Why F1 (and motor racing) is again Road Relevant (Almost)

Over the past few weeks in F1 we have seen much wrangling not over someone’s clever technical innovation (think Double Diffuser, F-Duct, Blown Exhaust, Twin Tusk Nose, Engine Covers etc. etc.) but rather what path the sport should take in the future. With the teams having a near sensible debate about where the sport should be x-years down the line and most of the big names pitching in with ideas without fear of fan or PR rebuttal.

Its a welcome change to the political argy bargy of previous years over rules and a good PR exercise in the least that the teams do care about the sport as well winning at all costs. Ferrari revealed a concept image of trying to make the cars more beautiful with horrendous amounts of downforce generating wings and appendages. Red Bull previous let designer Adrian Newey rip on a virtual car for Gran Turismo called the X1, with his vision of how fast he could make a car with no rules.

The current discussion has been about wider tyres, lower profile and a move to 1,000 BHP with a possible raise to the fuel flow meter. While raising the fuel flow meter could be seen as a dangerous move away from the hybrid efficiency movement it would of course drive all the energy recovery systems faster and harder to recover more of the energy lost. I personally have no problems with making the cars more powerful and unwieldy to drive, personally I think the cars should have less aerodynamics rather than more but boot loads of power – too much for the car to handle. The 2014 engines provided this in spades thanks to the torque provided by the electric engine alongside the removal of changeable gear ratios.

However amongst all this pie in the sky thinking is the real fear that some teams may not survive the year never mind an exponential increase in running costs. The hybrid engines have already cost a lot, especially as they have been marketed so badly and unfortunately they have missed the boat. With oil prices tumbling over the past 10 months we are looking now at a sustained period of low oil prices and already in the US Hybrid sales are tumbling while SUV’s roll off garage’s forecourts. But this will not last, the effect of low oil prices long-term is that many oil companies aren’t now looking for new oil as the deeper wells and arctic locations means the cost of production is higher than the selling price. This will drive the price up slowly but it will also pressure governments into forcing efficiency to stop a huge price spike.

However Le Mans seems to have it right with regards to tempting engine manufacturers into the sport with their free range options on fuel, engine layout and energy recovery systems. A similar approach in F1 simply limited by maximum fuel and fuel flow (the fuel flow is stop someone creating some crazy engine qualifying mode and keep a lid on the costs) but lifting the restrictions on the engine layout and energy recovery. Would the costs increase? Almost definitely. Would the manufacturers queue up to pay them? Most certainly.

You can image a diesel turbo hybrid Audi going up against petrol V6 Ferrari’s and all sorts of other cominations to provide the manufacturers with a platform to advertise their new engine configurations. The R&D would quickly filter down into road cars which have no real need to go faster or have better aerodynamics, but will need better efficiency in years to come. Now while costs would be higher risks could be lower because as long as the engine is competitive enough the manufacturer can point to the poster on the wall and say “Well Mr.x you may doubt this super duper hybrid low fuel engine but it runs on F1 technology”.

As it stands at the moment you have to make a V6 petrol engine with a very specific set of energy recovery elements, your hands are tied by the rules. This makes it a straight fight to the best layout with that engine rather than a game of wits with the twists and turns it could provide. Le Mans costs are not substantially lower than F1 (Teams spend around 80 million – 120 million Euros on just the 24 Hour Race (and then more to run the cars for the WEC) – and that’s just their outlay, additional costs will be covered by sponsors and prize money), however many motor manufacturers have queued up to join the competition despite the lower payout in press & coverage.

20 years ago the 1995 season saw 8 different engine manufactures with Peugeot, Ford, Yamaha and Hart lining up against Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and Honda. In the years since 1995 we’ve also had BMW and Toyota grace the grid with their power plants however this latest revolution has only convinced Honda – who regularly compete in F1 – to return to the top table.

If it’s not all out costs, it must be the rules and the sports image, both of which we’d be better off considering fixing rather than introducing bigger tyres and wings in attempt to gather the fans.

Testing Times for McLaren as Barcelona 1 wraps

So its two tests down and only one more 4 day test to go before the season begins in Australia. In 20 days time the first Grand Prix will have been run so its full steam ahead into F1 2015.

The middle test(s) are always almost something of a non event, the first test see’s the shiny new chargers roll off the lorries for the first time and many calamities ensue as teams work out their gremlins. The final test (which starts on Thursday) see’s the teams start to chase performance properly, there are normally updates introduced and its a case of who blinks first. In recent years Red Bull have constantly made headlines by bolting on a huge upgrade package with only hours to go of the final day.

Therefore with no new cars or comparable times (there’s still always a bit of cloak and dagger at the test but a better picture is formed next time out) all eyes were on the new pairing of returning engine manufacturer Honda and McLaren. The team had a tough time as expected in Jerez but things didn’t let up too much come Barcelona with a seal on the MGU-K causing issues on the first 3 days. On the final day the team believed to have nailed it and not before time after only managing short runs or de-tuned runs on the previous outings. However their running would be cut short by Fernando Alonso crashing at turn 3 and being taken to hospital. The good news was that Alonso was ok and just had a minor concussion but stayed in the Hospital overnight for monitoring. The bad news was that after 20 laps the day and the test was over for McLaren, the car needing extensive checks and ruined any chance of JB getting in the car as initially planned. The team now desperately need to get some good running in later this week to stand a chance of featuring in the first few fly-away races. [Its now been confirmed they believe it was the wind which was gusting all day that caused the crash rather than any car failure]

Mercedes look in top form with Nico Rosberg matching most people’s fast laps (set with super softs) on mediums as part of a 7 lap run. A little glimpse that the boys from Brackley have also taken a big step forward, leaving their rivals with no doubt that they will be the team to beat this year. While neither of their drivers were in top form with Lewis suffering a bout of Flu and Nico a trapped neck nerve with the help of reserve driver Pascal Wehrlein (more on him in a bit) the team were able to top the lap charts for the week with Rosberg pounding 131 out on the last day alone. The one issue Mercedes had last year was reliability but you couldn’t claim that looks to be a problem from testing thus far!

