Motorsport.com's Guillaume Navarro spoke to Jean-Charles Raillat, CEO of Mecachrome Canada, about the firm's intention to throw its hat into the ring for Formula 1's standard engine supply from 2017.
What do you have in terms of technical and human resources to think this project can be completed in such a short time frame?
We won a few months ago the GP3 engine supplier deal from 2016, which will be an atmospheric 3.4L V6. We also won the supplier contract for GP2 series from 2017 with a turbo V6, also a 3.4L.
Our developed engine basis is absolutely compatible with this FIA request. In terms of resources and capacities, we are totally there. We are used, at Mecachrome, to conceive and produce an engine in six months. The planning window is still quite large for us.
Which teams, apart from Red Bull and Toro Rosso, could be potential targets for your engines, and how many teams do you need to make it financially viable, when the FIA wants to price the engine towards 6-7m euros per season?
It's maybe a bit easier for us than for others in that area, in the sense we already have a good existing basis that is ready – of course with development required-. Our evaluation is at least two teams for it to be profitable for us on a financial level, and also be able to be within the targets set out by the FIA. Two teams, four cars: that's our evaluation.
Where does the FIA need to be reassured to be able to choose you as the supplier? Did you receive a strict specification? If so, how can Mecachrome distinguish itself from AER and Ilmor, who also expressed interest?
First, the request for proposal is very clear. We answered it without ambiguity. What maybe differentiates Mecachrome is that we have been dealing with Formula 1 for a very, very long time. We have been managing a lot of major programs in parallel.
If you look at last year, Renault were supplying four teams: we were managing that side. We also managed GP2 Series and we will now supply GP3 Series. We are used to that and we have the human and technical resource.
We have testing dynos. There is no specific construction plan needed. And the projects we manage are complete all the way, from conception to production and set-up, as well as with the provision of track assistance and exploitation.
What about the dyno, where is it located?
It is in Europe. All our motorsport facilities are located in our historical place in Aubigny-sur-Nère (Central France).
There have been other sites in the past as we were very committed in F1 with the Renault provision. We were also doing a lot of components for Ferrari, Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, Honda… In order to maintain confidentiality, everything was scattered on different sites and each had their own customers.
But nowadays, all our motorsport facilities are in Aubigny, including the dyno. One dyno is specifically dedicated to Renault Sport F1.
Should we understand that among all the restructuring done by Renault nowadays in F1 and junior series, Mecachrome will become the subcontractor for all Renault engine-related activities of the group?
[Hesitates] Everything is always considered! Now, Renault has a strong will to come back in F1, even if nothing is officially done yet. They know why they want to come back: they are willing to put back their name on the top of the billboard. And what will be Renault will be called Renault.
But to say if differently, will there be two distinct power units - one Renault and one Mecachrome, designed under different technical rulebooks. Or will Renault Sport F1 consider using Mecachrome engines, labelled Renault?
Renault Sport F1 will have their own power unit. The current FIA specifications [on the low cost engine] has nothing to do with the one of the one used so far. There will still be a manufacturers' war. But we will still be on Renault's side to help them win, just like what has been the case since 1983.
Has the FIA provided some form of guarantees on the fact that only one supplier will be selected so that the winner can be sure to have enough teams to provide and make it commercially realistic? Or can you be selected just like another candidate and have to fight to sell your engine?
So far, the FIA's request is to receive marks of interest in this type of project, like AER's, Ilmor's and now Mecachrome's, but declined by Cosworth. If the FIA offer goes on, there will be another phase that will be a consultation to clarify nature and conditions of the contracts and the budgets.
But it seems pretty clear to us that there will be only one candidate shortlisted – which makes sense to deal with the financial burden-. This is heavy investment before any engine fits in a car and there aren't 40 cars on the grid. So you can't imagine several additional engine providers working on a project and only one working afterwards.
Do you expect to still meet some resistance from the Strategy Group, influenced by the engine manufacturers, to defend their costly and technically advanced power unit solutions which would suddenly be challenged by a cheap supplier?
I don't think the manufacturers are the rivals. We simply don't produce the same kind of engines. For me, the risk could be more a risk of downsizing of F1's image, with two different engine types: that could be a problem. The championship leaned more towards the manufacturers again: why would they admit that an independent engine maker could come and provide engines in a championship that is first of all a manufacturer's championship?
