Engine politics in F1

There has been talk in recent days about the McLaren engine supply. My German colleagues are adamant that the relationship between McLaren and Mercedes is going to end in divorce as quickly as is “decently” possible as Mercedes has found exactly what it wants in buying into Brawn GP. Everyone is saying all the right things at the moment but beneath the surface of F1’s water the legs of the swans are busy, busy, busy.

The fact is that for some time it has been clear that the strategies of McLaren and Mercedes-Benz have been heading in different directions. Both want to build supercars, but they don’t appear to want to do it together, as they are both busy developing their brands and they need to be selfish. The launch of the new McLaren MP4-12C the other day (just before Mercedes pulled the covers off the SLS AMG at the Frankfurt Motor Show) was a sign of where things are going in the road car markets and that has to have an effect in F1. My theory on the subject was that as the McLaren road car now features a McLaren-badged engine the company’s future in F1 is not going to be with another manufacture. The engine may be built by sub-contractors but it is clear that McLaren’s ambition is to become Britain’s version of Ferrari and designing engines is part of that. The next step in the brand development of McLaren must be for the company to build McLaren F1 engines. In any case by going down the chosen path McLaren has narrowed the number of possible F1 engine partners dramatically as no-one will want an alliance if they are selling competing road cars. And McLaren is not going to gain much in image terms by going to mass market car brands when they are positioning their automotive brand in a much higher and exclusive niche.

Ironically, if McLaren does start making its own engines it more logical, rather than less, for its road car rivals to launch F1 programmes against them and Ferrari – because the likes of Aston Martin, Lamborghini and Porsche are facing stronger competition in the marketplace and so need to create compelling reasons why customers would buy their products, rather than those of their racier rivals. A successful F1 programme is a very good way of achieving this. So my feeling is that McLaren’s future is building its own engines. Now is a great time to buy up necessary elements to achieve that strategy. There are good people, great intellectual property and basic hardware (such as dynos) available now as manufacturers get out of F1. It is therefore entirely logical for McLaren to try to grab some of it.

These things rarely make big news. I seem to recall that in 1992 Honda withdrew from F1 and sold some of its V12 data to Ferrari, which made sense.

I had a long chat about this subject with McLaren types (no names) over the Suzuka weekend and while they accepted that the argument I am putting forward is logical, they are not ready to confirm that this is what is happening.

29 thoughts on “Engine politics in F1

  1. Another fascinating post Joe. Again your logic is impeccable, and I may have to revise my thoughts about Porsche not getting involve in F1, although I see Aston martin as the most likely supercar newcomer…

    On a tangent, it will be interesting to see how Mercedes and Brawn crystalise. I guess Ross Brawn is part of the package, and I also surmise that Mercedes will have considerably greater influence in how the team is run than was the case with McLaren. That’s not necessarily an advantage though.

    I’m sure Ross can handle the short term, but will he want to be part of a corporately led, decision-by-committee, conglomeration for very long? (And no, a Jean Todt led Ferrari is not directly comparable.)

    And I can’t see Montezemolo simply sitting back and twiddling his thumbs either…

  2. This is kind of a rhetorical question, but if McLaren came in as a new engine manufacturer, how would that work with the engine freeze? Are there provisions in the regulations that would allow a completely new engine manufacturer to come in with a new design, even though it could potentially outperform the other frozen engines given it is starting with a clean slate?

    I would imagine this would be a little bit different than what is happening with Cosworth for 2010, although I don’t know if their approach was by their choice, or dictated by the FIA.

  3. Travis,

    I believe that they can do what they like… Obviously if it is too good the FIA would have to react.

  4. The different approaches to the F1/MP4-12C and the SLR possibly sum up the huge divide between McLaren and Mercedes-Benz.

    The SLR may be fast, but it’s nowhere near as pure as the McLarens.

    Who owns the IP for the KERS McLaren are using this year? Maybe that’s irrelevant for 2010, but it could be interesting in the future.

  5. Why is the question about the Honda IP so funny ?

    Is the MP4-12c engine just a shell and idea with nothing underneath at the moment?

