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The struggle for power

Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt recently announced plans to have a “client engine” in Formula 1 in 2017, arguing that the idea was all about cost reduction. I suggest that other factors may also be involved. Yes, it is true that F1 needs to reduce costs, or perhaps distribute its revenues in a different way, but in my opinion the alternative engine and an equivalency formula is not about cost-cutting; it is about power and control.

The Formula One Group and the FIA are no longer able to dictate what happens to the car manufacturers and they are trying to get back some of their power. The problem is that the manufacturers are sticking together and Ferrari has the right to veto rules it does not like. One can argue whether a veto is fair or anti-competitive, but right now it is the reality, and that means that the sport’s regulator and the promoter cannot do what they want to do. It is their own fault that the situation has got to where it is because they gave away their power because they wanted more money.

One needs to have manufacturers who have the best interests of the sport in mind, so having them calling the shots is not a bad idea if the bodies that are supposed to be in charge have not done their jobs properly. The client engine will almost certainly be vetoed by Ferrari, which is actually a good thing, but it may be easier for all concerned if the parties get together and solve the problems in a different way. The truth is that the manufacturers do not need the money that comes from the client teams. They take it because they can, but it is irrelevant in the overall scheme of things and it would be smarter if they would agree to supply engines at a reasonable cost. That way, they would keep their power and take the wind out of the sails of the FIA and the Formula One Group.

The most disappointing thing in this whole episode is that the FIA chose to align itself with the promoter, because to support such a proposal would undermine the brilliant engine regulations that F1 currently has. The hybrid engines are truly amazing and have raised the thermal efficiency to unheard of levels. The average road car today has thermal efficiency of around 30%. In two years, F1 has taken its thermal efficiency to 45% and the engine designers are aiming for more next year. This technology will gradually filter through into the car industry and will ultimately benefit all car users.

The governing body should be pushing for other such changes in the industry rather than taking a hands-off approach and wasting its energy on road safety. There are plenty of road safety organizations around the world, and the FIA’s own foundation is supposed to be doing that work. The FIA was started as a regulator of motorsport and that is what it should be doing. The problem is the ambitions of FIA president Todt, who apparently wants to be a major figure in the road safety world. That’s fine and commendable, but he should resign his FIA role if road safety is more important to him than fixing F1’s problems.

The F1 world should be making progress in other areas, notably in computational fluid dynamics (CFD). F1 aerodynamics are the second key influence in the sport at the moment, after horsepower, but the work that goes on has no value at all in the real world. It is engineering for the sake of engineering and that is basically a waste of money. F1 teams should be forced to develop better CFD, because that technology can be applied in thousands of areas. If this were the case, F1 would have even more relevance and could attract bigger bucks from software companies.

The application of F1 ideas for real-world problems is an area where there is still much potential. Of the current crop, Williams, McLaren, Red Bull Technology and even Sauber are all involved in engineering work for clients, while Mercedes-Benz’s engine department at Brixworth is helping to develop power units for AMG products. Mostly the work is being done on a consultancy basis and is confidential, but it is useful as it generates revenues that do not affect the racing programs.

The technology and the brainpower in F1 has a value for the car industry, and this is growing all the time. Racing makes sense when it contributes technology to the world, while providing entertainment. If the people involved can remember that, then everyone will be better off in the longer term.

 

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