Would Mecachrome have been considering to F1 engine supply in 2017 or in mid-term if the FIA hadn't pushed this request for a different, cheaper, technical solution?
It is clear that if it had been on the same conditions than the current manufacturers, no. We would have never answered or tried. The investment is colossal, let alone to even consider catching the manufacturers. They also seek an image, a fame, a media coverage by being in F1.
But for an independent provider, it's a whole other story. Now, I'd be surprised if partners like Total or Infiniti didn't go and associate themselves right away with Mecachrome, AER or on an F1 project.
Based on what you've seen when the FIA made the previous engine bid under Max Mosley for the new teams (HRT, Team Lotus, Virgin, USGP) and chose Cosworth, what is your take on your chances to win the bid this time?
It is difficult to say. We have all the weapons on our side, including financial health on the long run for this type of project. As a consequence, I think we have all the requirements. On the other hand, Ilmor also has a nice name. They were and are a great company. But before a game between independent providers, it will be a game between the introduction or not of this type of engines.
Knowing this, are you already talking or lobbying some potential customer teams so that these very teams could represent a weight in the favor of the introduction of this engine?
Not yet. But it will be the case if the FIA answers favorably on our interest. The voting rights are complicated. Indeed, there are some facts [possible veto from Ferrari] and introducing such an engine will be complicated.
How do you develop a 2017 engine without any prototype of an actual car including the new technical rules, and no representative recent F1 running either?
The first tool is the dyno. We have all this to manage the engine development side. We can simulate a proportion of the integration area, such as water, oil or cooling circuits. Then, you have some FIA data about compulsory fixation points on the chassis according to the technical rules.
Then, you can work on what the integration of the engine would be based on those volumes and points of fixation. Of course, it couldn't fit in any chassis without some work of adaptation, but almost.
What about the recommendations Mecachrome could have to the customer teams about lubricants and fuel requirements? Will you be proactive in that area to suggest a strict partnership?
We will work with several suppliers on the development side. But we will recommend one. Then, some teams can have commercial interests with one in particular. This is why we need to be ready to use several types of fuel or lubricant.
But could you already tell us who you will initially recommend?
We have worked for a very long time with Total. All our engines were developed with Total products. There are strong chances that we keep going that way as we are in the same line of development than on the previous engines produced with Total.
Do you think this could be an argument to get Red Bull as a client, as they already know the development opportunities with Total?
It could be. But will Red Bull accept to have an engine that is not on the same basis as others to fight for a championship? I'm talking in terms of design, that's another question.
Communication could be tricky, too. You are embracing this low-cost image, which may not be the case of a top team.
Absolutely. The target of the FIA is to save the budget two smaller teams, the ones that have the most financial troubles. Red Bull could be tempted by such a project, but I'd be surprised about it.
Constructors are big powers and it is hard for Renault since a year and a half or two. But nobody should doubt about their ability to come back in the front and leave everyone behind. It is a huge company, that was a bit hurt and they won't let that happen.
What is Mecachrome's position on the timeline? Are you offering to come here as a rescue plan to save the number of cars on the grid on the short term, or are you looking at a long involvement in F1?
We're looking at it on the long run. For it to make sense [commercially], we need two teams; but also that this program lasts at least three years. Those are recommendations we made. Now, it's harder and harder to make yourself a way in F1 when you're not a manufacturer and have a limited budget. You need to be offered a solution to be able to stay and fight, with fair chances.
If the FIA was to select a supplier in the end of this process, will the winner have the contractual obligation to provide the engines, even if the number of customers is too low for the supplier to make financial sense?
So far, we were asked about our interest. We answered, with our recommendations. It has to be good for the championship, for the teams and for us.
If the bid keeps going, the final offer will include conditions that will be discussed with the different players, and each and every one of them has their own strategic vision on whether they keep going or not, if it's too risky. We are not here to provide a subvention.
You said in the beginning that Mecachrome only needed six months to get ready. Now, what would be the comfortable deadline for the job to be done in a proper way?
I think that as far as we are concerned, if we could choose the timing, it would have to be decided in February 2016. To know we have been chosen and be able to start in good conditions. I think it's the same for all potential suppliers. Later would be technically complicated and financially risky.