After Liberty Media acquired Formula 1’s commercial rights in 2017 the masterplan was clearly defined: Operate F1 largely as-is until the end of 2020, when prevailing regulations and contracts expire, then overhaul it totally from 2021.
This would involve a new commercial structures, governance protocols and revised technical and sporting regulations. And, in a first for the sport, financial regulations to level the playing field.
As for the power units, it had been previously been agreed to retain the existing architecture – 1.6-litre turbo engines running on 5.75% bio-content fuel, complemented by heat and kinetic energy recovery units – with only minor tweaks. A five-year stability period was agreed across the board.
For once, everything fitted so neatly. It would be the first time this century that all F1’s timelines coincided.
Then came Covid-19 and turned the entire world – and, by implication, F1 – topsy-turvy.
In the ensuing turmoil F1 unanimously agreed to postpone introduction of the technical and sporting regulations by a year to 2022 but stick to the original implementation dates for commercial agreements and governance processes (euphemistically known as the ‘Concorde Agreement’), and introduce the so-called ‘budget cap’ regulations on cue out of necessity.
However, expiration dates for the sporting and technical regulations are still undecided. Will their validity be reduced a year to expire at the same time as the others, will they run for the full five years and thus be out of kilter with the rest, or will all covenants expire at the end of 2026 rather than 2025?
RaceFans put this question to F1 managing director Ross Brawn during an exclusive interview recently. He admitted nothing had as yet been decided, but that the question of F1’s future engine regulations was likely to be the next discussion point.
“The focus now is on the next power train, [but] before you can say what it is you’ve got to decide what the objectives are,” he said. “Where is the relevance, how does this stand in terms of defining the spectrum of the future, what’s the economic climate, how do you encourage investment in a potential new powertrain?
“All that has got to fit in and make Formula 1 as attractive as we can to our engine and power train suppliers. The economic signs have to add up, teams need to be able to afford our engines and they need to be good racing engines.”
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Where does that leave F1’s powertrain regulations? The engine development runway is substantially longer than that required for chassis, particularly if the intention is to attract new suppliers given that F1 is currently at the mercy of Mercedes, Renault and Honda – none of whom have committed beyond 2021 – while Ferrari, too, makes occasional ‘exit’ threats.
Either way F1 needs to decide soonest, but first it needs to decide its direction of travel. While traditionalists urge for a return to old-iron V8s – or even V10s – the fact is that such engines are long gone, being as relevant to F1’s future as aluminium monocoque chassis or clutch pedals.
Meanwhile electrification is progressing in sport and on the streets, much to the chagrin of petrolheads.
The simple fact is no motor manufacturer can afford to be associated with gas-guzzling, NOx-belching non-hybrid engines, and not enough independent suppliers exist to provide the variety of engines the sport requires. Single engine supplier? That was called GP2 a decade ago. F1’s last independent supplier, Cosworth, withdrew when F1 went hybrid, having been unable to make a compelling business case.
It is evident F1 needs motor manufacturers more than they need F1, and therefore F1 needs to address the motor industry’s future needs. In the present global climate road relevance is paramount; followed closely by two diametrically opposite lows vying for priority: low emissions and low costs.
In order to make a business case for F1, these three issues need to be aligned at the lowest possible denominator, or no board will sign off an F1 feasibility study let alone the full programme, be it for a supercar or shopping runabout brand.
Indeed, had F1 not embraced hybridisation in 2014, at least three of four current engine suppliers would likely not be on the grid given their parents’ public commitments to electrification. Even Ferrari now produces a hybrid derivative developing a combined 1,000bhp.
Thus F1’s immediate imperative is to retain the current line-up, followed by attracting at least one supplier to as backstop, particularly if the sport hopes to attract an additional team (or two). Five brands would reduce supply pressures and costs while adding welcome variety to the grid. Forget not that although teams pay $20m for annual two-car engine supplies, engine programmes are heavily subsidised by parent companies.
It is a truism of F1 that change costs money; equally true is that the current engines are the most expensive in the history of the sport, even allowing for inflation. Retaining their architecture reduces design, development and production costs going forward while still making the formula attractive to potential suppliers on the basis that most trails have been blazed and regulations have become largely stable.
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So far ahead of their time were the engines when introduced in 2014 – having been delayed a year – that they are only now viewed as being road relevant. Indeed, earlier this month Mercedes-AMG CEO Tobias Moers – who takes up a similar position with Aston Martin later this year – announced that the company will adopt F1’s heat energy recovery technology from exhaust systems (MGU-H) in its road car range.
“In a first step this includes the electrified turbocharger – an example of the transfer of Formula 1 technology to the road, something with which we will take turbocharged combustion engines to a previously unattainable level of agility,” he said.
Imagine if F1 were suddenly to drop that technology…
This example, by no means the only such instance – Audi already fits electric turbochargers, powered by recovery generators, to its premium sports models – clearly makes a case for retaining F1’s engines on road relevance grounds. Thus, two of three boxes are ticked, with only the sustainability question to be addressed going forward.
This where F1 can play a crucial role in the future of the internal combustion engine, which intrinsically depends on ‘greenness’ with regards to clean burning and clean extraction and/or production. It is, of course, no use having the cleanest exhaust pipes on the planet if the process to that point is filthy dirty.
This is where battery electric cars fall well short – by shifting pollution upstream, where a variety of energy sources of varying ‘friendliness’ are used to generate electricity. Add in that mining for battery constituents wreak havoc on eco-systems and EVs are not the silvery-green bullets their makers punt them to be.
