The subject of engine tokens in F1 is one that gets some folks very excited and others hopelessly confused. What is an engine token and why does it matter? A token is, in effect, the right to change a specific part of an engine. The FIA has broken down the engines into components or “families of functions”, with each being given a level of importance (Category 1, 2 or 3). The token value of the complete power unit is 66, made up of the sum of these ranked items. The number of components that can be changed in a season is limited, to keep down costs, and the limit was supposed to reduce year by year. A poorly written rule allowed the teams to change this so they could “spend” their tokens at any time during the year, thus making development possible, rather than having everything frozen for 12 months at a time. This year the number of tokens that could be used was 32 with 25 planned for next season. The engine manufacturers have now agreed with the FIA that the number will remain at 32 and development can continue to be constant. In theory this means that the level of performance of the engines will get closer, but there is a danger that it might also allow Mercedes to increase its advantage.
The meeting has also agreed to allow the supply of older engines to continue, which will allow Toro Rosso to run 2015-spec Ferrari engines next season. The suggestion that there could be other spec engines allowed, such as old V8s, has been rejected.
The changes will now be rubber-stamped by the F1 Commission and the World Motor Sport Council.
The token system is a good idea in principle, allowing sensible development, rather than letting things be changed from race to race and even session to session, but it does not stop manufacturers spending whatever they like on engine research and development. It simply restricts what they can modify at any one time.
The passage of time will, nonetheless, bring closer performance and there is no doubt that the fastest and cheapest way to get up to speed is to hire engine designers from the rival companies, rather than spending huge sums in laboratories, as the pioneers have had to do. It was ever thus. This also means that any new manufacturers wanting to get into F1 can do so, if they hire the right people.
This probably means that Red Bull will end up with Renault engines next year, as a quid pro quo between Renault and the Formula One group in relation to a nine-year commercial deal they have shaken hands on. It may be that the engines will be given another name and will come from Mecachrome, which builds all Renault engines these days, but another name will act as a fig leaf to cover Red Bull’s embarrassment at having stomped rudely away from Renault and then having to crawl back on bended knee. Given the arrogance (and/or naïveté) of the initial move, the swallowing of humble pie will be painful for the Red Bull ego, but it would be sensible for the firm to understand and accept what happened and become stronger by making sure it does not happen again. Running away, screaming ‘It’s not fair’ is another option, but that would compound the image of the company being like a spoiled child in need of a good spanking.