Analysis: The winners and losers from the end of F1 engine tokens

The abandoning of the power unit token system from 2017 is a significant step for F1. But like any rule change, it will help some and hurt others. Adam Cooper looks at the potential winners and losers from the move.

The token system was designed to limit costs, and allow the FIA to monitor winter development.

Originally, there were supposed to be no upgrades within a season, apart from approved reliability tweaks.

It was only by default - following a Ferrari rule challenge - that in-season use of tokens was allowed during the second year of hybrids in 2015.

In the end, manufacturers were able to use tokens that were not deployed during the winter. That process is happening again in 2016.

The overall number of annual tokens was originally due to gradually ease off over the next few years - although they were slightly relaxed for this season following an agreement among engine manufacturers at the end of last year.

Before the concept was abandoned totally, it was going to be 32 tokens this year followed by 25 in 2017, 20 in 2018, and 15 in 2019 and subsequent years.

If and when a new formula was announced, only three tokens were to be allowed for the last two years of V6 hybrids, in essence to allow the manufacturers to focus on a future programme.

A help for rivals

It all seems obvious in retrospect, but the problem with the token system was that those who got off to a flying start under the new rules – Mercedes and to some degree Ferrari – had a more significant advantage than they normally would.

The token system made it more difficult for struggling rivals to catch up. More importantly perhaps, the public was quick to recognise that.

In the past you could always allow the benefit of the doubt, and assume that if so-and-so got it wrong one year, be it with their chassis or engine, they could make a big step for the next season.

The token system, especially as restrictions were due to grow tighter over time, suggested that unless a manufacturer turned things round very quickly (as Ferrari did in its second year), it might never catch up.

The perception from fans and F1 insiders alike was that Mercedes had established an advantage that it could well maintain for years to come.

From 2017, that all changes. Of course, Mercedes also has plenty of development potential that it has yet to unleash, and the Silver Arrows could continue to stay a step ahead of the rest.

But at least now the path ahead is clear for everyone else – there are no artificial restrictions, and the development door is not inexorably closing as we head into 2017, 2018 and 2019, as it was originally supposed to.

Honda and Renault now have more time to get it right – breathing space.

Giving concessions

So why did we have a token system in the first place? We got used to a lack of development in F1 as the V8s had been frozen for several years, give or take the occasional reliability tweak.

So when a new formula came in, it seemed like a good idea to introduce rules that in theory went some way to reining in development, and thus keeping costs down – in effect protecting the manufacturers from themselves, and their insatiable desire to spend money.

There was a concern that costs would trickle down and result in higher prices for customer teams.

In fact, those customer supply prices are directly related to the token issue. Getting rid of tokens was one of the key concessions that the manufacturers wanted when they recently agreed a deal to lower their prices for 2017, giving all the customer teams a welcome financial boost and killing off Bernie Ecclestone's alternative engine plans.

That deal also guaranteed that whatever a manufacturer spent on development, those costs would not be passed on.

However, they still had an incentive to spend and improve their product, as they all have works associated teams – in Renault's case for the first time in the hybrid era.

Manufacturer benefits

While some might argue that development will inevitably ease off over the life of these engines - in that as time goes by, gains will be marginal - the manufacturers did not like facing ever tighter artificial restrictions on what they could do. This went against their natural inclination to push ahead with R&D all the time.

This goes right to the heart of why major car companies are involved in the sport. To a greater or lesser extent, they all justify investment in hybrid F1 technology on the basis that the road car industry is heading in that direction, even Ferrari.

Generally, manufacturers pay for their F1 programmes with some combination of R&D and marketing budgets, and in the case of the former the annual cost of an F1 team is a drop in the ocean relative to the overall spend.

However, under the token rules, F1 development would have slackened off after two or three years, and it would have been much harder to go to the board and ask for an F1 budget.

You could say the same of the frozen V8 era, but costs were lower then, there was much less relevance to road cars anyway, so F1 was more of a marketing spend.

In any case, we had got to a point where some manufacturers had itchy feet and were losing interest in F1, and ultimately that's why we got the hybrid formula.

Improving the breed

If you're sceptical about how much crossover there is between F1 and future road car technology, it's worth listening to what Mercedes engine boss Andy Cowell has to say on the subject.

"The really smart thing with the regulations is that it is about thermal efficiency," he noted last year. "It's about thermal efficiency in the combustion process, and not wasting it through high frictional losses. That is exactly aligned with the automotive industry.

"Every single one of us, when we go to buy a new car, is interested in its efficiency.

"Worldwide, there are CO2 per kilometre restrictions that are progressively getting tighter and tighter, with 2020 a key point in lots of countries around the world.

"That work we've been doing on combustion efficiency, on electric turbochargers, on a heavily downsized but heavily boosted engine, is directly road relevant.

"That development work is ongoing. It's not yet in the showroom, but it's being worked on.

"I've got no doubts that technology that's being developed in F1 will be transferred into the road car world, just the same as the 4-valve DFV/BDA cylinder head is now commonplace in all road cars because it improves efficiency.

"If you think it was a 3-litre V10 and now it's a 1.6-litre V6, that same magnitude of journey will happen in the showrooms to get those efficiency targets to meet CO2 per kilometre."

So "racing improves the breed" is not just a glib PR slogan. Don't forget that Honda has always justified its F1 involvement by rotating its engineers through racing and then back into production vehicles.

It's also worth noting that this week Renault Sport announced that Infiniti would play a role in developing the "second generation" of ERS for its F1 engine, so the technology flow is already two-way in some cases.

Attracting new manufacturers

The rule change is not just about the four manufacturers currently involved. The token system was also a barrier to entry for VW/Audi, or anyone else who might have been looking at a future entry into the sport.

The big problem was that the original didn't allow for new entrants, who would by definition not have as much room for development in their early years as those who started in 2014.

Any board member who saw how hard it was for Honda in its first season would be a little nervous about committing to an F1 project.

Now development is unrestricted, so if you have confidence in your engineers and are willing to spend, you know that there is a level playing field. You at least have the possibility of eventually getting up to speed relative to the established players.

Still limits

Development won't quite be unrestricted in 2017, in that updates can only be introduced to the car within the limits of four power units per season (or five with 21 races). That number serves as some kind of brake.

You can test whatever you want on the dyno, but you can't bring 21 specs of turbo to the 21 races. In theory you can certainly plan on using four, before you get to extra elements and grid penalties towards the end of the season, which may allow you to upgrade further.

In 2016, as last year, it's like playing a joker, in that you have to use those tokens and bring your updates when you are absolutely convinced that the performance gains are worthwhile, and reliability is proven. It's an interesting exercise for the engineers, if nothing else.

"We have to get more return for each token spent," Cowell noted last year. "That's the challenge, that's the race we've got on within the engineering community."

From 2017 manufacturers face a slightly different challenge, one based around how they deploy their upgrades within the framework of the four power units.

We will have to wait and see how quickly manufacturers will pass on those upgrades onto their customers. That process was complicated enough last year, when typically they made just one major change.

Famously, Mercedes had a new spec for Monza, but it never reached Williams, Force India, or Lotus, for logistical reasons.

Crucially, after 2017, the system will remain the same for all the engine makers, in that development won't be artificially suppressed as the years go by, as it was originally planned to be.

It may well turn into a spending war – but it's what the manufacturers wanted...

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Series Formula 1
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