Engine row misses Formula One’s real problems

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    F1 must evolve past its Ferrari dependency. (GEPA Pictures/Red Bull Content Pool).

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    After Monday’s so-called ‘Paradise Papers’ revelations it would seem life now comprises only two certainties: death and Ferrari threatening to quit Formula One.

    Last week the FIA and Formula One Management presented their broad-strokes vision to replace Formula One’s much-maligned power units, and sure enough the trigger-happy Italian team issued another of its threats to exit the racing series that made it a household name.

    “There are a couple of things we don’t necessarily agree with,” Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne told analysts in a conference call. “One is the fact that somehow powertrain uniqueness is not going to be one of the drivers of distinctiveness …”

    “I would not countenance this going forward.”

    The proposed changes are deceptive in their complexity. By name the turbocharged 1.6-litre V6 hybrids would be identical, but prescriptive dimension parameters, the removal of the cutting-edge MGU-H, the redesign of the MGU-K to behave like a more powerful KERS of 2009–13 and the 3000-RPM boost amount to a clean sheet for engine builders.

    The FIA and FOM believe they have struck a necessary balance. The FIA has maintained some of the eco components that give the pinnacle of motor racing engineering credibility while FOM has won extra noise and less focus on technical minutiae on behalf of the fans. Both will savour the possibility of new engine suppliers diversifying the grid.

    Ferrari isn’t alone in its distaste. Mercedes remains sceptical of the expensive engine redesign and Renault is disappointed by the shift away from road relevance the removal of the MGU-H in particular signifies. Honda has thus far remained silent, but given the Japanese company returned to Formula One principally to benefit its road car engineering one can imagine it is thinking along similar lines.

    “It does create some concern,” Renault managing director Cyril Abiteboul told Motorsport.com. “Fundamentally what does being an engine manufacturer mean?”

    One can understand the argument – all four of Formula One’s engine manufacturers build these technologically advanced power units at substantial cost not simply to ‘go racing’ but to draw back some degree of benefit for their broader businesses.

    Formula One is and always will be a marketing and branding exercise for the big spends of auto brands. Removing the opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competitors makes the expense less worthwhile.

    “The fact that we now appear to be at odds in terms of the strategic development of this thing and we see the sport in 2021 taking on a different air is going to force some decisions on the part of Ferrari,” Marchionne said.

    Manufacturers are further concerned the rules are being changed principally to entice new engine builders by forcing all to start from scratch, the worry being that new entrants will have clear air in the lead-up to 2021 while today’s manufacturers will have to run their current programmes parallel with this new design project for a costly three years.

    But the cause for greatest consternation is that regulation changes usually herald a shake-up in the competitive order. Regulatory stability, on the other hand, brings convergence, as has been the case since 2014 with Ferrari and Renault catching up to Mercedes’s class-leading power unit.

    However, despite the vim and vigour with which the engine builders, spearheaded by Ferrari, and the FIA and FOM will fight their good fights, the engine regulations are a tiny part of the post-2020 equation.

    (GEPA Pictures/Red Bull Content Pool).

    Indeed, despite the bluster from the likes of Red Bull Racing in particular – a critical swinging voter between the big cashed-up teams and the independents – to the effect that engines play too big a part in F1, engine disparity is far from the biggest performance differentiator.

    A Williams race history graph published by James Allen after the United States Grand Prix illustrates a significant gap between the haves and have-nots. Not only do drivers of the top three teams – powered by three different engines – accelerate rapidly away from the rest of the field, but Esteban Ocon, the highest placed midfield driver, finished the race more than 90 seconds behind Lewis Hamilton, yet both had the same engine bolted into the back.

    The truth is, as it always has been, that money is the biggest performance differentiator, and despite the change in commercial ownership, the same skewed financial system that sees the big team earn disproportionately from the prize fund regardless of finishing position remains engrained in contract until 2020.

    Which brings Formula One to today: Tuesday, 7 November 2017, conveniently the date of the next strategy group meeting, where the FIA and FOM will present teams with their regulatory and commercial visions, including the expected foreshadowing of the long-awaited cost controls that should begin levelling the playing field, for 2021 and beyond.

    Will the sport’s participants be able to absorb greater engine costs if the general cost of competition is reduced? More to the point, will they want to do so given their ability to outspend their rivals is a source of power?

    The proposed power unit regulations is but a small component of a larger battle ready to be waged over the future of Formula One. The question is how long and how bloody it might become.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart ? but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (10)

    • November 7th 2017 @ 8:24am
      marfu said | November 7th 2017 @ 8:24am | ! Report

      Thanks for the explanation of the proposed changes on the engine front which I found very helpful. F1 really is at the crossroads as to whether it tries to be a road car relevant or just a supercar development series given the trend to electric and hybrid cars.

      The disparity between the top teams and the rest is too big due to the high costs which most of the teams can’t afford so as to be competitive. Attempts to cap costs doesn’t seem to have worked and is unlikely to be able to be effective in the future. It is interesting that most of the world’s manufacturers aren’t involved as they can’t see the benefits outweighing the costs. With Bernie’s move to pay TV away from FTA, this has meant less viewers and exposure for their brands. This has also made it less attractive for sponsors at the same time as they are directing more of their advertising and promotion budgets to online media. This really hurts the small teams who depend on sponsors much more than the big teams who can fund their expenditure from other operations.

      I hope that Liberty call Ferrari’s bluff and remove the 100 mill subsidy they receive and their power of veto.