The most optimistic estimates indicate a current global electric vehicle park of 15m units; the world currently has about 1.5bn fossil-fuelled vehicles not going anywhere near scrappage soon. Nor could every breakers yard on the planet even accommodate them were they to be suddenly outlawed – indeed why would they take them on as there would be no market for used spares under such circumstances.
In addition, 300m motorcycles populate our roads – albeit mainly in Asian countries – while 200m ‘other’ internal combustion engines operate across the globe, as stationary engines, lawnmowers etc.
That’s two billion internal combustion on the planet, so 15m versus 2bn, or 0.75%. It would need 100m electric cars sold every year to 2030 to tip the ratio to 50:50 – assuming enough charging points are available, assuming sufficient electricity is available in the first place.
Clearly, then, the solution is for F1 to maintain road relevance by accelerating the development of alternate fuels to enable internal combustion engines to operate on environmentally friendly fuels, be they bio (derived from crops) or synthetic (artificially manufactured using fuel constituents). That would reduce pollution at source and exhaust. Carbon scraping (see below) potentially makes for a triple whammy.
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While F1’s 2022 technical regulations call for an (almost) doubling of bio components in fuels by imposing ‘A minimum of 10% of the fuel must comprise advanced sustainable ethanol’ – delayed from 2021 – F1’s long-term plan is to move towards net zero carbon engines by 2030 via power units fuelled 100% by fully advanced, sustainable fuels.
“That might be biofuels, that might be some kind of second-generation (recycled food crop) fuel,” an F1 spokesperson told RaceFans. “None of this will be first-generation, it will be second-generation. By 2030 the fuel that goes into all F1 cars will be 100% advanced, sustainable fuel.” A ten-fold advance in nine years.
Clearly F1 should plan to hit 50% by 2026, leaving five years to close the remaining gap. The solution: largely retain the current engines, up their stellar thermal efficiency even further and assist in the development of suitable ‘green’ fuels. In short, make F1 attractive to motor manufacturers and fuel companies.
This is not as far-fetched as it sounds: during last year’s Monaco FIA press conference Cyril Abiteboul of Renault F1 – his team is partnered by BP – was asked for his vision of F1’s future power units.
“Obviously in 2025 the world will be different, electrification will be a profound trend, so it’s not going away,” the French engineer said. “In my opinion we need to look at the next couple of years to form an opinion regarding MGU-H road relevance, because it’s clearly a component that was introduced for that purpose.
“One thing that might be interesting is not necessarily the next generation of engine but the next generation of fuel, because we believe Formula 1 is about hybrid technology, not full electric, for a number of reasons.
“There will be new forms of fuel coming up in the next few years, whether bio-fuel, a different composition, or synthetic fuel from non-fossil sources. These could be attractive and require new development. So, probably the way forwards. Less exciting, obviously, than high-revving, normally-aspirated engines, but still probably the way forward if we want to be relevant, not just to car makers, but to society.”
Prescient words, and hence his response is repeated in full. But is Cyril’s vision realistic? We asked Pat Symonds, F1’s technical director, who has been heavily involved in the ‘greening’ of F1 together with the FIA and the Formula 1 Fuel Advisory Panel (FOFAP). Is it doable for F1 to go 100% low-carbon fuel, zero carbon fuel?
“Right at the moment it’s not,” he began. “If you said, ‘Could we do it tomorrow?’ the answer is [also] ‘no’ because there are several types of sustainable fuels. The alcohol-based sort of fuels which you definitely could make enough of to fuel Formula 1 right now [are feasible] but the engines would need modification to run at 100% level, or run properly at a 100% level.
“We gave an undertaking to engine manufacturers that prior to 2025 we won’t make major modifications to engines,” he clarifies, providing regulatory rather than technical reasons for his negative response.
“The second type of fuel is a ‘drop-in’ fuel, where you synthesise a fuel that is essentially like a sort of iso-octane, like conventional gasoline. It’s called a drop-in fuel because you put it in an engine with no modifications. It’s essentially the same as what came out of the ground.” But that is currently expensive.
However, Symonds believes ‘carbon capture’ could provide the solution: “You can arguably in certain areas ‘clean up’ CO2. Overall, what you’re trying to do on a global scale is not introduce more CO2 into the system. So the CO2 that’s in the system, which has come from burning fuels, take the carbon out, strip the oxygen, and you’ve re-used that carbon. So you’re not adding to the net CO2 of the planet.
“We don’t need to reduce – we need to maintain.”
Various high-performance car manufacturers, including Bentley, Porsche and McLaren, are investigating the use of synthetic fuels.
“The technology around synthetic fuels is still being developed, but if you consider it can be produced using solar energy, easily transported and pumped [into cars] as we know today, there are potential benefits in terms of emissions and practicality,” McLaren COO Jens Ludman told Autocar.
“Today’s engines would need only small modifications, and I would like to see this technology get more airtime.”
Porsche CEO Oliver Blume believes synthetic fuels will prolong the acceptance of internal combustion engines – important to the brand given its iconic flat-six engine. “We’re already running tests with historic cars like the 911 and 993,” he told enthusiast magazine Total 911, admitting they would be expensive unless produced via “linked energy sources like solar energy.”
However, he foresees, “The first step for synthetic fuels being in motorsport because the [initial] cost isn’t so important as for normal customers.”
Clearly F1 has a role to play in the development of bio and/or synthetic fuels that have immediate road relevance for two billion internal combustion engines currently operating across the world. On that basis F1 does not need a new engine formula in 2025 – it simply needs a new fuel formula come 2025.