The purpose of this article isn’t to do an engineering analysis of Liberty’s / FIA proposed new F1 2021 engine spec, but to present an overview of the main areas and then to look at whether the technical / business model really works, or is it yet another pipedream that changing to what appears at first glance to be simpler spec will draw in those mysterious new manufacturers and make the engines cheaper.
F1 2021 Engine Dilemma
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
Before I get into Liberty’s proposed engine specification change for F1 2021, it would be good to look at the last time they were changed and see if the reasons given were similar and whether any of (at the time it was solely the FIA who made the changes) the purported outcomes actually happened.
In 2004 the FIA released their new engine regulations for 2006. The FIA were alarmed at the escalating cost (both development and for a team to buy an engine) and horsepower of the 3 litre V-10’s and decided that both needed to be reined in. The FIA also believed the new regs would encourage new engine manufacturers to enter F1 as Cosworth and BMW were the only suppliers that did not also have a team in F1.
The 2006 spec engine was clearly “dumbed-down” from the previous spec. Many technology innovations such as variable-geometry intake and exhaust systems, and variable valve timing and the use of exotic engine materials were banned.
The end result clearly wasn’t what he FIA had anticipated. BMW bought Sauber and stopped supplying Williams. Cosworth supplied Williams for 2006 then pulled out at the end of the season. The 2008 financial crisis was partly responsible (or a good excuse) for Honda, BMW and Toyota to leave and none licenced their engines to a third-party manufacturer like Honda usually did with Mugen. Cosworth did return in 2010 but its engine was so inadequate and uncompetitive (rumored to be 50 HP to 100 HP down on Ferrari and Mercedes Benz) that the only people who bought it (HRT and Marussa) did so because it was cheap.
Cosworth announced that even if F1 had maintained the 2.4 litre spec they would have pulled out anyway at the end of 2013. Ironically for the FIA the 2006 – 2013 spec, which was supposed to be cheap, simple and new manufacturer friendly, had it gone for one more year into 2014, would have had just three engine manufacturers left of the seven who started.
At the end of October 2017 Liberty Media in conjunction with the FIA presented their engine vision to all the F1 teams and potential new manufacturers for the new engine specifications that they want introduced for F1 2021 season.
The core features of Liberty’s F1 2021 engine spec is that the current 1.6L V6 turbo configuration be retained, but the extremely complex Motor Generator Unit–Heat (MGU-H) system would be abandoned. The other major area would the introduction of standardised components such as control electronics and energy store, and designs that would allow one manufacturer to use any other manufacturers design in their engine, kind of plug and play.
Even at this stage it’s easy to see F1 would be well on the road to a spec engine if Liberty’s regulations were adopted.It didn’t take long for Ferrari’s Sergio Marchionne to voice his opposition to Liberty’s proposed new spec, saying, “I think it needs to be absolutely clear that unless we find a set of circumstances the results of which are beneficial to the maintenance of the brand, the market place and to the strengthening of the unique position for Ferrari, Ferrari will not play.” Toto Wolff supported Marchionne by saying, “Mercedes was unhappy with the F1 2021 engine concept”
The biggest support came from Red Bull who saw the new engine spec as a way to rid themselves of Renault’s under-powered engine. Though it remains to be seen how supportive Red Bull will be if the Honda engine comes good. The customer teams were generally supportive due to the lower cost, but not necessarily for the specification changes.
During a team principals press conference at this year’s Chinese GP, Ferrari’s Arrivabene revealed that Liberty Media had set a deadline for the end of this May for the teams to agree to the new specifications. At the same press conference Toro Rosso principal Franz Tost stressed that unless the teams agreed to Liberty’s May deadline, the chance of getting any new manufacturers for 2021 would be lost.
The press has focused on the removal of the MGU-H and concluded that it’s not a big deal, without much understanding of why it was there in the first place.
There are two Motor Generator Unit’s (MGU) on an F1 car. The first is the MGU-K (kinetic). The MGU-K recovers energy from braking. Currently the maximum amount of energy the MGU-K is allowed to recover is 2MJ per lap. It’s worth noting that the total amount of recovered energy that can be transferred to the drivetrain during a lap is 4MJ.
The second MGU that is used is MGU-H (heat). The MGU-H uses the energy from the exhaust gases spinning the turbo charger to generate electricity. Unlike the MGU-K, the MGU-H has no limitation on the amount of energy it can generate per lap. And that is where the problem that Renault and Honda have is. Their MGU-H’s can’t generate that extra 2MJ’s per lap needed to get to 4MJ maximum like Ferrari and Mercedes Benz can.
