Formula 1 engine manufacturers Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault have outlined what they believe should be the championship’s priorities in the wake of Honda’s decision to quit after 2021.
Honda is the only engine maker to have been tempted into F1 by the expensive, complicated V6 turbo-hybrid rules in place since 2014 but will leave the championship at the end of next season.
It leaves the Red Bull and AlphaTauri teams in need of an alternative engine supply plan, and has asked major questions of F1’s present rules and what action it should take for the next-generation engine in 2026.
Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault remain committed to F1 but believe decisive action must be taken to safeguard the championship’s immediate future and attract new manufacturers in the long-term.
THE RIGHT TECHNOLOGY
Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul said that “what matters most” is now defining the right technology for the next-gen engine in 2026. But he cautioned against moving too quickly.
“There are many technologies that are emerging,” he said. “We see that the automotive world is full of doubts.
“A few years ago we were never talking about hydrogen, it’s a new thing. Will it be adequate, appropriate for Formula 1? Who knows, I don’t know.
“So, I think it’s important to pause a bit, wait, to make sure to make the right decision.”
“You can’t sell your product by talking negative about it” :: Toto Wolff
To ensure F1 does that, Abiteboul suggested a thinktank between the manufacturers and other experts, similar to how teams banded together to produce technology to help UK health services fight against coronavirus.
“It was amazing to see actually this collaboration between teams,” he said.
“That sort of thing we could do to do some advanced research, advanced study for the next generation of power unit, to make sure that it’s right in terms of show, in terms of cost, in terms of competitiveness and in terms of parity of performance.
“And we should do that sooner rather than later.”
F1 has been criticised for placing too much dependence on being relevant to manufacturers, and Honda’s exit – to redirect resources to in-house projects that develop carbon neutral engine and fuel technology – has been held up as proof that this set of rules has failed.
But Mercedes leader Toto Wolff suggested the most important element is that F1 needs to create a technological direction that all parties get behind, citing the damage done when the likes of then-F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone criticising the noise of the V6 turbo-hybrids when they were introduced in 2014.
“With the hybrids it was an engineering exercise, what kind of fantastic hybrid engine can we actually develop? And we didn’t realise that we would have a fantastic engine with today more than 50% thermal efficiency that doesn’t exist in any other sport,” he said.
“We started to message around it in 2014 with the chief Bernie that this is really all not good for Formula 1 and the noise is not enough.
“And somehow you can’t sell your product by talking negative about it.”
DO NOT ‘COMPLETELY FORGET ABOUT COSTS’ AGAIN
Mercedes and Ferrari stressed the importance of creating a new rules package that is technologically relevant but is able to keep costs under control.
The V6 turbo-hybrid era has been dogged by complaints about the mounting expense of developing the engines.
Honda is believed to have been spending in excess of £300m a year on its F1 programme, despite finding limited avenues to transfer that technology to its automotive projects.
With no prize money (as that goes to teams), runaway budgets and fixed selling prices, Wolff said the present business model for engine manufacturers “is certainly not how it should continue in the future”.
“When we decided the 2014 regulations, we completely forgot the costs” :: Mattia Binotto
“When I joined Formula 1 with Williams in 2009 I remember the power units utilised cost $20m and more,” he said.
“And today we have an obligation to supply at a price [€15m] that is much below that.”
Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto said the V6 turbo-hybrids are “very expensive” and cost has “increased a lot” since the V8 era.
Agreement has been reached to reduce spending in the coming years by freezing specifications at different points and reducing engine test bench allowances.
Binotto said this is a “step forward” but ultimately will not be “sufficient”, so the “opportunity of brand new regulations in 2026” needs to be grasped.
“By designing the new regulations, we need not only to decide what will be the technical choices or the technologies we intend to develop but look at the cost of the product itself,” said Binotto.
“When we decided the 2014 regulations, we’ve been much focused on the hybrid formats, much focus on the technologies and making sure that F1 was a platform for innovation that we completely forgot the costs.
“I think that in the last few years the cost of the power unit has been certainly too high.”
STEM THE LOSSES BEFORE 2026
One concern posed by Honda’s exit is the fragile position it puts F1 in. Ignoring how the two Red Bull teams get repositioned, Mercedes will supply four teams, Ferrari three teams, and Renault just its works Alpine-badged entry.
There are no new manufacturers on the horizon, with none expected until the next-generation engine is introduced in 2026.
That has led to some suggestions that the introduction of new rules should be moved forward.
However, Mercedes and Ferrari have doubts about this. Wolff said that it would create additional investment to start new engine research and development sooner, while Binotto said that there has been no scope for early rule changes because “it was too early to understand” which direction the automotive world will go in.
“We don’t want to have a situation where we’re freezing power units and there’s a discrepancy in performance” :: Toto Wolff
They also pointed to the efforts being made to stem the losses in the interim period between now and 2026, both in terms of finding a way to advance the existing technology (such as the introduction of sustainable fuels) while driving down costs (limiting upgrades and dyno time).
However, both also added that more can be done, with Wolff even advocating a spending cap, to allow F1 to remain relevant without having to rush a major decision.
Wolff said: “We all came together – Honda, Ferrari, Renault and ourselves – and agreed that after 2025 would be the right time.
“Certainly a cost cap, and some kind of freeze, needs to be introduced earlier, bearing in mind that we need a status where all engines are equal.
“We don’t want to have a situation where we’re freezing power units and there’s a discrepancy in performance.
“But going forward we need to all sit at a table, discuss what is the right technology for the real world, how can we simplify technology in order to spend less. And then have a new format that everybody buys into from 2026 onwards.”
Binotto said that the length of time taken for engine manufacturer performance to equalise to a sensible level has been a good reason to keep the rules stable since 2014, when Mercedes had an initial commanding power advantage.
He believes convergence is achievable in the coming years and that this will support efforts to contain development costs, especially as “we should even not forget that anyway the regulations from the power unit is changing still”.
F1 will have 10% sustainable fuels in 2022 and wants to achieve 100% sustainable fuels in the years that follow.
THE PROSPECT OF NEW MANUFACTURERS
All three manufacturers are in agreement that F1 potentially being reduced to just their involvement in 2022 is not a good development.
They are optimistic that the right decisions will encourage new manufacturers to join, but recognise the challenge in achieving that – even for 2026.
Abiteboul said that Honda’s reason for leaving was “to a certain degree shared by everyone” in the F1 and automotive worlds, as sustainability is the main priority.
But he said F1 is a “great platform” in relation to that and just needs to be “better, stronger” in response to manufacturer expectation.
Binotto said that accelerating that discussion to create F1’s “vision for the power unit format of the future” is important because the combination of technology and cost “will be a key element to attract new manufacturers”.
“If we can even eventually anticipate for 2026, I don’t know actually,” Binotto admitted.
“I think the time is very short, but we need to certainly accelerate the discussion and understand the format for the future.”
Wolff reiterated that F1 still doesn’t adequately sell the fact that the current engines are “fantastic hybrid technology” but underlined that they are also “much too expensive”.
“So we need to introduce a spending cap for power units,” he said.
“Like we’ve done on the chassis side in order to make it more sustainable and in order to attract other OEMs in the future.”