The right to a ‘competitive’ F1 engine supply


Much was said and written last year about the civil war between Red Bull and Renault which culminated in the somewhat strange claims made by Red Bull that they were being “driven out”of Formula One. Adrian Newey claimed in October 2015, “We’re possibly going to be forced out of Formula 1 – Mercedes and Ferrari have refused to supply us out of fear.” At that time it was uncertain whether Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso would remain in Formula One given the end of October deadline set by team owner Dietrich Mateschitz.

The reality of course was that Red Bull Racing did have a power unit for 2016, although Adrian Newey claimed, “our relationship with Renault is pretty terminal. There’s been too much of a marriage breakdown, so we have no engine”. Yet the fact was that a contract existed for Renault to supply Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso with power units for 2016.

At the heart of the matter was the realisation within the Red Bull family that their Renault F1 power unit was incapable of winning races and championships and naturally this state of affairs was unacceptable in Milton Keynes. Newey bemoaned the situation arguing, “we need to get back to the position where all teams have access to an engine which is there or thereabouts – if it’s a couple of per cent behind then OK, but when it’s 10 per cent behind it’s too big a gap”.

Of course Newey is referring to the latter part of the V8 era, when in terms of power, the F1 engines were fairly comparable. However, Mr. Newey has played the F1 game for many years and Red Bull’s present predicament is nothing new. Having a competitive engine and having THE most competitive engine has been the building block for most teams going on to win a constructors’ title.

Back in 1987, the year before Newey first designed an F1 car for March, Williams had won the constructors’ title with Honda and their much loved driver, Nelson Piquet, had also claimed the drivers’ championship. Despite this success, for the following year Honda were wooed away by McLaren and unable to find another F1 manufacturer willing to supply them with a turbo engine, Frank Williams was forced to fit the normally aspirated Judd (Ford) engine to his 1988 F1 challenger.

The performance deficit was significant and for the first time in a number of years, Williams failed to win a race in 1988. They trailed home 7th in the constructors’ championship with two second places and just 20 points to show for their endeavours. Ironically, it was the Adrian Newey March 881 which finished ahead of Williams in 6th place, but the team from Grove had fallen from world champions – to also rans – in less than twelve months. And all for the want of a ‘competitive’ engine.

For 1989 Williams secured a Renault turbo engine, though it would be four more long years before the team claimed the constructors’ prize again with Renault.

Having secured their Honda engine deal at the expense of Williams, McLaren set off on a streak of four consecutive constructor titles between 1988 and 1991. However, the team from Woking were to suffer a similar fate to Williams at the end of the 1992 season when Honda withdrew from Formula One. McLaren were forced into using a Ford customer engine for 1993, but by now Ford F1 engines were not the dominant force they once were.

Williams-Renault won the constructors’ title in 1993 and whilst McLaren came second they scored just half the points of Williams.

Realising that McLaren were unlikely to catch Williams anytime soon, Ayrton Senna left the Woking team and headed up the road to the world champions in Grove. McLaren tested a Lamborghini engine ahead of the 1994 season, before settling on a deal with Peugeot. There were no wins for McLaren that year and their fourth place in the constructor’s championship meant they were the worst of the big F1 teams. The Peugeot engine was dropped after just one year in favour of a Mercedes-Benz-branded, Ilmor-designed engine. It was three more years before McLaren claimed a constructors’ title again in 1998 – which remains their last.

In the meantime the Williams-Renault had dominated Formula One winning 5 of the six titles prior to McLaren’s success in 1998. The year they failed to claim the top spot, another Renault powered car – Benetton – stepped up meaning Renault power dominated F1 for the majority of the 1990’s.

It was no coincidence that Williams’ domination of the constructors’ championship ended when Renault withdrew from Formula One, and once again a top F1 chassis designing outfit was out in the cold in terms of having a competitive engine.

Williams were forced to run with a Mecachrome engine (old Renault engines) in 1988 and then a Supertech engine (a rebadged Mecachrome) in 1999 before securing a deal with BMW. Having secured an engine from a manufacturer, the 2000 season was a learning process for BMW, however the following year Williams won four races in a season with 17 events, coming third behind McLaren and the dominant Ferrari team.

2003 was the peak of the success between Williams and BMW as the FW25 and its p83 engine pushed Ferrari close for the title. The top three in the constructors finished.

  • 158 Ferrari
  • 144 Williams
  • 142 McLaren

The once dominant force that was Renault were a long way off the pace in fourth with just 88 points.

One thing which is very different from days of F1 yore, is the number of competitors willing to take the plunge each season. In Adrian Newey’s first year as part of the F1 circus, 18 teams were entered and even by 1988 when McLaren took on the mantle of dominance from Williams, the number was the same.

The modern era of the sport has seen the field much reduced, and so when just 10 teams competed in 2015 the threat of losing both Red Bull teams for this year was significant to say the least. It is a fact that in the decade since they entered as a team, Red Bull Racing have added significantly to the dynamic of Formula One. Yet as history demonstrates, no one has the ‘right’ to a competitive Formula One power unit.

This Red Bull polemic was most recently furthered by Daniel Ricciardo at the team’s 2016 livery reveal. “It’s always been political, but probably now to a point that it’s too much,” the Aussie commented. “Obviously we tried to get a Mercedes engine, we tried to get a Ferrari engine but basically politics got in the way. It’s hard when there is so much money and politics involved but it would be nice sometimes to put the bulls— aside and say, ‘alright, that’s that and that’s that’ bolt on the engine and let’s go racing.”

