The Ecclestone myth about F1 manufacturers

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Just because someone important makes an assertion – and it is then repeated by many others – doesn’t make it true.

There is a current polemic in Formula One circles, which broadly states that manufacturers come and go from the sport on a whim – and therefore their contribution is somewhat marginal. Of course, this is driven by a certain Bernie Ecclestone and has been emphasised by the desperate plight of his ‘son and heir’ Christian Horner – who has been forced to plead with these monsters for months for an engine supply agreement.

Ecclestone has been increasingly frustrated about being unable to get his own way since the appointment of Jean Todt as president of the FIA and the formation of the F1 strategy group. Despite the strategy group being Bernie’s own ‘love child’, he perceives the manufacturers therein are ganging up against him and controlling the way their customer teams vote both here and on the F1 commission.

Having failed to force Mercedes and Ferrari to cut the cost of their V6 Turbo Hybrid power units, Bernie and Jean launched down the path of threatening these two giants of the sport with a ‘new budget’ F1 engine design and supply – that would allegedly compete in terms of power with the new breed of hybrids.

Mercedes and Ferrari duly lined up the troops for the F1 commission vote and the unicorn engine proposal was thrown out. In response Todt decided to get his FIA to provide Ecclestone and himself a mandate to do as they please – for the good of Formula One.

The budget engine has divided F1 fans with many citing Ecclestone’s assertions that manufacturers should be less important because they come and go from F1 as they please.

Yet is this really the truth?

Ferrari has been in the sport since its inception in 1950. This historical commitment to the sport, rightly or wrongly, means they are provided with an annual stipend in the region of $100m.

Mercedes dabbled in F1 for just two seasons in the 1950’s, but joined the sport proper in 1994 as an engine supplier. Their association with Mario Illien and Ilmor produced what is now known as the Mercedes AMG High Performance power trains division.

So Mercedes have now completed 22 consecutive years of service to F1.

Renault are the third most successful engine manufacturer in Formula One, and since they joined the sport in 1977 have won more races than any other engine manufacturer.  Since 1977, Renault have been absent from F1 for just the 1987 and 1988 seasons. They have been ever present either as a supplier of engines or with their own works team. They also have two constructor world championships.

Of the four current manufacturers, Honda may be considered the flakiest. They entered F1 as a works team in 1964 and left in 1968. From 1983 they supplied engines for independent teams, then in 1993 the Honda name disappeared, but they continued within the sport under their association with Mugen as an engine supplier.

The Honda name returned in 2000 powering the BAR and Jordan teams, then in 2006 Honda entered as a works team. Leaving the sport at the end of 2008. The brand returned in 2015 in partnership with McLaren. This means over the 52 years since 1964, the Japanese manufacturer has been part of Formula One for 31 years.

In fact, with the exception of Ford, these four manufacturers make up the back bone of what Formula One has been. 81% of F1 races won have been won by engines from Ferrari, Ford, Renault, Mercedes and Honda.

To suggest the current group of manufacturers just come and go from Formula One, is ridiculous given the facts. Once again, F1 games are being played by the sport’s CEO who continues to damage its reputation week on week and month on month.

If Ecclestone and Todt do get their way and a new independent manufacturer is allowed to produce the budget engine, two possibilities remain.

Firstly, the budget engine will not match the power of the hybrids and so the races will become two tier affairs – as defined by different engine specifications. The grand prix circuits of the world have seen this before, it was called Formula One and Formula Two.

Secondly, if the budget engine is allowed to compete with the hybrids of the manufacturers, then the manufacturers will leave Formula One leaving behind a glorified GP2 series of events.

The manufacturers are not incidental to Formula One – they are the backbone of the sport, and the current four have more than served their time and earned their dues.

Of course watching Mercedes winning everything is boring, but that’s not Mercedes fault. Of course it takes two to three years for Ferrari and the rest to build hybrids that can compete – but neither is that Mercedes fault. The demonisation of Mercedes for winning reveals the lack of creative thinking to prevent these periods of dominance which have been happening since the late 1980’s.

