Taking a deeper look at the engine unfreeze debate.
Over the course of the Russian Grand Prix weekend, talk of changing the F1 rulebook to allow for additional in-season development on the hybrid power units gathered pace, with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner revealing at the Friday press conference that the concept had been discussed and agreed on by the F1 Strategy Group before Mercedes boss Toto Wolff changed his mind.
Mercedes is standing in the way, as they should be
It should come as no surprise that Renault Sport F1, Ferrari, and their customers all support the idea of a late rule change, as the two OEMs have not been able to match the might of the Mercedes engine facility at Brixworth when it comes to the power and efficiency of the new units. To the outside world, changing the rules to accommodate sub-par performance is both laughable and inconsistent with the concept of a rulebook.
But one of F1’s greatest weaknesses has long been its inability to be consistent. While inconsistency on track can make for exciting racing, inconsistency in the rulebook just makes a mess.
It hasn't been easy for young F1 teams
In 2009 the FIA welcomed four new teams to the sport, all of them attracted in part by a promised budget cap that would level the playing field and make it theoretically possible for the incomers to compete with the big boys once they’d adjusted to the sport.
Of those four new teams, USF1 failed to make the grid at all, while HRT (originally Campos Meta) lasted three short years, and the two left standing - currently racing as Caterham and Marussia - have both seen changes of ownership and are fighting to survive. As for fighting with the big boys? Two points have been scored between the four entrants in five seasons, and both of those came about at this year’s Monaco Grand Prix.
Sauber and Lotus also teetering on the edge
F1’s history has long been littered with teams that failed to make the grade for a variety of reasons, and the struggles faced by Caterham and Marussia are not unique to those incomers, with the longer-pedigreed Sauber and Lotus also on the brink of financial ruin. But had the promised budget cap not disappeared before either team lined up at the 2010 season-opener in Bahrain it is fair to say that both outfits would have had a greater chance at competitiveness and increased odds of long-term survival.
Which is why news that even the FIA is giving its support to the notion of an engine unfreeze is surprising. Shocking, even. For unless it is mandated that any additional costs arising from in-season power unit development are swallowed entirely by the engine manufacturer, changing the engine regulations and increasing the bills payable will be the final nail in the coffin for teams fighting to survive.
It is also illegal to make such a change at this juncture, according to the Federation’s own rulebook.
There is a cut-off date of 30 June by which any regulation changes for the following season must be approved. It is possible to make alterations after that date, but only if said changes are agreed unanimously by all teams. And given that Mercedes - which sits on the much-maligned F1 Strategy Group - is hardly likely to give its support to the concept, forcing through a rule change would be a violation of the regulations.
The politics of the F1 Strategy Group
The F1 Strategy Group is made up of three voting blocs: selected teams, the FIA, and FOM, with each bloc allocated six votes. At present three of the team members are Mercedes-powered (Mercedes, Williams, and McLaren), although Lotus - who will drop out of the group in 2015, replaced by Merc-powered Force India - have a vested interest in protecting the Mercedes engine, which they will be using next season. McLaren’s move to Honda power for 2015 means they are unlikely to support Mercedes in blocking the unfreeze, but three of the teams with a place on the group will align themselves with Brixworth unless the commercial rights holder can convince them it is in their best interests to support his wishes.
It is on the World Motor Sport Council that further opposition will be found, with Force India team principal Vijay Mallya a vocal member of that body determined to protect one of the few advantages his small-but-mighty team possesses.
But whether or not the concept makes it to the WMSC depends on the idea getting unanimous approval at the next meeting of the F1 Commission, a body which contains representatives from all teams and where unanimity must be found if rules are to be changed so late in the day. That body next sits in a month’s time, at which point we will know whether or not the Mercedes-powered teams and FIA have been convinced by the commercial rights holder that starting yet another financial arms race is in the long-term interests of the sport.