F1’s 2021 engine rules look to reverse trend toward monopoly

Formula One has an engine problem – one it’s working hard to fix.

My previous post, a splurge of invective against the sport’s ludicrous engine-penalty system, touched on the root issue and highlighted some of the remedial steps F1 bosses are already taking.

Pace of change, though, is necessarily slow. Regulation changes come in batches, years apart. Formula One has struggled in the 21st century to keep on the right side of engine manufacturers; if rules are changed willy-nilly, and radical alterations to engine specifications demanded overnight, the few remaining manufacturers will simply walk away.

In the first season of racing in the new millennium, F1 had nine different engines backing its 11 teams. In 2014, with the arrival of the hybrid-turbo V6 engines, the number of suppliers shrank to just three.

Line graph showing the number of engine suppliers in Formula One in the 21st century
Number of engine suppliers in Formula One in the 21st century – Click image to zoom in

How F1 drove itself to this point

Understanding what went wrong, and how it might be put right, means we first have to grasp why the sport changed in the first place. Formula One felt the pressure to modernise. Inextricably linked to the road-car industry, the sport looked increasingly decadent in the face of climate-change and the mounting pressure to cut global carbon emissions.

F1 wanted to remain relevant and adopt a greener approach, lest it be superseded by another series (such as Formula E). Both the public conscience and the development sense of major manufacturers required the change. But F1’s appeal has still declined while Formula E is now practically fighting off the suitors.

Part of the reason is F1’s desire to remain the pinnacle of motor racing and engineering. Competitors have failed to meet the technical and financial challenge.

There is no way to undo the decay, either. The next batch of F1 regulation changes will be introduced at the beginning of the 2021 season. Jean Todt, president of the sport’s governing body, the FIA, said in March that a return to the pre-2005 V10 engines “will not be accepted by society”.

He continued: “Indeed, I am sure if you said, ‘let’s go back to the engines from 10 years ago’, many manufacturers would not support such a move. I’m convinced a minimum of three out of four would leave.”

Hanging on ’til 2021

Discussions for the 2021 regulation changes are progressing well, though.

More relevant the V6 hybrid-turbo engines may be, but the focus is now on making the next generation of F1 power units simpler and cheaper to manufacture.

The sport only has four suppliers on board at present, two of whom – Renault and Honda – are still flapping about in the fourth season of the new-era turbos, unable to build a reliable (let alone competitive, in the case of the latter) model.

Australian F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo drives the Red Bull Renault RB13 car in April 2017
Red Bull have won two races in 2017, but have completed the fewest racing miles thanks in large part to poor reliability (Credit: emperornie [Wikimedia Commons])

Mercedes have set the standard; odds are they will make it four championships in four years in 2017. Even Ferrari have struggled to follow in their wake. But smaller, year-on-year regulation changes are working to break the German company’s vice-grip on F1.

The sport scrapped the system of engine development ‘tokens’ last winter. Intended to restore some competitive balance between bigger and smaller teams, shackling top manufacturer’s ability to spend their way to success, the system actually helped consolidate Mercedes’ early successes. Nobody had the scope to catch up.

The FIA have also introduced minimum weight and dimension limits for a number of engine components, effectively capping development routes explored furthest by Mercedes. This is likely to help close the performance gap and help make the units simpler and cheaper in the long years until 2021.

Which companies will join F1?

Porsche have lately stoked excitement for the new-new-era Formula One, attending a number of Strategy Group meetings this year that have focused on the ideal specs for the post-2020 power unit.

Aston Martin also helped get fans a little hot under the collar with their recent unveiling as the Red Bull team’s new title sponsors. There is no power supply deal involved, but the two entities have already collaborated on projects in the past. Dreamers are dreaming of more direct involvement for the British manufacturer.

But fans – and manufacturers – would do well to study F1’s history before taking the plunge back into the sport in 2021. There may have been nine engine suppliers on the grid back in 2000, but few of them had tasted success.

Porsche themselves account for the last constructors’ title not won by any of the four suppliers in Formula One at present – way back in 1985, powering McLaren‘s Alain Prost and Niki Lauda.