    1. Dear F1 Kitteh,

      It wonder if it would be unfair to say that the major factor holding back the Honda team last year was the Honda engine?

      Let’s see what other people have to say about that idea…

  6. The obvious answer is BMW’s engines.

    The New Sauber/Qadbak team is going to be using Ferrari engines. That leaves BMW with a load of engines/technology that they could sell on.

  7. Rumour has it that McLaren are looking to buy the BMW F1 engine factory (which is not part of the Sauber sell out). I think that much of Honda F1’s racing issues were the engine so I doubt if it has much value (Rubens on first driving the Mercedes engined Brawn said it had a very wide power band). Remember McLaren sourced its engine for their F1 road car from BMW and it remains today the fastest normally aspirated road car in the world. The BMW engine is also rumoured to use less fuel than the other manufacturers which could be significant next year.

  8. Hi Joe,

    Great article. With BMW also withdrawing from F1, it would make a lot of business and competitive sense for McLaren to make a bid for their engine division. Could you confirm if there is any talk in the paddock with regard to this development?


  9. I see, just wasn’t sure because I couldn’t see that far back of the grid LOL .. Sad for company with such racing history… and oh.. hopefully they don’t have internet police checking on what you are writing like in China !!!

    On the other hand is the BMW now that good? Isn’t the two guys on the limit as well because of the blowups?

  10. Perhaps McLaren would try to buy Zytek, given that they’re already involved with the KERS system and are an established engine builder.

    The one thing about them buying the F1 engine division from BMW that makes me think it’s not going to be McLaren’s preferred solution is that Ron will probably want everything to be based in Woking, and I can’t see all the personnel wanting to move across from Germany.

  11. The Honda engine was given the same special dispensation that the Renault engines were given last year to make it a level playing field. But since Honda withdrew it became a moot point.

    In preseason testing, after BGP tested the Mercedes engined car, the numbers bandied about in terms of power difference between the then Honda engine and the current Mercedes engine was about 70 hp.

    While in terms of peak power numbers, i don’t believe that two engines could be apart by 70hp given that both were revving at 18000rpm with same V8 architecture et al, it is very well possible that such a big difference existed somewhere in the rpm-bhp band. This is what presumably what Ruebens hinted as the driveability of the Mercedes engine being better than the Honda. And if this power disparity was indeed seen at 60%-80% max rpm band which i think would be the most frequent rpm band an f1 engines operates at then it would make the 3/10’s difference due to the engine that is being widely discussed.

    Regarding Mclaren’s future engine plans, Strategically it might seem like a good idea for Mclaren to purchase the BMW engine division. But I expect Mclaren to have a short term performance shortfall due to the engine. It seems the BMW engine like last years Honda engine is not known to be very driveable too…It was reported somewhere that last year in Fuji, the BMW drivers were taking some corners in second gear which other cars could easily manage in third….

  12. Could McLaren find the expertise thay need at Cosworth?

    A buy-in/out would give them a potentially valuable (and under exploited) additional brand for consultancy work, a revenue stream from race-tech as well as reasonably current level of expertise.


  13. I can’t believe that Ron Dennis would take the company in this direction. OK so he wants to be the British Ferrari… Lets look at that.

    The initial McLaren F1 supercar with the BMW V12 engine in it was nice, OK, even very good but was it really in a different class than the Noble, the Koenig, the Saleen? Not really. We are mainly concerning ourselves with perceptions. The original Mac F1 supercar was still regarded somewhat as a “non-manufacturer” kit car despite the BMW one-off engine. And every McLaren Mercedes venture with the SLR or whatever is more regarded as a breathed-on Mercedes rather than a stand alone supercar.

    It is a tightrope act. McLaren must establish its own engine brand for it to be the British Ferrari. But to do that its F1 team, the real power behind its branding image, will have to risk going into near Williams level of insignificance and that is no way to sell supercars.

