News and views on motorsports

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

On Engines

Back when I first started watching Formula 1 the engine to have was the turbocharged 1.5 litre TAG V6. These were designed exclusively for McLaren by Porsche with backing from Mansour Ojjeh's Techniques D'Avant Garde. Coupled with the superb John Barnard designed chassis, it was the class of the field in 1984 and much of 1985. The package took Niki Lauda and Alain Prost to the world title in both years.

Towards the end of the 1985 season, the situation changed. Suddenly it was Honda's V6 engines that were in the ascendency. Clearly the Patrick Head designed cars were much quicker than anyone else. Honda remained at the top of the pile from the end of 1985 till about 1991, winning the constructors championship every year in succession. Honda took Ayrton Senna to his first championship in 1988, the year being the last of the turbo era.

Still Honda's domination continued on at the start of the normally aspirated 3.5 litre formula taking Senna to world titles in 1990 with their V10 and 1991 with a V12. Of course, once in a while some other cars won. Ferrari, Williams-Renault and Benetton Ford being the interlopers during the Honda days but year on year, it was still the engine of choice. Apart from Williams in 1985-1986 and McLaren then on, Honda also supplied the now defunct Lotus team.

During the 1991 season, the writing was on the wall however that the Honda era was coming to an end. The Renault powered Williams clearly more than a match for McLaren-Honda. Some might say Honda made a mistake by switching from V10s to V12 engines in 1991. Ayrton Senna certainly wasn't happy with the V12s despite winning the first four races of that season. During the mid-season Mansell in the Williams was mounting a serious challenge to Senna's championship campaign. Had the Williams been more reliable at the early part of the season, he certainly could have been world champion that year.

On to 1992 and a combination of lighter and more frugal Renault V10 producing nearly as much power as the latest Honda V12 and the excellent FW14B Williams with active suspension saw Mansell winning his first and only world title. Now it was crystal clear. The Renault V10 had firmly established itself as the blue ribband powerplant. This situation persisted until the end of the 1997 season, despite a blip in 1994 when a Benetton Ford in the hands of Michael Schumacher won the title.

Schumacher also won in 1995 in a Benetton Renault. This was his finest season to me, winning in a car that wasn't as good as the similarly powered Williams. The Williams FW17 was clearly the best chassis around but Damon Hill and David Coulthard proved ineffective against Michael. Only when Schumacher left the following season for Ferrari could Damon Hill assert himself and win the title.

Renault left at the end of 1997 but even by then McLaren with their Ilmor designed and built Mercedes V10 was proving itself to be dominant at least in terms of pure speed. At the Italian and Austrian Grand Prix David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen proved uncatchable.

However, here's where the engine factor ended. From 1998 you couldn't really tell who's engine was superior. This was the year that it all depended on the entire package. Up until 1998, you could tell which were the engines to have and which ones were also rans.

Sure, there were exceptions. Honda engines in a Lotus or Tyrrell (with Mugen) were rubbish. Ligier powered Renaults similarly so. But stick either engine in a decent chassis like a McLaren MP4/4 or a Williams FW14 and they'd fly. Same when they put the Renault V10 in Michael Schumacher's Benetton. Decent chassis, great results.

But nowadays its hard to tell. 19,000 RPM BMW V10s were reputedly the most powerful in the business up until this year but apparently the Williams chassis did not make the best use of it. They say Ferrari's motor is pretty handy but its hard to tell how much is down to the chassis and how much is due to the engine. Toyota's V10s have always had a reputation of being quite useful in terms of horsepower but really how could one tell looking at how leisurely their cars have run. McLaren has the best car out there now but they say the engines a little limp. You wouldn't know it looking at the speed trap figures. In the past it was easy to tell. Nowadays I wouldn't know the difference unless I read it in a magazine somewhere.

The answer of course is that in these modern times its the entire package that counts. Back in the day, you had only one tyre, Goodyear. So that tyre factor was eliminated. But stick a Honda engine in a so-so McLaren chassis (MP4/5B and MP4/6) and get Senna to steer the thing and you'd have a better than even chance of winning some races if not championships.

These days everything counts. Right down to the nuts and bolts. From my outsiders perspective two cars changed it all. The Williams FW14B with its superb aerodynamics courtesy of Adrian Newey and active suspension and the 1998 Ferrari with its specially designed extra wide front Goodyears. Both were able to turn engine and in the case of Ferrari, aero disadvantages around. Nowadays, the whole package counts for more.

