2015 has brought a new thing to Formula 1: the engine silly season. It shows the sport has perhaps taken the wrong turn somewhere, as Jonathan Noble investigates.
The Formula 1 paddock at this time of the season always has about it an intoxicating buzz of who goes where the following year.
Which contracts are up for grabs? Who is talking to who? Who is interested or not interested in a move? Who is spreading false rumours to boost their own negotiating position? When is someone going to commit and trigger a domino effect elsewhere?
The only problem for F1 this year is that while all the above is taking place, it's not happening in the driver market. Instead, welcome to the 'engine' silly season.
Red Bull's hunt for engines next year, Renault's bid to get its house in order, Honda's woes and the prospect of Mercedes and Ferrari carving up most of the field have meant F1 is now dominated by power unit performance as much off track as it is on it.
And it is the fact that engine politics now seems to be at the core of everything that has set some alarm bells ringing about whether the current turbo hybrid rules are actually good for the long-term health of the sport.
We have already seen the hike in costs for customer teams, which ultimately pushed Caterham over the edge, took Manor right to the brink and have left the likes of Sauber, Lotus and Force India facing some tough times.
There have been competitive issues too, because it is fairly obvious to the world that Mercedes has stolen a march on its rivals since day one: dominating this era and looking every bit as strong now (Singapore aside) as it was when these hybrid cars first hit the track.
The way in which the Silver Arrows' 2016 developments are already being worked on now means there is every reason to believe that its dominance will continue for the longer term. That's not so good for Bernie Ecclestone's hopes of attracting ever greater audiences.
Make no mistake, Mercedes has done a sensational job with the engine, and when these new V6 turbo hybrids are working at their best they are brilliant. They are quick in a straight line, they sound perfectly fine and the fuel efficiency and energy management is a technological marvel.
The real issue though is that one manufacturer has done such a better job than everyone else, and that has had negative consequences for the rest of F1.
Rules at fault
Where things have gone wrong is the overly complicated regulatory framework, and the structure that exists now delivering problems that were probably unforeseen when they began.
For example, should a racing series ever leave itself open to a situation of having 168-place grid penalties at one event as F1 did at Monza?
The token/homologation system, intended to keep costs under control, also has not worked for the best of the sport, for it has left those who are behind really struggling to catch up.
Is it right for F1 (let alone the company itself), that Honda has to wait a whole season to be able to make the significant engine architecture changes it knows it must do if it is get closer to the front?
What message does it send out to other car manufacturers about making the bold step of moving to grand prix racing, when companies like Renault and Honda have faced PR nightmares on the back of their F1 difficulties?
These new hybrid regulations were viewed as essential for moving F1 towards an era where new manufacturers would enter, and there would become an unprecedented era of ultra-tight competition.
Right now, F1 is standing on the brink of a situation where it is not impossible that Honda and Renault walk away, leaving it with just Mercedes and Ferrari controlling the grid.
Beyond that, there remains the prospect that Red Bull could pull the plug on both its F1 teams such is its unhappiness at not being able to secure a competitive engine.
And anyone who follows the history of international motor racing championships knows that when series become reliant on just a couple of manufacturers spending a fortune, they do not have very long futures.
Look at the short-lived World Sportscar Championship, or the ITC.
As F1 heads to what it hopes is a bright new future with faster and more challenging cars from 2017, it would be wrong for it to ignore its engine situation.
There may be a lot of people hoping VW/Audi does give the green light to an F1 project over the next few years, but right now the German car manufacturer is facing much bigger global issues.
I'm personally not of the belief that ditching the hybrids and reverting to the V8s is the answer, for having cutting-edge engine technology should be viewed as a must.
But right now, the way the current rules have been framed is stirring up a situation that may not be good for the longer term.
Perhaps it is time for F1 to move somewhere in the middle. Keep the best bits of the technology, cut the costs, allow the competitive order to balance itself out and ensure there is a sustainable future for everyone.
Turbo pioneer's thoughts
It is against this current background that I found it particularly fascinating when I was contacted recently by former Renault F1 technical director Francois Castaing, the man who first brought turbo engines in to the sport in 1979.
His vast experience of pioneering engine technology and the competitive thrust of F1, allied to subsequent corporate experience with Renault, AMC and Chrysler in the United States, means he has a unique perspective on the hybrid rules that is unhindered by selfish-competitive motives.
And he is particularly fearful about where F1 is heading thanks to the new rules: fearing it could go 'bankrupt' if action is not taken.
In a document that he has sent to Ecclestone and FIA president Jean Todt, printed exclusively in full below, he outlines some interesting insights into what he believes the current problems are being caused by, as well as some potential solutions.
While his opinions and solutions may not be supported by everyone, what should be taken on board is that if intelligent impartial outsiders coming at it from an engineering viewpoint are now prompted to call for change, then surely that is enough for those on the inside to wake up a bit and consider that something needs to be done.
After all, we all want the same thing. An ultra-competitive F1, where all engine manufacturers are battling furiously for victories in a sport that delivers tremendous excitement week in, week out.
Are the current rules doing that? You would be hard pressed to think so right now.
Castaing's document in full
Formula 1 should not go bankrupt.
In recent months, Formula 1 stakeholders and teams have talked publicly about the serious problems the sport faces. They have revealed their lack of progress in their attempts to bring the programme back on track. The two ideas expressed here could help their efforts.
