When big changes come in Formula One, they often do so with spectacular results. Ferrari dominated the sport for almost a decade from the late 1990’s yet since the advent of the 2.4l V8 engines the trophy cabinet in Maranello has welcomed few new arrivals.
Roll the calendar forward to 2014 and the might of the German automaker Mercedes brand swept all before it with its uber dominant 1.6l V6 power unit.
F1 V6 hybrids extended by 4 years
The V6 Turbo hybrids were only set for a lifespan of eight F1 seasons with a new era due in 2022. However, the combination of the FIA making slow progress in attracting new manufacturers and the global Covid pandemic meant the project was delayed by an additional four years.
However, the current range of F1 power units are not exactly the same as the one’s Mercedes used to crush all opposition.
The other manufacturers have modified their designs over the years and this together with some regulation changes mean the units in the back of the 2023 are somewhat different from those first seen in 2014.
Mercedes have less power than rivals
Sky’s F1 reporter Ted Kravitz now reveals a paddock rumour that was first muttered in the latter third of the 2022 season.
“Given the sport’s engine freeze until 2026, there is a theory around the paddock that, because Mercedes were reliable with their power unit last year, they missed a trick in terms of designing it to be powerful but not reliable,” Kravitz told fans at a Q&A session.
This was evidenced by Ferrari who clearly had the fastest power unit during 2022 outscoring Red Bull in pole positions by 12 to 8.
But their engine was unreliable.
Ferrari power unit was a bonfire waiting to happen
Ferrari and its engine customer teams suffered more than double the power unit related failures of the other manufacturers.
However, despite the architecture of the power units now being frozen ton allow the manufacturers to focus on their new horses for 2026, changes can be made to improve reliability.
“Lots of other manufacturers did that,” Kravitz adds.
“Renault did that, Ferrari did that, Honda did that. It meant that they couldn’t get to the end of the season without using an extra power unit and getting a penalty but they didn’t mind that because they could bring the changes to the engine on reliability but have a secondary benefit of adding a bit more power as well.
Mercedes went for reliability
When a manufacturer petitions the FIA to modify its engine for reliability, all the competitors are circulated with the request. So this is no secret back door process which Mercedes have no knowledge of.
And of course by making for example the piston rings more durable, the engine can be run at higher power for longer. So this is not a power related upgrade, but it affects the ability of the unit to run at increased levels of performance.
“Well, you might say [to Mercedes] hang on, you have gone the other way, you should have gone a bit more performance,” says Kravitz.
“Take the hit on the engine penalty with reliability but be able to improve that under the engine freeze. But that is not what Mercedes have done and only time will tell if Mercedes live to regret that.”
Hamilton benefitted from engine tactics in the past
Mercedes’ customer teams suffered no engine related penalties in 2022 as they were able to use just their allotted 3.
Ironically Mercedes know as well as anyone else about the tactical advantage of taking engine penalties for performance gains.
Lewis Hamilton’s challenge for the 2021 drivers’ world championship was fading, so Mercedes fitted him with a brand new engine at altitude in Brazil which gave him a clear advantage.
Hamilton won the race starting P10 and then claimed pole position and wins in both Qatar and Saudi Arabia to draw level with Verstappen on points before the final shoot out in Abu Dhabi.
Mercedes downbeat following pre-season test
The mood music from Mercedes following the recent pre-season test has been muted. Further the new W14 car again appears slower than Ferrari and Red Bull in a straight line, which is a combination of too much drag and not as much horsepower.
Whilst in Brixton the machining has been improved to remove internal resistance from their pore unit, Honda claim to have made significant gains in how they deploy their electrical power. Ferrari were already more powerful than Mercedes and believe they can now use all the power they were unable to deploy due to reliability in 2022.
To add to Hamilton’s woes, the new raised “throat” around there diffuser that Mercedes lobbed for appears to affected the W14’s rear end stability more than its competitors.
improved Ferrari reliability will make podiums harder to come by
Lewis himself described the task ahead for his team as “a mountain to climb” before Mercedes can claim to be front runners in the hunt for pole positions and race wins.
Ferrari reliability will almost definitely be improved from last year making it even more difficult for Mercedes to even claim the number of podium finishes they clocked up during 2022.