Number of engine suppliers isn’t everything

It’s not surprising, given the patterns of dominance established in F1, that Mercedes, Ferrari, and Renault were the only three suppliers left standing in Formula One in 2014.

In the 25 seasons since McLaren’s Honda-backed triumph in 1991, every single constructors’ title has been won by a car powered either by Renault (12), Ferrari (8), or Mercedes (5). The big three almost entirely monopolise the drivers’ titles in that same period, too – Michael Schumacher’s first world championship in 1994, in the Benetton Ford, is the only aberration.

F1 driver Michael Schumacher driving the Benetton-Ford B194 at the 1994 British Grand Prix
Michael Schumacher brought Ford their only F1 title success in the last 36 years – the drivers’ crown in 1994 (Credit: Martin Lee [Flickr])

Nobody else has really come that close, either. Williams-BMW finished runners-up in 2003, 14 points adrift of victory. A year later, BAR-Honda took second spot – though with less than half the points total of the supreme Ferrari out front. In 2007, it was the turn of BMW-Sauber to play second fiddle, but only after McLaren-Mercedes were excluded for their part in the ‘Spygate’ scandal.

Perhaps 2008, when BMW trailed in third, was the best hope to break the monopoly. The German manufacturer genuinely had the best car in the field come the midpoint of the season. Robert Kubica took the team’s solitary race win in Canada, eventually tying for third (finishing fourth on countback) in the drivers’ standings. Who knows how far the BMW could have gone if the team hadn’t halted development on that year’s car, in preference to the doomed 2009 model.

History doesn’t bode well

It isn’t surprising that Honda couldn’t stay away from F1. Prior to the Merc-Ferrari-Renault triumvirate’s quarter-century of preeminence, the Japanese manufacturer had taken six consecutive constructors’ crowns with Williams and McLaren (1986-1991). Many other competitors have come and gone.

Toyota never finished higher than 4th in the constructors’ championship (2005), their eight seasons and 140 races in the sport yielding just 13 podiums and no race wins.

Peugeot entered with McLaren in 1994 to much fanfare. The car achieved eight podiums, but more frequently failed to reach the finish due to the engine’s poor reliability. The relationship was soured and the partnership cancelled after just one year. Peugeot took their engines to Jordan and then to Prost. The French company never really solved their reliability problems, though, and withdrew after 2000 – a year when the Prost-Peugeot team finished 11th and last, without a point.

Mark Webber driving the Jaguar R5 F1 car at the 2004 United States Grand Prix
An attractive livery was about the most commendable quality of Jaguar’s brief foray into F1 (Credit: Rick Dikeman [Wikimedia Commons])

Jaguar constituted Ford’s big push for success in F1, based on the well-run Stewart outfit. In their final season (1999) under the Stewart name, the team finished 4th in the constructors’ standings and even took their first race win with Johnny Herbert at Nurburgring. Jaguar, by contrast managed no better than 7th place and just two podium finishes in five abject seasons (2000-04).

Ford’s last constructor’s triumph was as a supplier to Williams in 1981 – a year when the 3.0-litre Ford-Cosworth DFV V8 engine powered 12 of the 17 teams on the grid (71 per cent). It was a fundamentally different era in Formula One.

New F1, new game

If the knowledge that there have only ever been a handful of successful engine suppliers in F1 is a little disheartening, we can be encouraged at least that the top team’s margin of supremacy is getting smaller.

Unassailed as the current incarnation of the Mercedes has been between 2014 and 2017, its points margin over the next-best team (relative to the winner’s total points) is dwarfed by the likes of Ferrari’s F2004 and F2002 models, The Williams FW18 (1996) and the McLaren MP4/4 (1988).

The gap is bridgeable, as Ferrari have proven in 2017. But if Formula One can keep encouraging new suppliers to enter the sport, there will be more opportunities to topple the top dog and restore a healthier competitive balance.

Bar chart showing engine suppliers to Formula One constructors' champions, and their margin of supremacy
Engine suppliers to F1 constructors’ champions, and their margin of supremacy – Click on image to zoom in

Featured image credit: Artes Max (Flickr)

This article was written by sgibson.

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