So, for only the 10th time in this decade, we had a race on Sunday where neither of the two titles were up for grabs. Bizarrely, in the even numbered years – 2010, 12, 14 & 16 – the title has gone down to the wire, in the odd numbered years – 2011, 13, 15 & 17 – the championships have been wrapped up with 3 races to go.
Did it make the race less exciting? Not from the comments I’ve received afterwards. The fact that both Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo were out of position meant that we had two drivers we could enjoy, doing what they do best and both served up plenty of overtakes to appreciate.
Hamilton had a brand new power unit at his disposal and, for once, wasn’t forced to look after his engine, so could push as hard as he was able throughout the 71 laps. As a result, from the pit lane he almost managed to reach the podium. Ricciardo had a little less freedom, with Renault turning down their turbo boost for reliability purposes, but was still able to carve his way up to 6th by the Chequered Flag.
In a story on motorsport.com Hamilton is quoted as saying that normally he’s been driving to protect his engine this season and that Sunday was the first time he’s pushed his engine like that. In terms of results, it hasn’t done him much harm, but with the switch to just three power units for the entire year from next year and the prospect of more ‘management’ it’s a move he says, “that sucks.”
I’m sure he’s not alone in that opinion and, given the amount of grid penalties we’ve seen in the last couple of seasons, the fear is that we’ll have even more in 2018 and that once again drivers will find themselves lower down on the grid through no fault of their own.
So the pressure is on the manufacturers to find more reliability without a loss of power as a result. Which to be fair to both Mercedes and Ferrari they’ve pretty much been able to do this year and are confident of doing so again next season. So from their standpoint, why change the current engine regulations? They’ve invested heavily and produced good results from their hard work and investment?
But if you’re Renault, Honda, or if we’re looking ahead beyond 2020, Cosworth, Porsche or Ilmoor, the argument is that a change is not only helpful but maybe necessary too. And that brings us to Formula 1’s current battle ground, providing more noise off track than the V6 Hybrids on it! Are the current power units what we need for the future, or after spending huge amounts of money to see one manufacturer dominate the top of the podium since 2014, do we have to have a change?
The sport’s new commercial rights holder has come up with a blueprint for cheaper engines beyond 2020, cheaper without the MGU-H hybrid element, a standardisation of the energy store and control electronics and a more powerful MGU-K. Oh, and they should be noisier too. Which will go down well in some quarters but doesn’t appeal to everyone as, to be honest, no new engine proposal is going to. This issue is too complicated to find a solution that satisfies all parties.
The initial aim is to find a way to bring costs down, but the argument put forward by the leading manufacturers is that the new proposals would result in three years of expensive parallel development and that’s hard to disagree with. Even Renault and Honda, who are still playing catch up with the current power units and would be more receptive to change, would have an issue with this. But if the sport is to encourage new manufacturers to come and join the party, it has to find a way to make the joining in less expensive. Honda, even at a conservative estimate, have spent in excess of $1 billion dollars so far, without much to show for their efforts.
Meanwhile, driving the move to bring costs down is the theory that it will result in a more even competitiveness on track. Fine in theory, although Niki Lauda – a man whose opinion I do respect, but one that is hardly neutral in this argument – did say over the weekend “You’re a fool if you think that to make Grands Prix more attractive you need to have a different winner ever weekend. F1 is about competition” he says. Which it is. Competition between the drivers on track and the teams off it.
A team sport where the focus is more often than not on the people at the wheel, rather than the hundreds of individuals working their socks off to give them the best car and best engine possible with which to go racing. Niki might not see the need for variety, although he could do with harking back to the start of 2012 where we had 7 different winners in the first 7 races and very enjoyable it was too. This season we’ve only seen one driver from outside the top three teams reach the podium, and that was only once – Lance Stroll in Baku for the trivia buffs amongst you. Whilst the racing has been enjoyable, I do believe that more variety and closer competition is what the sport needs.
Which, if you left the engine regulations as they were now, there’s a chance you’d get just that. Towards the end of the V8 era the field had closed together and we had some cracking racing as a result. If we left things as they were now, would we eventually have a similar scenario? Power unit costs are coming down, as mandated by the FIA. With less development, the costs per unit would reduce further, surely, and if we weren’t hell bent on trying to reduce costs by having less units available during the season – to the dismay of many, not just Lewis Hamilton – could we not reduce costs further? I don’t subscribe to the view that it costs less if you have only three power units for the season. How much does it cost to develop those units? How many extra units are being taken around the world in case of failures anyway?
Furthermore, a way could surely be found to assist Honda and Renault to enable them to fix the issues that have hampered their progress. Allow any new manufacturer the same assistance, but without totally compromising the competitive edge that Mercedes and Ferrari have earned by their hard work, and then leave the power units alone. Because if the alternative is an unnecessary row, threats to quit and a commercial rights holder at war with the teams, I’m not so sure that that’s what the sport needs right now.