At the beginning of October, Honda shocked the world of Formula 1 by announcing its decision to quit the sport at the end of 2021. Currently, it supplies a pair of teams—Red Bull Racing and Alpha Tauri—both owned by the Red Bull energy drinks company. Red Bull now has to find a replacement supplier for the fiendishly expensive, insanely complicated hybrid powertrains required by the rules. And it, too, might quit the sport in 2022 if it can’t do that to its satisfaction, a warning issued this week by Red Bull’s sporting director, Helmut Marko. So what the heck is going on?
F1’s hybrid era
The first F1 cars to add an electric motor to their internal combustion engine powertrains took to the track in 2009. These were 80hp (60kW) motor-generator units (MGUs) that could recover kinetic energy from the rear wheels under braking and return it to those same wheels for short bursts of additional power during a lap. However, only four teams adopted this idea—called KERS, for kinetic energy recovery system—during the year, and it was abandoned by mutual consent at the end of that season.
In 2014, the sport adopted its current technical ruleset. The old naturally aspirated 2.4L V8 engines were replaced by new 1.6L turbocharged V6s, now with two mandatory hybrid elements to the power train. In place of KERS, there was an MGU-K (for kinetic), and a new MGU-H (for heat), which captured or deployed energy to the engine’s turbocharger. The new powertrains are hugely powerful, reaching around 1,000hp (746kW) in qualifying trim last year. And they use less fuel than ever: since this article was written in 2016, the V6es have actually now exceeded 50-percent thermal efficiency.
However, the complexity of these powertrains is on a new level for a sport that was always pretty complicated, and the development costs have been eye-watering. To make matters worse, the results have been pretty lopsided. Mercedes-AMG did a better job than anyone else right out of the gate and has been the class of the field ever since. Of the 132 races held since the new regulations started in 2014, it has won 98 of them.
Meanwhile, the other engine manufacturers have tried to catch up. Ferrari made some impressive power gains in 2019 before giving them all up again in a still-secret settlement with the sport over alleged cheating. Renault was candid about underestimating its rivals and acrimoniously fell out with Red Bull Racing. Honda entered the sport in 2015, a year earlier than it had planned but a year after the other three OEMs. It has played catchup ever since, although so far, it’s the only other OEM to rack up any wins in 2020 (one each for Red Bull and Alpha Tauri).
The next five years?
F1 has been working itself into a state about future engine rules for some time now. A burgeoning global financial crisis and then the arrival of COVID-19 have been the most recent spanners in the works, leading at long last to cost caps and big restrictions on engine development for the next few seasons until a new, yet-to-be-decided powertrain arrives in 2026. This should keep costs down, but it also locks in the inequality of performance between the different makes.
Each OEM is allowed a single upgrade to its V6, turbocharger, and MGU-K in 2021, and then again in 2022 and 2023. It’s even more restrictive for the MGU-K, control electronics, and the hybrid battery—these can have a single upgrade between 2020 and the end of 2021, and then a single upgrade between 2022-2023. After that, the specification of all these components are frozen until the end of 2025.
Red Bull’s ultimatum
Red Bull needs engines for its two teams, and it needs them soon—by next month, in fact, if it’s to design 2022’s cars around them.
Mercedes has ruled out adding Red Bull as a customer, citing a lack of bandwidth; it currently supplies powertrains to the Williams and Racing Point teams as well as its own, and next year adds McLaren to the roster as well. A Red Bull return to Renault power seems unlikely given the acrimonious split between the two in 2018, but either Renault or Ferrari would be considered if its preferred option doesn’t pan out.
That preferred option would be to stick with the Honda powertrains it currently has, assuming it can maintain and assemble them. But Marko says Red Bull is only prepared to do that if there is a total freeze on powertrain development from 2021 until 2025. Simply put, the costs of developing new iterations of these powertrains is beyond the reaches of all but major OEMs.
But a complete freeze on powertrain development would require unanimous consent from the remaining three OEMs, and that is currently lacking. Mercedes is OK with the idea, which is unsurprising given its utter dominance. Renault says it will sign off, but only on the condition that the different powertrains are brought into parity before being locked. And Ferrari says absolutely not. Which seems to bring us to an impasse—and back to Marko’s ultimatum.
Excuse me while I break out my soapbox
Even if it were agreed to, there are perils associated with a five-year freeze on engine development. While I’m often skeptical that F1 technology is ever road-relevant—that kind of technology transfer happens primarily in the world of endurance racing—I’ll allow that it does happen from time to time. For example, the turbulent jet ignition technology that has pushed F1 internal combustion engine thermal efficiency so high is about to show up in a Maserati road car. But those claims become much harder to believe in 2024 with powertrains that have remained the same for several years.
If the three engine makers are brought to parity before a freeze, that really raises questions about why the sport needs more than one engine supplier at all. (The real answer is that it would cause Ferrari to leave, and everyone is too scared of those consequences.)
Yet again, F1 finds itself at the mercy of boardroom decisions made by car companies. Throughout the 71-year history of the sport, a pattern has repeated. Car companies sense the potential for a marketing boost if they can succeed in the sport, but each race can only have one winner. It only takes a few years of heavy spending on an engine program with no championships to show for it for the suits to start asking questions, particularly when the economy gets tough. And at the end of the day, car companies build and sell cars—even ones that sell sports cars can do without motorsport, as Audi’s and Porsche’s withdrawal from the World Endurance Championship proves all too well.
To make matters worse, the sport only has these heavy, expensive, complicated powertrains because of the OEMs, which all argued that it would be impossible to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a racing program without the illusion of environmental responsibility. (For the Nth time, F1’s carbon budget comes from the power used in wind tunnels and server farms, from the logistics of traveling the sport to 21 races a year around the world, and from hundreds of thousands of fans traveling to each of those races, not the race cars themselves.) But the huge cost and difficulty of developing a current F1 powertrain means it’s extremely unlikely that any other OEM will enter the sport before 2026.
Renault, for its part, thinks the solution is to bring the 2026 regulations forward, as that would stimulate interest from the industry. Some have suggested that F1 should ditch internal combustion entirely, but that won’t be possible until 2039 thanks to an exclusive license granted to Formula E by the sports’ governing body, the FIA.
My own daft idea is that it’s time for F1 to grasp the nettle and ditch hybrid power. Make the cars properly lightweight again at 1,102lbs (500kg) and go back to high-revving naturally aspirated engines. The sport is already planning a switch to carbon-neutral biofuels, and accelerating that switch would provide the necessary greenwashing to convince people that F1 cares about the future.