbourne next week, people are about to be bombarded once again with rhetoric of how “racing improves the breed”. The idea that motor racing is an incubator for technologies that make passenger cars safer and better has always been something of a myth. With its demand for the ultimate of engineering in terms of performance and lightness (and scant regard for endurance and cost), F1 racing is so far removed from everyday life on the road that there is little scope for transferring its technology from the exotic to the mundane.” [..]

    “As often as not, the flow of new automotive ideas is the other way round, from road to track. In fact, the biggest innovation being introduced to F1 racing this year comes from the lowly Toyota Prius and its hybrid forebears.”

  7. “the environmental perspective”
    What a joke. Someone should take the time to calculate just how much energy is consumed by F1 over the course of a season taking into account, at a minimum, all the individual air travel, air and surface freight, private jets, conventional piston engined private aircraft, helicopters, hire cars, limos, mobile homes and hospitality units. And then compare this figure with the minute volume of fuel consumed by the F1 cars – either before or after the ICE-Hybrid transition.

    Of course in the context of the car industry worldwide a moment’s reflection reveals the absurdity of “green considerations” in relation to issues far more important than motor racing. In an era where, in European cities, average vehicle speeds are now down to that averaged by horses 300 years ago, the cars in the traffic jams are mostly powered by conventional IC engines usually producing > 100 bhp: in an environment where speed is now frequently restricted to a (frequently unattainable) 100 mpg and this could have been attained years ago if it weren’t for the fact that our “democracies” are actually fig-leaves obscuring the interests of the oligarchy who control Big Capital. It doesn’t require the development of absurdly complex F1 hybrids to introduce this technology at a consumer level.

    F1 should be totally reconfigured with the sole objective of producing exciting, competitive racing amongst sizeable fields of cars. There have been many plausible detailed proposals on how to achieve this. All entail a degree of simplification and the inevitable conflict with existing vested interests. As for F1 as the “pinnacle of motorsport”, that condition should be maintained by the performance of the cars, not by ideological considerations.

    • “F1 should be totally reconfigured with the sole objective of producing exciting, competitive racing amongst sizeable fields of cars”

      That maybe the case – but you then raise the spectre of a spec series.

      Also it still doesn’t solve the problem of a global marketing company spending billions to build an unbeatable car

  8. Introducing a completely new engine, meant that makers had to start from scratch so, I am sure that they all spent as much as they thought that would be enough to make the best engine possible. However, one of them, Mercedes, did a much better job than the others so a budget cap would have not guaranteed that they all had built similar engines. In fact, it would prevent them from trying to catch up with Mercedes. That is what the engine freeze does thus being a sort of budget cap.

  9. Perhaps, or surely, I am wrong but considering that Daimler-Benz R&D budget has being around 4 billion euros in the recent years only for the passenger car subdivision, I really wonder what an impact their formula 1 team may have in the development of new things.

  10. “…the more money you spend, the more competitive you are.”

    Shouldn’t that read:
    “…the more money you spend, the fewer competitors you have. 😉

    Good article. Nice to compare and contrast Clare Williams’ analysis versus Coulthard’s. Clare is correct. DC is an agitated dinosaur for selfish reasons (Red Bull contract). Hope he snaps out of it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.