What the FIA must do now is ensure that F1 remains affordable for the teams, including Red Bull Racing; just ask Alain Prost...
“Absolutely,” says Alain Prost.
The quadruple world champion is replying to a question about whether or not his team, Prost Grand Prix, would still exist today if an engine freeze and budget cap had existed 10 years ago. His unequivocal response is born from the fact that engines were the single biggest expense for a middle order team a decade ago.
In 2001, Prost Grand Prix’s final year of existence, the team spent 90 percent of its budget – the equivalent of €30 million – on a supply of customer Ferrari engines. The team needed a new V10 for each of its cars every day of a grand prix weekend, and its V10s were still a couple of specifications behind those used by Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello at Scuderia Ferrari.
The costs crippled Prost GP and the team went bankrupt before the start of the 2002 season. It was a similar story at Arrows, which followed Prost into insolvency a year later, and Eddie Jordan was forced to sell his eponymous team at the same time. When Jaguar pulled the plug on its F1 team, unable to justify the huge engine costs involved in F1, it was clear that something had to be done.
For 2006, Formula One dumped its powerful 3-litre V10s in favour of today’s 2.4-litre V8s. After the initial development costs, a 10-year engine freeze was agreed from 2007, halving engine costs overnight. Not only was there next to no development work to be done, an eight-engine-per-car-per season rule was introduced, meaning far fewer engines needed to be bought than was the case previously.
Suddenly F1 became more affordable. A customer engine deal currently costs €10 million per season – one third of the cost inflicted upon the likes of Prost. Everyone’s a winner: the smaller teams get an affordable V8 and the manufacturers get more publicity because they’re supplying more teams. Of the 24 cars on the grid, Renault power eight cars, Mercedes and Ferrari six apiece and Cosworth four.
Not only are engine costs more viable, there is engine parity across the board. The engine freeze means Sauber and Toro Rosso get exactly the same 750bhp V8 as Scuderia Ferrari, for example, and the performance of their engines is similar to the Mercedes and the Renault.
Engine parity is a new concept in the ultra-competitive world of F1. Engines used to be the biggest performance differentiator, which is why one engine manufacturer often used to dominate a season. Honda’s unlimited budgets of the ’80s turned them into serial winners: Williams-Honda dominated 1987, McLaren-Honda dominated ’88, ’89, ’90 and ’91. Then came the Williams-Renault era of 1992, ’93, ’95, ’96 and ’97, and so on.
Engine disparity was the name of the game back then. In the turbo era of 1977 to ’88, engine performance varied by up to 500bhp on the same grid. The turbo-powered cars could expect up to 1,500bhp during the days of 4 bar boost, while the normally aspirated V8s at the back were producing only 600bhp. On power tracks like Spa-Francorchamps, that led to lap time differences of more than 15 seconds per lap!
The turbo-powered cars of the ’80s remain the most powerful in F1 history. “They were completely crazy,” says Gerhard Berger. “In qualifying you could spin the rear wheels in fifth gear, and in the wet it was a complete disaster! But it was an incredible experience to drive cars with so much power; you needed big balls to keep your boot in.”
Turbos were outlawed for ’89 on the grounds of safety, but it wasn’t the first time that driver safety had called the shots. During the inaugural world championship of 1950, engines were 4.5 litres and could have any number of cylinders, but they were reduced to a capacity of 2.5 litres in ’54 and then 1.5 litres in ’61 to keep a cap on speeds.
Enzo Ferrari detested the switch to 1.5 litres in particular, believing it to be an insult to his engine builders in Maranello. “The engine is the most important part of the automobile,” he said. “How can we demonstrate our wares, or properly test the drivers, with such small engines?”
Ferrari had a point: the 1.5-litre F1 engines produced about 225bhp, which was less than many road cars and significantly less than the 3-litre V12 sportcars that he built for Le Mans. Such lobbying from Ferrari and other manufacturers forced F1’s rule makers to increase engine capacity to 3 litres for ’66 and the technical blueprint was set for the next 20 years.
In the belief that the engine rules were finally right, new manufacturers came into the sport, but none was more successful than Cosworth. This small engineering company based near Silverstone in the UK produced a powerful off-the-shelf V8 that went on to dominate the sport for years. With their V8, suddenly anyone could enter F1 and it led to a huge rise in the number of teams vying for a place on the grid. Cosworth continued to develop their V8 and a derivation of the original DFV V8 powered Michael Schumacher to his first World Championship in 1994.
Up until now, however, manufacturer involvement in F1 has been all about brand awareness. “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” is a much-used mantra and it’s proved very successful. But environmental pressures are forcing F1 to become more responsible, which is why new engine rules are to be introduced in 2014.
Cars will be powered by a small 1.6-litre V8, with a turbo pushing power output to the current levels of between 750bhp-800bhp. There will be a 15,000rpm rev limit, compared to the current limit of 18,000rpm, and there will be fuel flow restrictions. While the current engines require 170 litres of fuel to complete the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona, from ’14 they will have just 130 litres.
The new engine regulations will reflect the economy drive that’s so important to us on the high street, which will make F1 enticing to the car manufacturers. What the sport’s governing body, the FIA, must do now is ensure that F1 remains affordable for the teams; just ask Alain Prost.