I read somewhere that the average American child witnesses 20,000 murders on TV before reaching the age of 18. Violent feature films sell well and news always tends to be bad news, because that is what people want to hear about. Or at least that is what the ratings say. There are occasional quirky stories used to fill available time at the end of all the bad news and designed to be uplifting, such as the Herbie the skateboarding duck, which was discovered by the BBC in 1978. The term “skateboarding duck” is now regularly used in the TV industry to describe these warm fluffy items… So, right now, as we look at negative stories such as “F1 breakaways” and “F1 losing sponsors” and so on, it is possibly a good moment to have a think about the good that may come as a result of the new Formula 1 engine regulations which will come into effect in 2013.
At present, F1 cars are powered by 2.4-litre V8s with minimal development allowed. For those who have them this is cheap and cheerful. For those who do not, there is little point in joining in, given that it makes little sense to invest in something which gets little coverage unless it goes wrong. In any case, the automobile industry is not really interested in 18,000rpm 2.4-litre V8s. Instead we will have the 12,000rpm, 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo, with direct injection, running on petrol. Direct injection has been chosen because it increases both fuel efficiency and high power output and is an area where automobile companies have been developing systems for the last 15 years, following its first use in production vehicles in Japan, where Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota all produced systems in quick succession. Renault was the first company to pick up on this in Europe in 1999, when its alliance with Nissan was just beginning, and Volkswagen followed, using technology adapted from Audi’s R8 Le Mans racer. Since then many other companies have followed with systems of their own, including Ford, Alfa Romeo, BMW, Honda and even GM’s Opel/Vauxhall. Last year Ferrari offered its first direct injection systems with the Ferrari California, while Porsche, Infiniti, Jaguar and Hyundai are recent converts. The systems are developing all the time. According to the FIA calculations the new F1 engines will bring improved efficiency of around 35%, although this is bound to improve.
The good news for companies wanting to enter F1 in 2013 is that the new rules create what is, in effect, a level playing field: everyone will need to start from scratch to design a new engine, and it is not just direct injection that will be attractive to the manufacturers, there is also much potential for energy recovery systems. Power outputs will still be around 750 hp, but the potential for using electric power at low revs, for example, is exciting for everyone, even the luxury car makers. The designers will need to be good because the rules allow for only five engines a year in 2013 and four after that.
Right now there are only three manufacturers in F1, Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault. Cosworth provides customer engines. Honda, Toyota and BMW all have recent experience in F1 and so have engineers who understand the demands of the sport. They all withdrew because of the costs involved, the need to use their money on more effective forms of research or lack of success. The Volkswagen-Porsche alliance may not yet be finalised, but the German firm is already hot to trot in F1. McLaren is almost certainly going to make its own engines, as it has done with its latest road car, the MP4-12C. In such circumstances it makes little sense to go into a partnership with either a rival or an unsuitable brand. It seems that the Japanese are among the most excited with talk of a return from Honda and/or Toyota and perhaps even a challenge from a smaller player, such as Suzuki. Nissan could be involved tomorrow (and logically should be) by badging existing Renault F1 engines, while working in league with its partner on a future engine. Other Renault or Nissan brands might also be involved.
One really needs to look at who are the big players and what they have to gain from F1. The Asian developing markets are the target for everyone these days, while some of the European markets, notably in the east, are attractive to European manufacturers and most of the big players would like to make an impact in the US as well.
Toyota remains the world’s largest car company in terms of production, ahead of General Motors and Volkswagen, although both are pushing hard. The Ford Motor Company has slipped back to fourth, but is not satisfied with that while the ambitious Korean firm Hyundai is quietly moving up the order, just ahead of France’s PSA (Peugeot-Citroën) and Honda. Alliances do tend to confuse the statistics as Renault and Nissan combined produce more vehicles than Ford, while Chrysler and Fiat, which are in the process of merging, together make more cars than PSA. In addition to these firms, there are a number of small but relatively ambitious Asian companies, particularly in China, who might see this as a chance to get ahead of the pack, and one should watch out also for Tata Motors of India which is the owner of the Jaguar brand. Now is a good time for ambitious engine designers to be looking for partnerships with such companies, following in the tradition of Cosworth and Ilmor.
It is not easy to compare eras but when F1 banned turbos and switched to normally-aspirated engines in 1989 there was an influx of new engine companies in the years that followed including Renault, Lamborghini, Judd, Subaru, Life, Yamaha, Porsche, Ilmor (which would later become Mercedes), Hart and Peugeot. Not all were successful but it showed that they were willing to try. There is also more chance these days to have more “brand engineering”, with different marques owned by the same manufacturer using the same engines but branded differently.