Ever since the beginning of Fomula One’s new hybrid era, one team has swept all before it. Over the last 18 months Mercedes have won 30 of the possible 36 races. Their performance level has been so high that this level of domination has only been seen a few times in the sport’s history. There are of course a number of factors which have led to this outcome – two world class drivers, one of the best chassis on the grid, great management and a huge investment from the Mercedes board. However, very few people would dispute that the main reason why they lead the field is due to their engine and how it is integrated into the car.
As has always been the case within Formula 1, when one team dominates the other teams look to try and level the playing field. To see an example of this we only have to look back to the last ‘era’ which saw Red Bull win 4 consecutive titles. The other teams, along with Bernie Ecclestone, pushed for a rule change which saw the double diffuser outlawed and also introduced a regulation to limit the use of exhaust technology in an attempt to level the field. It must be said, all with limited success.
So it has hardly come as a surprise that Renault, Honda and Ferrari are looking to open up the development on the engines to allow them to close the gap. The best estimates in the paddock are that Renault are around 50-60 bhp down, Honda are 100+ bhp down (before the engine recovery systems cut out at the end of the straight) with Ferrari having closed the gap down to 10-15 bhp.
Ferrari made huge gains with their engine last winter and leapfrogged Red Bull to become ‘the best of the rest’. This has largely been achieved by increasing an already sizeable budget. Renault and Honda have come under pressure to increase their resources and budgets which are allocated to the project in an attempt to close the gap to the lead engines. Another key factor in the potential decline in Mercedes’ advantage is the relaxation of the ban on in-season development for the second year running.
This brings us onto the biggest problem the teams, especially the smaller ones, are facing at the moment. Cost. The world is still recovering from the biggest economic shock in living memory. As a result, sponsorship has not been easy to come by and the budgets across the grid have been squeezed. This saw the demise of the Caterham F1 Team at the back end of last year, and this year Manor Marussia, Sauber, Lotus and Force India are all struggling to make ends meet.
This financial difficulty has largely been induced by the increased amount teams are being forced to spend in order to get an engine. The old 2.4L V8 engines used to cost the teams in the region of €5-8m per season and provided roughly the same power output as each other. The customer teams in 2016 will have to pay around €20-22m to get the latest specification unit in the back of their cars. With the reintroduction of in-season development and three of the teams trying to close the gap, it is unlikely the prices shall be dropping any time soon.
All of this added together led to Red Bull finally giving up the ghost and saying enough is enough. After spending every race weekend since the start of 2014 struggling for performance and reliability, the 4 time world champions finally lost their patience and terminated their Renault contract. However, this being Formula 1, it was never likely that they were simply going to go to Mercedes, their preferred choice, or Ferrari and get given an engine. Both engines manufacturers rejecting their proposals which has been the catalyst for the F1 rumour mill and internal politics to go into overdrive.
The problem that Red Bull faces is that their relationship with Renault seems beyond repair, and with the two current most successful engine suppliers turning them down, they have been forced to turn to Honda for help or risk walking away from the sport completely. This situation is likely to run and run until finally, as is nearly always the case, a solution is reached.
Both Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt have been frustrated by Ferrari and Mercedes’ approach to the whole situation and feel that the big manufacturers now hold too much power in the sport. In recent weeks they have both given interviews stating their desire that a new, independent manufacturer should enter the sport to help lower the price, increase the competition and aid the accessibility of the engines. This legislation would be introduced in 2017 and would see the introduction of a much simpler turbo-charged engine which would produce the same output as their much more expensive and complicated siblings.
This solution is not ideal for any of the parties involved, it is likely to cause a ‘two tier championship’ and could lead to the large manufacturers walking away from the sport. As a result, the FIA tried to pass legislation introducing a maximum price of €12m per team per season for the supply of engines. Much to the annoyance of Jean Todt, and the FIA, Ferrari used their long standing veto to block this move. Their argumentation being that they are unable to manufacture the engines for that price without making a loss on each unit.
This has lead to a political power struggle within the sport. The latest move, in this ever evolving saga, saw Jean Todt offering the manufactures an ultimatum on Saturday morning in Mexico. They have been told to either offer their engines to the customer teams for €12m or they will start the tender process for a new supplier in 2017.