Engine dominance is nothing new in Formula One as the following list of the last 30 years winners demonstrates

Honda 1986-1991

Renault 1992-1997

Mercedes 1998

Ferrari 1999-2004

Renault 2005-2006

Ferrari 2007-2008

Mercedes 2009

Renault 2010-2013

Mercedes 2014-2015

Each era of dominance averages out at just over 3 years.

There are a plethora of tools at the disposal of FOM and the FIA to ensure these periods where one manufacturer is dominant are shortened. But changing the regulations repeatedly is not the solution and bad mouthing those manufacturers who are fundamental to the DNA of the sport is also painfully stupid.

The simplest solution to preventing eras of dominance is by ‘success handicaps’. Not race by race, but year on year. Forcing the winning team to run their cars for a season car with incremental ballast is both a cheap and effective solution.

Yet the purists don’t want this artificial interference with racing, so we go round and round in circles – never solving the problem – with era after era of dominance in Formula One.

Nothing has been done to solve the problem of Mercedes lead over the rest for 2016, so we can but hope Ferrari run them close. That said, TJ13 post season analysis demonstrated the red team have made no progress during 2015 on Mercedes 1 lap pace, and given that Saturday is when the race winner is in effect decided – even were Mercedes to pick the wrong tyres under the new Pirelli system, their advantage looks big enough to cope with this and still win.

A team race analyst told TJ13 they believed Mercedes will predominantly pick the softest of the three compounds on offer as one of their tyre set choices. This should guarantee pole position and overtaking in the races will be no easier in 2016 than it has in 2015. The potential excitement will come because other teams will using the harder rubber. Mercedes may then have to reveal the true pace of their car and at race after race make more stops than others – but isn’t this as artificial as ballast?

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13 responses to “The Ecclestone myth about F1 manufacturers

  1. Your assertion that the budget engine can not mach the power of the hybrid units is completely and utterly false. Thus all of your comments supported by this claim are equally untrue which pretty much makes the entire context of this article pointless.

      • I fully understood what you wrote, but you seem to be missing the fact that Formula 1 is a very two-tiered series right now. No customer team will ever contest for a win so long as the factory team’s cars are still in the race. That is the reason Williams has never won a race, while Mercedes, Redbull and Ferrari have. This is also the reason Redbull now needs to go their own way with either a hybrid or budget engine.

        The budget engine is simply a bargaining chip to force the factory teams to level the playing field.

        If the budget engine is introduced in the end the factory teams will just adopt that architecture and the entire sport will be better off for it. The current hybrids are in ill-conceived failure.

        • @CC2002 yes, you are spot on there. earlier on in the article TJ13 alluded to the fact that a ‘two tier’ system would be in place if and when a ‘customer engine’ was made available! he conveniently forgets that toro rosso will be racing a 2015 engine…outdated and irrelevant in 2016! as for the customer engine being 2nd class? he should perhaps bone up. it could be as powerful or even more powerful than the hybrids given certain tweaks. what i fail to understand is that WEC LMP1 teams all race with different engines yet can be mere seconds apart after 6hrs of wheel it wheel racing! equivalency can work.

        • The manufacturers will not be able to adopt the budget engine architecture as the budget engine contract will be with a single supplier. They won’t be able to make it themselves – unless the rules are changed – though that would not be the first time! I don’t see Mercedes buying in cheap motors from some johhny-come-lately outfit. It sems clear to me that if budget engines come in theb Mercedes for sure and probably the other makers too would leave.

        • If the budget engine is allowed, and the specifications allow it to win, the manufacturers will leave.

          Which if they set up their own series, and stick two fingers up at the malignant octogenarian, might be no bad thing.

  2. The other issue with a ‘budget’ engine is that it would be easy to enable that engine to beat any of the others. The design must be flexible enough to allow their performance to be adjusted. This would bring about different winners but as you say the Manufacturers will leave. Which would give Bernie his power back but F1 would be worth nothing without manufacturers. So he would have ultimate power over the then worthless F1 brand….
    Bernie needs the teams and the manufacturers but FIA need to create the rules to allow overtaking (i.e. reduce down force massively, only very simple small wing designs and zero rake angles would be a start)

  3. The problem we now have is a problem which the teams have effectively created over a long period of time. If you’re not a manufacturer then if you win it’s because of the team, if you lose it’s because you have a bad engine. There’s almost no reason for a engine/PU manufacturer to build F1 units independently. The FIA won’t help, look what happened when Cosworth came back with the V8, Bernie basically told them to bugger off as well.