The McLaren and Williams periods of domination in Formula One coincided with them being almost invariably a ‘works team’. Williams for now is happy to be a customer of Mercedes, and their recent two third place finishes in the constructors championship is indicative of this status. McLaren however, having lost their Mercedes ‘works’ status have chosen to plough another furrow – one where the ground turned out to be a lot more rocky than expected.

The threat of Red Bull Racing leaving Formula One has not gone away and behind the scenes they are battling for 2017 regulations which will see either Ferrari or Mercedes forced to supply them with a power unit. Ferrari and Mercedes argue that they invest heavily in power unit design and manufacturing, whilst Red Bull Racing can focus all of their war chest only on chassis design.

Whether Red Bull are successful with their 2017 regulation lobbying or not will soon be apparent to all. Yet Red Bull’s arguments are merely a stop gap measure. To once again rise to the top of Formula One, the powers that be in Milton Keynes know the long term solution is for them to have a power unit of ‘their own’, whether this be as a dedicated manufacturer works team or by continuing with their building 9 project with input from an auto manufacturer.

15 responses to “The right to a ‘competitive’ F1 engine supply

  1. I don’t think any team has a right to have a competitive engine, not even a 4 time world champion. However, the fans have a right to see an exciting display of talented drivers and teams. Therefore we need parity. Let’s suggest a duty for the winning engine manufacturer to increase its number of supplied customers by 1 each year. All with an eye on increased parity.

    • It’s more like Animal Farm, where all animals are equal except for those in charge. Shove Pastor into one of the two Mercedes seats and he’d be competing for a title.

  2. When Judge13 writes articles like these, he is a member of a small group including Joe Saward, Mark Hughes and Jonathan Noble – the most knowledgeable and talented writers about Formula 1.

    • “For 1989 Williams secured a Renault turbo engine, though it would be four more long years before the team claimed the constructors’ prize again with Renault.”

      I don´t think that the Judge considers being compared to Joe Saward is a compliment.. although him saying that Williams used a Renault turbo in 1989 instead of the Renault RS1 3.5 V10 is pretty close to Saward´s
      standards.. 😀

  3. i don’t see the problem – fire up that AVL rig in Building 9(if there is one) and here we go! Red Bull/Red Bull is born!

  4. Definitely the best article I’ve read on here in a long time. The history of F1 engine politics really puts Red Bull’s apparent woes in a revealing context.

    However despite not taking a lot of what the Red Bull folks say seriously, I do believe them when they say they don’t want to, nor intend to become an engine manufacturer.

    The fact that the top two current engine manufacturers in the sport regard Red Bull chassis with their engines as a potential threat – indicates that some well informed current top F1 folks do not share Ron Dennis’s view that to win under the current formula, you must be a factory team. I think Ron is correct that it makes winning more likely, but as the rules and technology mature – I think Red Bull could be able to challenge for WCC and WDC titles, if they have a decent customer engine.

    Whatever is going on in building 9, I think the closest it will come to seeing an actual F1 power unit is whatever efforts Red Bull are making to attract new manufacturers into the sport. Having the ability to help with R&D for a new engine will show potential new partners that they are serious about their long term future in the sport. However I wouldn’t be surprised if there was not a far more innocuous reason for whatever is in there, but they keep the brand in the speculative regions of F1 news by not quashing any rumours going around.

    Thanks again for a really great article!

    • I find it hard to believe FCA will have another separate F1 engine programme, to get Alfa Romeo into the sport.

      I expect any Alfa engine will leverage existing Ferrari knowledge, to create a slightly less powerful version of the Ferrari badged engine. Then Ferrari can continue to fulfil their engine supply obligations with teams like Sauber or Haas – which they don’t expect to compete at the same level as the factory team.

      The slightly less Alfa engine will be offered to any teams FCA as a whole end up under obligation to supply, as a result of the engine price and supply agreement reached amongst engine manufacturers in January.

      Hence I think the new Ferrari and FCA boss is being very canny in his notion that the sport would benefit from a new Alfa Romeo team and technically independent engine supply. It’s potentially just a typical underhand tactic to adhere to the recent agreement for engine manufacturers to ensure all teams can have a competitive engine, whilst ensuring this won’t lead to a customer team threatening his prized Ferrari brand. Remember Ferrari is wholly reliant on F1 for marketing road cars; even McLaren have more promotional diversity – specifically entering racing variations of the 650C in sports car tournaments.

  5. This is a very good article, my only wish is that Diesel Fuel would be allowed the same as Petrol as in WEC. This may attract other manufacturers to build a engine . This would remove the need for the special Petrol to control pre ignition in the cylinders.

  6. I’m assuming the Renault turbo engine in 1989 is a mistake… as these engines were banned at the end of 1988. And whilst the Ford engine was not cutting edge, it won the 1994 WEC.

    • Correct, Williams used Renault normally aspirated 3,5 l V10 as of ’89, and won their first (as a combo) ’92 championship with it.

  7. The little dictator wants there to be an independent engine supplier. A Cosworth like solution.
    But as the above article shows a Cossie has not been a serious option for a frontrunning team for more that 35 years. It’s only an option for cash stricken backmarkers.

    So if Red Bull wants to be a championship winning team, they need a top manufacturer engine.
    Without Dieselgate Red Bull would have had a manufacturer PU starting as soon as 2017. But unfortunately. Any other new manufacturers to lure into F1? Hard to say. Not in the near future in my opinion.

    So what is left? Perhaps in true 80’s and 90’s fashion they could steal an PU deal from a competitor. Of course Ferrari and Mercedes aren’t an option. But luring Honda out of Woking could be …

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