Formula One is in for a radical change next season with the teams adopting energy-saving ways
The Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday may only be the second race of the 2013 season, but much of the technical talk in the paddock during the winter and at the first race in Australia last week concerned the 2014 season. That’s because a major overhaul of the technical regulations next year will radically change the Formula One cars.
At the centre of the change is a new generation of engine more in tune with the times and the cars we drive on the road now – and those we’re likely to drive in the future – than the current V8, 2.4 litre, normally aspirated engine that produces 750 horsepower revving at 18,000 revolutions per minute and uses considerable amounts of fuel at each race.
The new engine for 2014 will be a V6, 1.6-liter engine, with roughly 550 horsepower and 15,000 rpm, and it will use 30 percent less fuel, or a maximum of 100 kilograms, or 220 pounds, of fuel for each of the roughly 300-kilometre-long, or 185-mile-long, races. The new engine will be turbo-driven, which the current generation is not. Above all, it will have two forms of energy recovery systems: One reuses energy recovered during braking and the other reuses energy created from the heat of the exhaust. Behind the changes is a concern central to the very survival of Formula One: Its relevance beyond racing and its economic model.
After the financial crisis began in 2008, several car manufacturers withdrew from Formula One – Toyota, Honda and BMW – and a couple of those that remained, Renault and Mercedes, decided that they needed a good reason to do so. The traditional use of the series as a marketing platform had to have more relevance than simply the appearance of the company name on the engine or the car.
How many people pay attention that a Renault engine provides the power for both the Lotus team, which won the season-opening race last weekend, and the Red Bull team, which has won a majority of the races in the last three years?
With the movement toward smaller road car engines that consume less fuel, and to hybrids and other fuel-saving systems, it was time for Formula One cars to be propelled by something with less of a gas-guzzling, pure power image. In fact, the current Formula One engines are probably the most fuel efficient in the world, but the image doesn’t go along with it.
At first, the International Automobile Federation, which works with the teams to develop Formula One’s technical and sporting regulations, decided that the next generation of engine would drop from its current eight cylinders to four, to resemble the road car engine. But the suggestion sparked many protests, and it became clear that the pinnacle of world motor racing could hardly have the sport’s smallest engine. Jean-Michel Jalinier, president of Renault Sport, the Paris-based company that makes Renault’s Formula One engines, said that the change to a V6 from a V4 was not a big problem, as the key aspect was the engine’s 1.6-liter capacity, which is the same as that of many road car engines.
But the engine shift was primarily driven by economics. Taking part in the elite racing series is costly to Renault Sport’s parent company, the Renault car manufacturer. So the company aims to reap marketing benefits from Formula One participation by having a direct association between the racing car and road car technology.
“For us, it is very important because you can see in the passenger cars an important trend in downsizing of the engine, reduction of the fuel consumption and less CO2 emissions,” Jalinier said. “And if you look at Formula One, it was kind of left behind. And you cannot have Formula One being your flagship and not take account of the current issues of the car in the street. So we want to put Formula One back in the current issues of the car in the street: So reduction of fuel consumption, downsizing of the engine, better use of the energy through energy recovery. And it will be a better, a much better tool to communicate than the current V8 engine.”
A major communication “tool” is the engine’s sophisticated new system of energy recuperation. Although Formula One cars now have Kinetic Energy Recover Systems, or KERS, which use energy collected during braking for use as power later, the new system will be twice as powerful, providing bursts of 160 horsepower of energy, in addition to the other new system, that uses energy stored from the heat in the exhaust. The energy is storied in a battery and then used to provide energy and save fuel.For the purist racers at heart, however, it may seem like reduced rpm, smaller capacity, fewer cylinders, and with the aggressive, ear-popping sound turned down, the new engine could make the series at the pinnacle of motor sport look like a lowlier category.
Not so, said Rob White, the technical director of the Renault Sport engine programme. “The first thing to say is the current generation of engines, ultra high-speed internal combustion engines, are absolutely at the limit of what we know how to do,” he said. “It’s true that we will be running less rpm, but we are already running less rpm than we know how to do. And on its own, running a few more rpm isn’t very smart.”
“The new engines will represent the absolute cutting edge of internal combustion engine technology,” White added. “They will achieve fuel consumption and performance levels that are much, much better than anything that exists anywhere in motorsport and probably better than anything that exists on the road. The engines that we are going to develop are absolutely as cutting edge and as close to the limit as mankind knows how to do as the present generation of engines. But the target is not the same.”
Not only are the current manufacturers in the series – Renault, Mercedes and Ferrari – working hard to produce this more relevant engine, but there is talk that Honda is considering returning to the series – after a four-year absence – in order to take advantage of the marketing benefits of the new rules and objectives.
From a fan’s point of view, all of this may risk changing the style of racing, because a different type of driver may be needed to achieve the best results.
“What is certain is that the work of the driver facing these new engines will be different,” said Alain Prost, a four-time world champion and now an ambassador for the Renault car company. “Each generation of driver is asked for something different, and this one will be about managing energy. All that will be generated electrically, and according to the tracks, according to the races, if you are in tow, and all sorts of parameters that we cannot know about at the moment. I think the driver will have to work a lot more to understand how the system works, along with his team, to be able to optimise what he has. I think the driver who is intelligent, curious and interested will make a difference.”
A paradox is that the new engine, which arose in part out of the financial crisis, will cost a lot more to buy.
The current engine costs about 15 million euros per season for a team, and each driver in the team has the right to use eight of the engines. Next year the price will go up to roughly 20 million euros, and as part of the cost reduction and efficiency, each driver will have the right to use only five per season in 2014 and four in 2015.
The new project is important and exciting for teams and engineers. But one of the keys to winning in both 2013 and 2014 will be how teams and engine manufacturers are be able to balance the two very different programmes from the two years.