There was once a time where almost every car company wanted their engines in Formula one. Being an engine supplier was an even more lucrative business than being a manufacturer team. As a result, Lamborghini, Peugeot and Ford didn’t waste their time being teams teams back in the day. They supplied engines.
The rise of Renault and Mercedes as engine suppliers in the mid to late-90’s is a testament to the fact that time in F1 is fleeting, regardless of your role in the sport. Only one engine has been a steadfast constant in the sport: Ferrari. And they’ve had their fair share of success.
With Williams and later, Benetton, Renault established itself as the premier engine supplier in the sport. The way Nigel Mansell sailed to his ’92 championship triumph not only served to show every other team that they were top dog, but that engine efficiency was key to car performance and, if you’re lucky, dominance. The fact that the time at which Mansell won his championship is arguably the dawn of modern Formula One technology, doesn’t take away from the fact that their Renault engine was an integral component to their success. Now, Renault is a powerhouse with Red Bull and they even managed to bring Williams from the depths of their 2011 season despair to winning ways in 2012. It goes to show what an engine change is capable of. While the engine is not the deciding factor in car performance like it was 30 years ago, you can be rest assured, Red Bull would not be reigning 3-time World Champions if they ran with Cosworth engines.
While the example of Williams and their dominance serves to show that engines are very important, there is no getting around the fact that engines have been given a back seat these days.
Since 2006, Formula One has used 2.4 liter V8 engines. The regulations surrounding the engines have been frozen for just as long, thus, systematically eliminating a performance variable in a sport being increasingly dominated by aerodynamics. This seems odd, as Formula One is founded upon the notion of technological innovation in the name of performance and speed. Why would they want to limit engine development?
There are two factors, I believe, that justify the artificial engine performance limitations: the environment and the economy.
Environmental awareness has become increasingly prominent, not just in our general psyche, but even in the little world of Formula One. There is a reason why engines in Formula One no longer run on twelve cylinders and produce 1,200 horsepower. The world we live in today is no longer accommodating of power sources that nonchalantly burn fuel. A restriction on engines has been a way to not only set a relatively level playing field amongst all the teams, but to also reduce the negative impacts the engines have on the environment. Let’s keep in mind that with the current V8s (restricted to 750 horsepower and 18,000 rpm), if they went unrestricted, we would see them producing nearly 900 horsepower at 24,000 rpm. Not exactly green, is it?
This is exactly the reason why 2014 sees the engine and regulations overhaul that has every team principal, engineer, and accountant quietly wetting themselves. The new engines will be lighter, smaller, more efficient, smarter and most importantly, greener. Power sources are becoming increasingly efficient in road cars and now, Formula One aims to emulate this technologic cleanliness.
But more important to the big wigs running the F1 circus is the cost. The new engines for 2014 are frighteningly complicated and, as a result, frighteningly expensive. Technologies like 10 times more powerful KERS units, turbocharging, high-pressure direct fuel injection and thousands upon thousands of smaller advancements means Formula One cars will be more complex than they have ever been in history. Even with an overall 25% decrease in the number of ‘hard’ components, this will not be a significant enough reduction on the economic impact of the switch to V6’s in 2014.
The global economy is not exactly healthy at the moment, either. This means that the Formula One teams are not as liberal with their spending as they were back in, say, 2006. Testing and the number of engines and gearboxes have all been decreased while the cost seems to never stop growing. The fact that the economy is so weak right now is the crux of this predicament. It is clearly too late to go back on all these planned changes, as all three major engine manufacturers are relatively deep into the design and testing stages of the new engines.
The three engine manufacturers expected to continue for 2014 (Renault, Mercedes and Ferrari) will have a tough 12 months ahead of them. They have to make sure that they can provide ample support for their teams this season, while also developing the 2014 engines enough to be ready for that all important switchover.
It is tough to say who will produce the best engine in 2014. All three have similar resources and facilities (an argument could be made that Ferrari is a little bit behind) and thus should produce very similar engines. However, with a lot of brand-new technology, there is a lot of unchartered water to be navigated and thus, just one innovation by an engine manufacturer could set the tone for domination by any team running that engine. The lines are so fine between average and spectacular in Formula One that no one will rest until the engines are perfect.
Another variable to throw into the mix is Honda. They have an historic relationship with Formula One. As a team, they were successful both in the ’60s and the mid-2000’s. As an engine supplier, though, they were even more noteworthy. From the late-80’s to early-90’s, the Mclaren-Honda partnership was nearly unstoppable. The historic relationship could continue in 2015 if the rumors of the company’s return to the sport prove to be true. Mclaren’s partnership with Mercedes, though, has its own history, including three drivers’ and two constructor’s titles. The contract between the two is set to end at the end of 2014, which provides Honda with A) ample time to develop a strong Formula One engine and B) the opportunity to renew a partnership which defined an era in Formula One. The commercial implications of this renewed collaboration would be huge for the sport and for the fans who have long dreamt of a modern Mclaren-Honda partnership.
The future is bright for Formula One, no doubt. The outrageous costs and technical headaches set to begin with this season’s conclusion are sure to take a relative back seat when we get down to what really makes this sport great. Yes, it is important for the sport to be not only self-aware, but globally-aware. Formula One needs to understand that its actions have significant implications on the prosperity of other companies and how they operate. Hopefully, the regulations for 2014 will put all of this into perspective for the people running the sport. Because, nothing lasts forever. Just ask all the bygone engine manufacturers of yesteryear.