The 2014 season has seen radical revisions to the rules in Formula 1. The most sweeping of which is a change to the engine regulations. Gone are the 2.4L V8 normally aspirated engines which have been used for the last 10 years and in their place are smaller, more efficient, 1.6L V6 turbo-charged engines which rely on a high degree of ‘energy recovery’. In other words, F1 has gone ‘hybrid’.
Coupled to the new engine formula is a severe restriction on, not only the total amount of fuel available for the race but also, a maximum consumption rate. With only 100kg of fuel available and maximum fuel flow rate of 100kg/hr, the cars are now completing a race distance with around 66% of the fuel they used last year.
Other changes to the rules have reduced the limit on the maximum revs of the engines, reduced the size of the downforce creating wings making the cars ‘twitchier’ and more difficult to handle, and as the power-trains require heavy battery packs, the minimum weight for the cars has been increased by 45kg.
The net result of these changes are that the cars are faster in a straight line, but slower around corners, theoretically increasing the opportunities for overtaking. One downside, that has been overplayed to death in the media, is that the engine noise is no longer of a deafening volume, but even this can be regarded as an advantage. With the lower engine noise and the cars being more of a handful, other aural nuances emerge in the tortured squeal of tires that were previously drowned out under engine roar.
The detractors of the new regulations also point out that the overall laps times of the cars is longer, a point that is factually true, but practically negligible. The cars are 7% heavier, use 30% less fuel, but are only 2-3% slower over a lap in race conditions. I don’t recall these same detractors relating to the fact that, for many circuits, the existing lap records are from a time before the last changes to the regulations!
As often happens when there is a major change to the regulations, there has been a shake-up in the pecking order of the teams. Of the current three engine suppliers (Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari) Mercedes have done their homework the best, and as a result the teams using their engine, particularly the eponymous ‘works’ team, are doing particularly well so far. Red Bull Racing, the team that have dominated for the last few years winning both the Drivers Championship and Constructors Championship for the previous four consecutive years, have not been doing so well with their new Renault engine and, not unsurprisingly, are now making the most complaints about the new regulations. Red Bull are, however, still doing considerably better than other Renault supplied teams suggesting that, yet again, their underlying car is well designed.
In the first six races of the season Mercedes had won all six and placed second in five of them. The only blot on a perfect record being a retirement, ironically with engine failure, for one of their drivers in the opening race. Speculation had already started as to whether or not the team would able to maintain such a dominant position for the rest of the season, or if Red Bull and the others, like Ferrari, will be able to progress at a faster rate and start to challenge for victories instead of fighting amongst themselves for the 3rd step of the podium. However, the seventh race, in Canada this last weekend, has revealed a potential Achilles heel for the Mercedes team. In the course of the race, both cars developed the same problem which lost them both braking force and re-generation power for the electrical part of their hybrid engine system. One car was forced to retire, while only an excellent defensive drive from the second car kept it in second place. The Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Giles Villeneuve in Montreal is a particularly fast circuit with very heavy braking, and it could be that this is a type of circuit where the Mercedes engines may have problems. The Italian Grand Prix at Monza could be similar, but Mercedes will now have a few months to try to find a solution before they have to face that race.