There are two major problems associated with getting rid of the MGU-H. The first is that it also controls the speed of the turbo charger to prevent turbo lag, and secondly the loss of 2MJ’s of energy. Both issues would require significant resources to come up with another system to get rid of turbo lag and finding that extra 2MJ’s, which would likely mean a complete redesign of the (MGU-K) braking system or the addition of another power generating system as Wolff at Mercedes Benz has stated that 60% of the hybrid power comes from the MGU-H.
Getting rid of the MGU-H leads to an engine just as complex, as you’d have to add more technology to replace what you removed, unless you want a 1000 HP car to have turbo lag and the expensive energy store is essentially what you had during KERS era. It’s also worth noting that Liberty tried to slip in during the October meeting the addition of another MGU-K unit that would drive the front axle essentially turning F1 cars into four-wheel drive – clearly aimed at Porsche who used a similar system in the 919 LMP1 car. None of the existing manufacturers however bit.
The new hybrid’s that appeared in 2014 were clearly expensive to design. A couple of years ago The Independent concluded that Mercedes Benz spent $300M during 2012 – 2013 in hybrid engine development. Many pundits have said that Mercedes Benz, Ferrari, Renault and Honda collectively spent close to $1B before their engines actually raced. The Independent also estimated that Mercedes Benz are spending at least $50M in in-season development. If we assume the others are spending much the same – the manufacturers are spending $200M a year in in-season development. The question Liberty has so far refused to answer is how much cheaper these new engines will be to design and build.
The teams have been vocal about the increased cost of the hybrids. In 2013, the last year of the 2.4 litre atmo’s, customers were paying $10M – $15M a year for an engine deal. Today its $20M – $30M. But like much of F1’s finances that is a bit deceiving. In 2013 many of the customer teams built their own gearbox and designed the code to run them, or as Force India did, sourced the gearbox and code from Mclaren. Fuel and lubricants were also usually sourced separately.
Today only Red Bull, Williams and McLaren build their own gearboxes, the rest buy the gearboxes and fuel and lubricants as part of the package from Ferrari and Mercedes Benz. The value of buying the gearbox and the fuel and lubricants is estimated to be worth $5M – $10M a year. So for 2013 if we include the price of an engine and then add in the gearbox and fuel (which then were separate items) the true cost would be $15M – $25M a year, which really isn’t far off what they pay today, and clearly nowhere near double as some have suggested.
The second part of Liberty’s new engine regulation is the belief that “cheaper” engines will encourage new engine manufacturers to enter F1. Is that really realistic?
If we look at the current engine landscape we see that Liberty’s assumption is difficult to believe. Ferrari currently have two teams (Haas and Sauber) that rely on them for much more than engines. Mercedes Benz have a similar situation with Force India and Renault supply themselves (I won’t include McLaren as they may move elsewhere). That means six (three manufacturers and three customers) of the ten teams aren’t likely to move to a new engine supplier.
The Red Bull situation is interesting. If Honda show good results with Toro Rosso and Red Bull decide to also move to Honda and get free engines and millions in sponsorship, then eight of the ten teams are locked into a current engine supplier and Liberty’s vision of new entrants is dead in the water as only Williams and McLaren would be open to a new engine supplier.
Red Bull play the Aston Martin card whenever the subject of the new regs are raised, but throwing in your lot with a company that has no experience designing F1 engines is likely even too risky for Red Bull. Especially when Aston Martin’s CEO Andy Palmer has reiterated Aston’s need for help and collaboration if it is to build a competitive engine to the new rules – which was a nice way of saying Aston Martin really didn’t know how to build an F1 engine.
What will we see for F1 2021?
Realistically, I don’t think there is much hope for Liberty’s F1 2021 engine spec’s to happen. No one has any idea what the real cost will be. Even if it’s half the cost of the 2014 engines, a new entrant is going to have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in R&D in the hope that two or three teams might buy it, and what happens if there are two new entrants. And it’s questionable whether the existing manufacturers just have to remove the MGU-H or whether an expensive redesign is required.
But ultimately the reason that Liberty’s F1 2021 engine proposal goes nowhere is that Ferrari, Mercedes Benz and Renault clearly see where it leads to and that is a spec engine and likely more spec parts on the car. When Marchionne spoke of the regs going against “Ferrari’s DNA”, that’s what he meant. The use of standardized components and designs, where a manufacturer could be compelled to share his design with another manufacturer ultimately will lead to a common spec engine.
And for a manufacturer like Ferrari or Mercedes Benz who pride themselves on their own unique design – a spec engine simply isn’t something that interests them, nor should it interest anyone else who wants F1 to retain its place as the pinnacle of motorsport. If you want a spec engine and as I believe Liberty ultimately want, a spec car, there’s already a series for you – it’s called IndyCar.