The more things change, the more they stay the same — Why power units don’t have too much influence in F1

Pierre Gasly's Honda-powered Red Bull Racing car

With a new Formula 1 season comes new storylines and excitement about the changes that have happened over winter.

Is this the year Ferrari can take the fight to Mercedes? How will Daniel Ricciardo get on at Renault? How fast can Red Bull Racing be with a Honda power units?

For all the intrigue, the evidence of winter testing and the first race of the season actually suggests that not much has changed.

The overriding lesson over the years is that the influence of power units has been massively overhyped.

There are certain people in F1 who would prefer for modern racing cars to still be running with boring and archaic V8 or V10 engines. People like Adrian Newey, for instance, have argued that power units currently have too much influence over the performance of an F1 car — and aerodynamics not enough.

He would say that, of course, because he is a renowned aerodynamicist, and his unique skill in that area gives Red Bull Racing a massive aerodynamic advantage.

The argument goes that Mercedes have a baked-in advantage under the current rules, because they happened to come out of the blocks with the best power unit. The naysayers tell us that, such is the complexity of these engines — and the expense of developing them — that no-one can ever catch up.

But as time goes on, it’s becoming clear that the influence of power units on a team’s performance has been grossly overstated.

The idea that the current power units are unusually expensive to develop is straightforwardly untrue. When Dieter Rencken looked last year at how the sport has evolved since 1997, he noted how the cost of engines has declined over time.

[In 1997, n]o fewer than seven [engine manufacturers] – Ferrari, Ford, Hart, Mercedes, Mugen, Renault and Yamaha – were represented, with engines then typically costing up to $40m for a season supply. Against that, budgets peaked at around $80m, so engines accounted for 50 per cent of spend.
2018 budgets run to $300m (plus), with engines pegged at around $25m, yet team bosses complain the power units are too expensive… while kicking against budget caps!

In other words, the cost of engines has halved, while overall team budgets have skyrocketed. Among the big spenders, by the way, is Red Bull Racing. They’d still rather be spending more on developing flicky-up bits (that cause dirty air and make the racing worse), while railing against supposedly astronomical power unit costs.

Red Bull Racing’s move to Honda power units is a case in point. Given all the noise over the past few years about the inherent disadvantage that Honda runners face in the current era, it is remarkable that Red Bull are still firmly in the top three. As ever, they are far ahead of many Mercedes runners that are meant to have an unassailable advantage.

It’s almost as if power units don’t have very much influence over a car’s performance at all.

Indeed, on analysing other teams that have switched engine supplier during the hybrid era, it becomes increasingly difficult to seriously believe that power units have too much influence over a car’s performance.

While Mercedes have won every championship in the hybrid era, their power units have also powered the bottom-placed teams twice — Marussia in 2016, and Williams in 2018.

Williams started the era in a strong position, but their steady decline seems firmly chassis-related. Force India also maintained a consistent Mercedes supply, but with similarly consistent midfield results.

When Lotus switched from Renault to Mercedes power units for one season (before the entire Enstone-based team was bought back by Renault), it rose them all the way to the giddy heights of 6th in the constructors’ championship.

In short, the results of Mercedes-powered teams are in fact as variable as they come.

By now, you don’t need me to tell you that McLaren weren’t being hindered by their Hondas nearly as much as they led the world to believe. Switching to Renault units had a negligible effect on McLaren’s performances. Their lack of straight line speed turned out to be due to excessive drag, not a lack of horsepower.

Even when they used Mercedes power units, McLaren finished only 5th — just one position better than they achieved with Honda in 2016.

Meanwhile, Toro Rosso have also had three different power unit suppliers during the hybrid era. But they have never finished higher than 7th or lower than 9th in the championship. True, their slump to 9th came when they moved to Hondas. But parent company Red Bull clearly weren’t concerned enough to abort their plan to switch their main team to Hondas as well.

So it’s proved that Red Bull Racing remain solidly one of the top three teams, despite now running with Honda power.

It’s time to face up to the real problems facing Formula 1. Complaining about power units is a useful distraction for the likes of Red Bull. But they benefit disproportionately from the sport’s current commercial structure, because they signed up to the current Concorde Agreement early.

In 2018, Red Bull Racing were projected to receive £110.7 million out of F1’s prize pot. The next team down in the constructors’ championship, Force India, earned less than half that amount — and went into administration.

Even if Red Bull Racing weren’t paid such an eye-watering amount of money, their owner has deeper pockets than any true privateer team could dream for. So Red Bull can spend their way to success — and blame others (such as power unit suppliers and/or regulations) if they fail.

But if grids are to tighten up, and racing is to become closer, the reality is that F1 needs to ensure that the distribution of income is spread much more fairly across all teams, not just the privileged few with favourable terms. And incidentally, it also needs to radically reduce its reliance on aerodynamics to produce speed.

In other words, F1 needs to do all the things Red Bull lobbies it not to. Changing the power units is the last thing F1 needs to do.

1 comment

  1. Comparing to 1997 ignores three things:

    1) the dollar compared a lot more favourably to the pound back then (a big thing for most of the constructors, who are British, much less so for the engine manufacuturers, who are not)

    2) the V8 era in between had much cheaper engines. Some teams (works ones, which included “first customers” like Red Bull before Renault entered its own team) got free engines, and it was rare to find others charged more than $15 m. Those who were (generally the Ferrari-supplied teams) were back then considered to be getting fleeced.

    3) originally (in 2013), the price was supposed to be fixed at $14 m for a season, so $25 m is $11 m more (or just over 80% more) than was agreed (and the FIA was supposed to be enforcing). Broken agreements sting more than if the price had been the one originally agreed. The Mercedes teams don’t say anything because they have the best engine, and the best engines always cost more, but even Ferrari’s made the odd comment about it, and they’re traditionally the last people to talk of this. Fixing that cost was part of the point of amortising the engine across seven years.

    Granted, inflation would be expected to make engines more expensive than initially agreed. Granted, one could argue that the newer tech in the engines makes them more valuable than the old units – though given that it was behind that of WEC at creation, and hasn’t caught up all that much since due to the initial blocking of development, Red Bull may struggle to believe it represents value for money.

    Yes, aero needs cutting. However, I have yet to hear the sort of innovative engine talk in F1 that would make spending big on engines worthwhile. The “innovators” still seem to want to be behind the curve and spend a lot of money to be there. Meanwhile, I know quite a lot of people who won’t go back to F1 while it is sporting these units (either they are too advanced, not advanced enough – or just plain sound terrible. And given the amount of buzz and bleeping they gave me when I watched them live last year (if anything, TV reduces some of it), I couldn’t argue). The only useful places for F1 to position itself are NA (to optimise that part of hybrid) or full-electric. It’s apparent that positioning oneself as hybrid has resulted in F1 falling between two stools. It needs to pick one, and until then save as much money as possible on the current failed units.

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