      • Columnist

        November 7th 2017 @ 9:07pm
        Michael Lamonato said | November 7th 2017 @ 9:07pm | ! Report

        It is a really interesting time for F1, because as much as it’d like to just be a loud and brash racing series, does that make it the pinnacle of motor racing? The technology has to play a part, but getting the balance right is obviously the tricky bit. Maybe the current power units are too much in one direction, but on the other hand apparently the manufacturers like the formula, and they comprise effectively 40 per cent of the grid. Which brings us to today!

        But you’re right to say the one thing that’s certain is that the cost of competition is too high. Some say it always has been, and that’s true, but the fact the sport has only just managed to hold onto 10 teams is a fairly serious sign that things could be better. Thanks for the comment, mate!

    • November 7th 2017 @ 9:31am
      freddieeffer said | November 7th 2017 @ 9:31am | ! Report

      Michael, as always, a discerning analysis and explanation of the diabolically fascinating circus that is F1.

      • Columnist

        November 7th 2017 @ 9:07pm
        Michael Lamonato said | November 7th 2017 @ 9:07pm | ! Report

        Circus is right! Thanks for the comment, mate.

    • November 7th 2017 @ 5:08pm
      Simoc said | November 7th 2017 @ 5:08pm | ! Report

      Yes the Merc was winning easily with engine superiority. And now it is winning easily without engine superiority. Renault seem to have the slowest chassis of the front runners so hopefully can make the most improvement. It’s strange that McLaren can afford to buy engines and Alonso when they are supposedly over $100m worse off. Rubbery figures.

      Ilmor and Cosworth (engine manufacturers) would like to be involved but say the hybrid unit is to complex and costly for anyone bar those in there now. I’de like to see horse racing style prize money. Prizemoney by results only.

      • Columnist

        November 8th 2017 @ 10:07am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 8th 2017 @ 10:07am | ! Report

        Exactly right, and Mercedes winning again this year underlines just how impressive that team is given the regulations changes. Likewise Red Bull Racing saying its confident it’ll have the chance to win these last two races demonstrates performance is now just as much down to the chassis as it is the power unit.

        Don’t forget McLaren Racing is part of the much bigger McLaren Group and is backed by some pretty wealthy shareholders, so even if the team itself isn’t bringing in all that much money due to results and a lack of sponsorship, there’s still enough cash to go around.

        Ilmor and Cosworth will likely rely on funding from a car manufacturer to enter, which has been mooted as a way forward. Aston Martin, for example, could pair with an engineering company so they can share costs and expertise in a mutually beneficial way, but you’re right in saying that it’s not as easy as simply changing the rules — after all the 2014 changes were supposed to bring in more manufacturers, but only Honda has turned up. We could easily get to 2021 with exactly the same brands in the sport.

    • Roar Rookie

      November 7th 2017 @ 10:20pm
      Adam Heap said | November 7th 2017 @ 10:20pm | ! Report

      Definitely an interesting future ahead. It will be interesting to see how Liberty approach Ferrari compared to Bernie’s attitude. If Ferrari were to pull out… is that a version of Formula One anyone really wants to see?

      In the end, some teams are always going to have more money than others unless you move in a stock-car direction, and that’s not what F1 is fundamentally about. Having three to four teams contest for the lead is as close to the ideal situation as we can get right now.

      • Columnist

        November 8th 2017 @ 10:13am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 8th 2017 @ 10:13am | ! Report

        Interesting times indeed. I can’t see Ferrari pulling out, though. As much as Marchionne says it’d save the company money (which it would) and that he now has to answer to shareholders (which he does), Ferrari was founded on racing in F1 and F1 is its only marketing activity. Would the company still have its sheen if it wasn’t racing in F1? I wouldn’t have thought so.

        You’re definitely right to say there’s always going to be more money with certain teams and that victory is likely to be contested by only a small number of teams in any given year, but the disparity is too big at the moment. Other than Lance Stroll in a pretty weird Azerbaijan race there’ve been no midfield podium-getters this season, which is a bit depressing and renders most of the grid a little bit irrelevant.

        What Ross Brawn and F1 are aiming for isn’t a stock-car free-for-all but rather a model whereby on their day Force India might be able to string together a win. The Leicester City story is one everyone’s very keen on, too, whereby an unlikely midfielder might just get their car spot on one year and take it to the big teams. That could theoretically happen at the start of a year today, but the resource disparity is such today that Ferrari or Mercedes could out-develop that team in a matter of races, leaving them with no chance.

    • November 8th 2017 @ 12:42am
      Dexter The Hamster said | November 8th 2017 @ 12:42am | ! Report

      Thanks Michael, nicely explained for us hacks.

      Ferrari threatening to leave the sport on a semi-regular basis has always intrigued me. F1 and Ferrari coevolved as much as the Passiflora Mixta and the Sword-Billed Hummingbird, one cannot exist without the other. And I for one love it. I’ve never been an out and out Ferrari fan, but I love them in F1, and maybe the occasional bending over backwards to please them (excuse me for the graphic image) is good for the sport in the long run.

      • Columnist

        November 8th 2017 @ 10:15am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 8th 2017 @ 10:15am | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, mate — and for possibly the highest brow analogy ever left here! But you’re right, F1 and Ferrari need each other, and that they inevitably settle their differences is testament to this. What will be interesting is how that compromise is achieved, though. When once upon a time Bernie pretty much gave them what they wanted, I don’t see that being the path the new managers take, which opens up a whole lot of interesting other possibilities.

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