F1 Future: Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday?
Starting next year, F1’s technical regulations will freeze engine development. This is the first time this kind of stricture’s been imposed since the inception of the World Drivers Championship. For many fans, this move represents an unconscionable about-face that goes against the F1’s basic ethos; they accuse the sport’s regulators of turning their backs on F1’s traditional role as motorsport’s technological pinnacle. And yet, the rules may end-up helping the sport– and not just by increasing competitiveness. The regulations may make it easier for the major players to justify their gigantic investment in the F1 circus.
Since the day when Gold Leaf Cigarette branding first adorned the Lotus 49, advertising sponsorship quickly became F1’s driving force, steering the sport’s modern progression. Today, the financial balance has shifted. The money provided by major automobile manufacturers has become the F1 team’s lifeblood (excluding the endangered privateers). As carmakers like BMW, Mercedes and Renault continue to pour phenomenal sums of capital into the sport, as Toyota joins the hunt (spending a reported $393m on their 2006 campaign), the demand for a return on investment beyond halo-polishing corporate glamor is bound to become ever-more pressing.
From an automobile manufacturers’ point-of-view, F1’s value has also created value through its contribution to the company’s technological research and development. Obviously, it’s a bit of a stretch to connect F1 with the “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” philosophy, but the sport has contributed a great deal to the advancement of basic automotive technology– from aerodynamics to turbos to paddle shift gearboxes. And yet recent developments in F1 racing engine technology– creative as they are– have little applicability to the manufacturers’ bread and butter, their road car lines.
The regulations of the past few decades have collectively funneled engine development down a very narrow path. Limited to naturally aspirated engines and already possessing the pneumatically-actuated valve trains and variable-geometry intake systems crucial to performance, teams in the last 10 years have focused primarily on increasing engine power by way of increasing engine speed. Past-formula V10 power plants red-lined at around 18k rpm.
The formula change for 2006 mandated a reduction in engine capacity from 3.0 to 2.4 liters and a change in configuration from a V10 to a V8 (also doing away with variable-length intake trumpets). Essentially stripped of 20% of their cylinders and displacement, teams under the new formula pushed ahead with the rise in engine operating speeds. V8 engines run in competition during the 2006 season registered over 21k rpm, with higher speeds certainly explored during test sessions.
While engine speeds never reached the 25k rpm level predicted by some commentators before the season, the observed increase represents drastically higher loads on engine components and much higher risk of failure. These increasingly delicate machines are short-lived, lasting only 1400km in normal usage.
These achievements– while significant in terms of performance gains on the track– are almost completely inapplicable to the modern commercial automotive market. Increasing demands for more fuel-efficient cars have risen in tandem with the constant consumer desire for higher performance. F1 engineers provide their teams with horsepower aplenty, but they’ve not been “encouraged” by the sport’s technical regulations to develop their drive trains in ways that satisfy the need for fuel efficiency.
Max Mosley, president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), recent comments to the sporting press have finally brought us long-awaited evidence of the “greening” of the sport. Mosley envisions three distinct, overlapping sets of regulations, two of which should emerge by the 2010 season. First, in 2009, they’ll introduce “energy-recovery and re-use from braking.” Then, in 2010, teams must work on “recovery and re-use of excess heat or waste heat from the engines.” In the longer term, Mosley wants “a completely new F1 engine reflecting the industry tendency which is to have a downsized, turbo-charged engine.” That’s right; the Turbo’s back.
Technical details and my enthusiasm for forced-induction aside, F1 must undertake this challenge to remain relevant. Fueled by manufacturer money and beholden to it, teams have recently produced little of value in terms of technology. They have, of course, remained an advertising powerhouse, but their technological contribution has diminished significantly. The continued good fortunes of the sport depend on its relevance to the products that earn so much for the manufacturers. Each of the sets of regulations above corresponds to road-relevant approaches to vehicle performance and fuel economy and consequently are very attractive to manufacturers.
The potential for a great leap forward is obvious. F1’s designers and engineers will be given a new, wide-open development path, one with plenty of room for innovation– as it should be. Given the current crudeness of the technologies in question, and assuming that the FIA wields its regulatory power with some skill, the sky’s the limit. No question: Mosley’s on the right track.
Nino on Dec 02, 2006
Yes, I'm glad to see something new. But I'm also very afraid. I was a big fan of all types of racing, but I'm losing interest because of restrictive rules in many other series. NASCAR, CART, IRL, and Daytona Prototypes, are so restrictive in their rules, the manufactures lost interest and have all become de-facto spec series whether they mean to be or not. My fear is that with the freeze on engine specs, one tire supplier, and the talk of FIA supplied electronics suite for all cars, Formula 1 may well be on its way toward the same fate. I'm hoping you're more right on this than me. I know that F1 racing is criticized as a long parade with very little on the track action, but I find one pass in an F1 race worth a thousand passes in a NASCAR race. I mean, what can beat Alonso taking Michael on the outside of the 130R? I hope we don't lose that.
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