1: Power units
F1 stakeholders and the current power unit suppliers must accept that, while well intentioned, the 2014 move to a complex hybrid turbocharged V6 has had unforeseen negative consequences.
Paying fans have been complaining about the exhaust noise of the V6, saying that it is both reduced in level and quality. This is actually an unsolvable issue because, by design, in the hybrid V6 the maximum of exhaust gas energy is captured into electricity at the expense of the noise. The problem is compounded by the V6's low maximum RPM imposed by the fuel metering regulations.
Managing fuel consumption has visibly killed all-out racing to the flag: another complaint from the paying spectators.
Hybrid technology has been in development for passenger car production as far back as the 1990's, especially at Toyota, GM, Chrysler, Daimler/Mercedes, BMW and VAG. Only Mercedes, among the initial three power unit suppliers for F1, has been intensively developing hybrid technologies in anticipation of worldwide CO2 regulations. In 2012, Mercedes was in the position to assign hundreds of hybrid technology engineers to help design the new F1 power unit, while Renault Nissan provided none and FIAT very few.
Hence the superiority of Mercedes since the first day of practice in 2014, superiority likely to last until major changes if any are put in place in 2017. The power units' performance disparity, cause of the "processional Grands Prix" that the paying public is not happy about, is mostly due to the hybrid systems' efficiency and integration, rather than the difference in power output of the V6s themselves.
Privately and publicly chastised by their own teams for the hopeless lack of competitiveness of their power units, Renault and Honda might decide to give up and leave Formula 1. Why in the world would any other car manufacturer want to jump in to replace them?
Not only are the spectators disappointed, but the teams are disappointed too. Despite all the talk about containing costs through inscrutable regulations imposed on the power unit suppliers, annual budgets have sky-rocketed. With Honda involved now, it is probable that the F1 annual power units' overall expense budget will reach 1.5 billion Euros this year.
Last but not least, the new V6 hybrid regulations were about displaying "greenness." Saving 50 kilos of fuel per car at each Grand Prix was the advertised grand benefit for the planet. Let's candidly put this in a broader context, as transporting the show around the world burns fuel too:
1. Including the practice sessions over 20 Grand Prix, the 22 hybrid power units could save up to 6 tons of fuel per year.
2. The logistics for the 12 overseas events require about 1,200 flight hours of Boeing 747 cargo jet and 1,500 flight hours of Boeing 777 (or equivalent) for the personnel. In total, these flights will burn about 22,000 tons of fuel this year.
3. For Europe's 7 events, 200 tractor-trailers will burn 1,770 tons of fuel to transport the same material. Regular airlines will fly 1,500 Formula 1 personnel burning another 525 tons of fuel.
Without counting the fuel used by a large number of business jets shuttling stakeholders and VIPs to the 20 events, Formula 1 will burn at least 24,000 tons of fuel this season but, thank God, the new engine regulations will save 6 tons!
In view of these facts, Formula 1 and probably most car manufacturers and sponsors involved should agree to bring back the racing engines that fans have been clamouring for as soon as possible, while seeking more effective ways to show environmental responsibility.
From the drivers themselves to the fans, many question why more and more responsibilities are taken away from the athlete behind the steering wheel. This situation is the result of the never-ending invasion of telemetry sensors in the cars. The sensors, hundreds of them for top teams, monitor absolutely everything in each subsystem of the car.
The data collected in real time in the pit allow the team to enhance their driver's performance on the track. But at a growing cost: as an example, for the power units alone the manufacturers bring to each Grand Prix at least 10 engineers per car, each with a screen or two, to monitor a specific set of parameters when the car is running.
Hundreds of engineers are travelling to each event to watch those screens. While probably of great interest for engineers, it is not clear how this costly activity helps bring better racing to the paying spectators' eyes, even when good TV broadcasters attempt to display the telemetry to at-home viewers. It was not like that in the days when Formula 1 was very competitive with epic races from Senna, Prost and the like.
Telemetry in F1 costs a lot of money in capital, head count and transport. It should be banned completely starting with the 2017 season with the exception of a half dozen sensors warning of developing brake failure.
This drastic but simple change will permit talented drivers to shine and bring more uncertainty to every race as demanded by TV advertising sponsors and the paying public.
F1 as a whole not only will save money after paying all their drivers fairly, but it should take credit for seriously reducing its carbon footprint. If 500 engineers/technicians and their equipment were no longer needed at the events, the savings in fuel burned could be as high as 6,000 to 7,000 tons per year.
Formula 1's next engine could be a 1,000 HP 2.8 litre turbocharged V8, with capped boost pressure, rev limited at 17,000 RPM and burning exclusively one brand of 110 octane gasoline.
Alternatively the famous 3.5 litre V10 from the mid-2000s period could and should be brought back to life.
Either alternative would cost the manufacturers and the teams only a fraction of what the current hybrid V6 costs.
The original KERS system should be reinstated.
Last, burning an ethanol based racing fuel should be considered: its usage does not require much invention. Ethanol would make the option of refuelling during races affordable for the teams and thus possible. And it is renewable fuel!
Renault Sport Technical Director 1975-1979
Note: Estimations of fuel burn
Assumed all air transports of freight and passengers are from London and back.
Boeing 747 Cargo burns 10 tons of fuel per hour. Assumed 4 planes needed per GP but more might be in fact needed.
Boeing 777 burns 7 tons of fuel per hour. Assumed 5 planes needed for oversea GP.
Airbus A320 burns 2,5 tons per hours.
Tractor-trailer: 8 miles per gallon.