The problem with F1: Engines

I think most F1 fans could talk for days about the engines that power a Formula 1 car.

F1 has never been historically limited to a fixed engine formula. In the 80s, the sport had both turbocharged and naturally aspirated engines, some were V8s, others were V6s and there were even some 4-cylinder engines.

This was a very exciting period for F1 because the power these cars were delivering was extraordinary, significantly more than 1000bhp when in qualifying trim.

But that was the problem. F1 didn’t have the technology to make stupidly powerful cars that were both reliable and safe, so two different chassis were needed to qualify and race.

With turbo-powered engines devouring both fuel and money, the FIA chose to ban them all together in 1989, until the hybrid-era reintroduced the turbo in 2014.

Photo by Lothar Spurzem
Photo by Lothar Spurzem

So what’s the problem?

The short answer is that the introduction of the hybrid-era V6s skyrocketed the price of running and maintaining a F1 team.

When the global recession struck in 2008, F1s priority shifted its focus from fuel consumption, a popular topic at the time, to reducing costs.

In 2010, three teams entered the sport under a budget to fill-out the shrinking grid. These teams were running on budgets of tens of millions of euros, rather than the hundreds of millions being spent by the front runners.

This clearly didn’t work, as only one team, now known as Manor Racing Team, from the original three still compete in the sport.

Previously, when F1 cars were running naturally aspirated V8 engines, the cost of a single power unit is estimated at around seven to eight million euros. The new V6 hybrid turbo engines are believed to cost north of 20 million euros.

Putting that into perspective, that’s around quarter of the budget of a midfield team. Add costs like chassis development, fuel and tyres, and most important of all, a loyal workforce.

Sadly, the hybrid era has come about in a time where off-shore fracking has lead to the reduction in fuel prices and the world is still recovering from the recession. Spending more than 20 million euros on an engine in the current economic climate is unsustainable.

Photo by Ferrari Media
Photo by Ferrari Media

How can it be resolved?

That is a mighty question indeed and if I knew the exact answer, I would probably be selling it to Bernie Ecclestone.

Any ideas aimed at overcoming the hybrid-era woes are usually extreme, but that’s what the sport needs to reduce costs and bring back the excitement fans are craving.

Opening up the engine formula, like the sport had been until the mid 90s, and capping the power output could satisfy the agendas of manufacturers, independent teams and the fans. This may sound incredibly expensive, but for those teams working on a smaller budget, a low-cost independent engine could be introduced by the likes of Cosworth.

If Mercedes wants to run a turbocharged V6 hybrid, then they can. If Toro Rosso or Force India wants to run a cheap, naturally aspirated V8 just to go racing, then the rules would allow it. Most independent teams exist to go racing and earn money through sponsorship, unlike Mercedes and Ferrari who race to promote their own brands.

It’s the third year of the hybrid-era, and its only a matter of time before independent teams begin to disappear from the grid, like the Super Aguri team did when the recession struck, pulling out of the sport before the fifth round in Turkey.

Scrapping the hybrid engines would be a waste of time, money and also set the wrong message. F1 needs to either force teams to reduce the cost of engines, or introduce an independent supplier before it’s too late.

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