    I think they need to see how their new car is received and how much cache it garners against the Ferraris and Porsches before they risk their MB partnership. Looking at Williams is sobering. They are a ghost of their former selves and these days they couldn’t attract a top driver if they paid ten times the price. (Remember Senna wanted to drive it free in 1992-3) The Williams car hasn’t won since Brazil ’06 and before that it was 2003. The 90’s are forgotten by all except a few of us nostalgic old timers, but then again we all remember Lotus as a brand too. Williams has lost 99% of its cache and McLaren would do well to take a sobering look as to why. Williams has had Honda, Renault, SuperTec, BMW, Cosworth and Toyota. Mac has enjoyed an unprecedented 15 yr. stable F1 engine partnership with MB. This has been a vital portion of their strength and a great contribution to their on track success. Mac should remember the dog days of Peugeot power. You could have ten Adrian Neweys and five Rory Byrnes design the car and it would still be two seconds off the pace with that lump in the back.

    Beware McLaren.

  14. This is a very interesting blog. Personally, I have never thought of this before, and to be honest, it does sound incredible. It would give the McLaren team a lot more charm, when they start building their own engines.

    However, I just don’t see it happening. At least, not any time soon. Realistically, I don’t see McLaren’s road cars growing fast enough to reach Ferrari’s potential any time soon. And while they are small as they are now, I believe manufacturing their own engines would just be too expensive.

    Ofcourse, this would be a great option for the future, and I truly hope we will see it happen some day. However, I’d be surprised if it happend within five years.

  15. Your reasoning makes great sense Joe. when sitting through a McLaren automotive press briefing, and told that the engine will be a McLaren design, the first thing i thought of was that McMerc will no longer be… McLaren will race it’s own engines within 2 years, 3 tops… Mercedes will take over Brawn along with AMG, and a new brand of super cars with an F1 team will be Born….

    Brawn GP is destined to be a phase not a destination, and soon the Brawn team name will seize to exist, but what an existence with a 1 or possibly 2 titles to its name in their inaugural year…

  16. I know Brawn have been very impressive this year, but as we all know, they were working away for 18 months on this years car, with a huge budget.

    Next year’s Brawn will not have such a pampered development and if the team falls behind McLaren, Ferrari (and Red Bull?) next year, one wonders if Mercedes will be quite so keen to ditch McLaren.

    Is it a co-incidence that the Force India team suddenly become competitive at a time when Brawn becomes a real danger for the McLaren team.

    Racing engines are complex things, and require specialised manufacturing processes. If McLaren want to build their own, it will make sense to either buy or go into partnership with another company – and there are a couple of candidates about such as Cosworth and Zytek.

    One Final thought Joe – you mentioned that ” And McLaren is not going to gain much in image terms by going to mass market car brands when they are positioning their automotive brand in a much higher and exclusive niche.” – true, but if McLaren gain a competitive engine, then that is worth a lot. And just think of the benefit for a mass market car manufacture going into partnership with a supercar manufacture like McLaren…

  17. @Mattw. And just think of the benefit for a mass market car manufacture going into partnership with a supercar manufacture like McLaren…

    Like Mercedes Benz in fact…

  18. sorry i just dont buy any of this. yes i think mclaren and mercedes will se[erate their corperate identities, but there is no good reason at all to think that mclaren will not still use mercedes engines, even as a customer, for some time to come. why on earth wouldnt they? merc are almost certainly obliged to supply engines for a further two years.
    and the road car… they have already spent a fortune on the menard engine redesign, i cant see them suddenly looking for a new engine and starting from scratch.

  19. A little off the subject, but didn’t McLaren try the general car market once back in the early 80’s, with Ford I beleave? It vanished rather quickly. At the price McLaren asks for it’s current road car I’m sure they clearly want to close the engine marc gap ASAP, and produce their own, ala Ferrari for dual purpose or mabe a third variation for prototype, if that makes sense!…Sounds as if all of us are are in agreement on direction, looking forward to the answer to this one, with expectation!!!Things were a little simpler in my day, Ferrari, a coupla french and twelve or thirteen teams with Cosworths……..And more Hewland gearboxes than you could shake a stick at…

  20. If Joe is right and he often is, it looks to me that just like Mclaren want to be the Ferrari of UK so Merc wants to be the Ferrari of Germany – Ron would not sell and Merc know that its best to buy a team not create one like Toyota. The name Brawn will slip away once the Middle East middlemen sell the shares in Brawn

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