    The ship has now sailed, when this PU came in they should have set a price limit on selling units to other teams. This would have possibly reduced the R&D costs and so potentially would have left the door open for an outsider to be simply an engine manufacturer. Unless you have your own team you’re not going to tolerate selling PU’s at a loss, not unless you can guarantee it’s going to be the best.

    If you do manage to do a good job then you will almost certainly have teams after you craving to be a works team with you.

    It’s all a mess, a mess that those in charge only seem capable of making worse. Thats the problem then those setting the rules are the ones profiting or competing in it all.

  4. the ballast idea has worked in other racing series successfully, a fairer & much more interesting way for the fans enjoyment would be to give ballast penalties for the season but only every other race. Ballasts are very easy to insert and remove, therefore will present no logistic problems.

    • Then the WDC would become the World Drivers with ballast championship – the WDWBC. If is is entertainment then fair ’nuff but if it is sport then forget it and I probably would.

  5. Your Honor,

    This is an interesting argument against BCE’s contention that road car manufacturers come and go from F1.

    But, like many things said by BCE, it’s not that relevant.

    Todt has been clear that reducing the costs of engines to the teams is the only goal of this FIA exercise.

    Note that Todt’s focus is on the backbone of F1, the F1 teams themselves. The backbone of F1 isn’t multi-national road car manufacturing corporations, it’s F1 teams.

    The heart of the matter is whether the boards of directors of multi-national road car manufacturing corporations decide to reduce the cost of their engines to F1 customer teams.

    If road car manufacturing corporations decide this isn’t the time to reduce the costs born by their F1 customer teams, then the alternative engine should be implemented.

    If implemented, the alternative engine will be successful for F1 in two different ways:

    1) The alternative engine would lower the engine costs for the teams.

    2) The engine formula (regulations) would change to something simpler and less expensive, very likely similar to the alternative engine.

    The less expensive engine would enable motorsports engineering companies such as Cosworth, Ilmor, AER, Mecachrome, and RML Group to supply engines to F1 teams.

    A less expensive engines would also entice the same multi-national road car manufacturing corporations to supply engines to F1 thanks to much better ROI (return on investment) due same marketing benefits while spending less on development costs.

    The argument that multi-national road car manufacturing corporations would leave F1 is false. Obviously Ferrari will never leave F1, since they need F1 to survive (they’ve no other marketing plan), and they would thrive developing the cheaper simpler engine. Ferrari threatens fairly often to leave F1, but they don’t, and they won’t.

    At the end of the day, Todt is focused on the backbone of F1, the teams. The boards of directors of the multi-national road car manufacturing corporations in F1 have a decision to make. Whatever they decide, the end result will likely be the same anyway. That is lower engine costs for F1 customer teams. For F1 spectators, this is a win-win situation.

  6. The tail is now wagging the dog.
    Way too much power given to the manufacturers which are simply using F1 as a promotion and test bed for road technology and they are now dictating what F1 is about. Hybrid rubbish, ERS, DRS all the other gizmo’s and they still call this a driver championship ???
    Who cares about green initiatives and fuel economy in racing, If you want batteries go watch formula E or remote control cars.
    Unless a team has full factory backing now they have no hope in the current climate, McLaren is right about that. F1 needs to get back to its roots. Simplify the engines, Get rid of all the battery rubbish, and get the racing back.
    And for all those people that say F1 is all about latest technology….how many decades ago did supercars and road based cars (and just about all other road racing cars), do away with 13inch wheels ??? Its about time they went to something which the rest of the racing world did 20 odd years ago.
    F1 seriously has become a farce !!!!

  7. Instead of ballast penalties year over year to level the playing field, why not use tokens for power system and car modifications? Lower finishing teams are allowed more off-season and in-season tokens for the following year to apply upgrades and experimentation to their cars. It is relatively simple, fits the current token system well, and less artificial in that it encourages all teams to seek a solutions rather than simply holding back a winner.

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