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.

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