Williams have kept themselves to themselves and haven’t chased times but have done plenty of km’s with Suzie Wolff getting a run on day 1 followed by Massa and Bottas sharing the remainder. Wolff’s trip out in the car wasn’t without incident when she collided with Sauber’s Felippe Nasr, however it only restricted her to 86 laps – a total that McLaren could only dream of.

If Ferrari were the surprise glory hunters of the first test that dubious honor fell to Lotus at Barcelona. While they were very late to the party only managing to get their car built after the first test has started things are looking up for the Enstone squad. After one of the worst (if not the worst) seasons in their illustrious history the team look to be on the bounce back with the newly powered Mercedes car proving both quick and reliable topping the time sheets on 3 days. However it has been Pastor Maldonado who has done the lions share of the distance with new reserve driver and GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer also getting a days running.

Red Bull looked to have put their problems of last year behind them and topped the time sheets on day 2 but during a race simulation they were just under a second slower per lap than Nico Rosberg despite running shorter stints. Renault, who now only power the two Red Bull teams after the defection of Lotus and the collapse of Caterham have stated that they intend to delay the use of all their engine upgrade tokens till later in the season. This will hamper the progress of the team who were heavily hampered by Red Bull’s lack of power last season.

The final interesting story of the test was the appearance of Force India at the test with their 2014 car possibly to try to pay some bills. Despite not having the car ready the team decided to go to the test to gather “Tyre data” however this took a strange turn when Mercedes protegĂ© Pascal Wehrlein was to drive the car for 2 days. As Mercedes supply the team with their engine many assumed that it was some sort of deal that was cut to either reduce or defer payment on the engines. The team have been hampered by cash flow problems as issues, takeovers and lawsuits swirl around its two owners, Vijay Mallya and Subrata Roy. All was well until Lewis Hamilton took ill and withdrew from the test prompting Mercedes to take Pascal back for the rest of the day! He would return later on in the week to complete a days running with the teams regular drivers filling in the blanks.

Back to Front

While Formula 1 has burst back into action with 3 tests taking place across Feburary the front running teams have dispelled the disarray of last year and are moving forward. Honda’s arrival stuttered as expected but the last two days of the Jerez test saw Jenson and Fernando put some decent mileage on the McLaren-Honda. Merecedes pumelled the lap charts including setting a F1 record for single day mileage on the first day, quite the opening salvo. Ferrari look to have caught up some ground and the Williams looks as fast as ever. The other bizarre thing is leading into the season is the front running teams aren’t arguing over too much – there was a breif scuffle over the engine freezing but its been sorted out quite sensibly.

The road map for the future looks set including a move to higher horsepower engines and wider tires for 2017 and keeping things stable for this year and next. The nose rules appear to have had the desired effect and still have produced visibly different designs and interpretations of the rules. But its less rosy when we start looking further down the field.

The collapse of Caterham now seems confirmed as the final auction of equipment goes ahead in mid Feburary which will properly close down the team. Haas F1 have taken the oppurtunity to snap up lots of F1 standard gear at cut prices as Gene continues to show he’s the first team owner in a long time with their head located in the correct place. Marussia (Now using their original name of Manor) however have created a rescue package of finance headed by Justin King, the former Sainsbury’s CEO who has been touted as a sucessor to Bernie. However the car is unlikely to be ready and the team are negioating running the 2014 car for the first few races. But they have until Bahrain to show up but theres been a lot of rumbling from the other teams.

Force India look in big trouble they launched with a huge event in Mexico (most teams now opt for online launches or just from the factory) where they showed the new livery and anounced they were skipping the first test as the car wasn’t ready. No alarm bells went off, its been one of the shortest winters ever and Red Bull showed that skipping the first test for more development time can be beneficial. However the subsequent announcements that the car wouldn’t be ready forst the second test and they are hopeful for it being ready for the final test. According to some friends who work in F1, the car is still not built and they owe large amounts to suppliers. Force India have addressed this saying that since the collapse of Marussia and Caterham suppliers are wanting money up front rather than working on a credit account. Their owners continued fiscal problems only compounding their poor credit rating in the eyes of other companies.

Sauber ran well in the first test with their new striking livery provided by Banco de Braslia (also irconically the swedish national colours making everyone happy). Their pay driving pairing highlights the money problems at the back of the field with both drivers reported to be bringing 16 million Euros for the privelage to race this season. Its a duo light on experence with only Marcus Ericcson having a shortened season at Caterham under his belt but like Williams in years gone by this will be a building couple of seasons for Sauber.

Lotus remain an engima with the new Mercedes engine strapped in they should at least propel themselves up the pecking order despite the desertion of many sponsors after the torrid time they had last year.

However with 3 these teams all looking on shakey financial ground the F1 grid would be wise to wheeler dealer Manor back onto the grid in case of another drop out during the season. While F1 teams do come and go the grid size has always been around the 20 mark, not since 2005 when BAR were thrown out has an entry list been so short on competitors. Furthermore with more and more countries providing races, teams and drivers its a sad state to have possibly only 18 cars lining up for Austrialia. Furthermore the prospect of another team failing during the season could reduce the grid size too far and force action from the FIA / FOM to boost the number of competitors.