In addition, these days there is no one dominant engine as in previous years. There are no equivalents for the Renault in the mid 90s and the Honda in the 80s. All engines are just about there and thereabouts whereas in the past the difference between a superior engine and rubbish motor was just about 100 bhp or even more.

We discount Minardi's antiquated Cosworths from the discussion of course. We know they're giving away 100bhp off the top guys. So, you might say they're doing an excellent job whipping Toyota powered Jordans, who reputedly are running the best motor in the business.

Still you might say that as far as engines are concerned Formula 1 is incredibly competitive. Ferrari, Renault, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Mercedes and even Cosworth are producing power units that are all within shouting distance of one another. Only the package in which they are installed making all the difference.

I believe this situation has come about because of the heavy investment and technical facilities of the big manufacturers. Otherwise you'd have rubbish Judd engines trying to take on the might of Honda as did happen in the late 80s. With the availability of engines from the big boys, you eliminate engines as an all important factor. I suppose then if you had a single tyre manufacturer then you'd eliminate tyres as well leaving chassis and aero as the deciding factor. And of course the drivers.

So in the end, despite all of Max and Bernie's anti-manufacturer antics, they'd do well to pay them more respect. Their presence in the sport does have its good points.

Some News And Thoughts

To no one's surprise, Nick Heidfeld has signed for the BMW team for 2007-2008. What remains to be seen is whether or not he drives for the Hinwil based squad in 2006. This all depends on the outcome of Buttongate II. Either driver would do a great job for Frank and Patrick in my opinion. However, Frank is reputedly holding on to Button because of sponsorship deals that depend on the Englishman to return to Grove. Its a mess but I think Frank should just keep Nick around.

Whilst the driver's championship is by and large a foregone conclusion, the Italian Grand Prix has left McLaren just eight points behind Renault and with the fastest machines at the moment I think looks spot on to capture the constructor's title. Nevertheless, I'm quite annoyed with Mercedes-Ilmor for all the cock ups they've done this season. By rights, McLaren ought to have both championships in the bag.

This horrible trend of unreliability goes way back to Hakkinen's time and probably cost that other Flying Finn another title for himself. This habit of letting their driver's down simply must stop. I surely hope now that the Formula 1 side of Ilmor has been sold on to Mercedes things will improve in the future. Also, with Honda leaving the IRL, Ilmor has one thing less on its mind and can put more focus on where it counts, the world championship. Although I'm not sure if the Mercedes buyout means that Ilmor no longer plays any part in Formula 1 directly. Honda's IRL engines are made by Ilmor. Ilmor is also involved in a NASCAR programme with Roger Penske.

The other team thats on the move seems to be Toyota. I've hoped that the Cologne based squad would win at least one race this season but I think if they were to do that, they would have demonstrated the required speed by now. At the moment they're simply too far behind in terms of speed to be able to challenge the McLarens and Renaults, or even the BARs for that matter. Still they are only eight points behind Ferrari and are looking good to beat Maranello to third spot. If that is the case, it would still be a good achievement for Toyota considering years of chronic underachievement.

In the driver's championship, Montoya looks well placed to put Michael Schumacher down a notch. He's just five points behind. In fact, Jarno Trulli is also in the running to finish ahead of the German. Even though the Italian is 12 points behind Schumacher, he's at least finishing in the points whilst Schumacher's prancing mule is too slow to score any.

I just had this thought the other day. Which current Formula 1 engine maker has the least experience building racing V8s? Lets see. There's Toyota in the IRL and Champcars both using V8 engines of 3.0 litres normally aspirated and 2.65 litres of turbocharged configurations. The same goes for Honda although their IRL engines are built by Ilmor. Ilmor of course builds Mercedes Formula 1 engines and formerly built the Chevrolet and Mercedes Champcar V8s, so we can count Mercedes as V8 ready. Cosworth we all know about.

That just leaves Renault, Ferrari and BMW. I'm not sure that BMWs V8 on the M3 GTR gives them much relevant experience. Ferrari have in the past made turbo V8s for the Lancia sportscar team but that was ages ago. But at least they have a V8 running right now. That just leaves Renault. I don't recall but has Renault got their V8 up and running yet? Whatever it is, 20,000 plus RPM V8s are new to all of them but I should think Mercedes, Toyota and Cosworth should be quite strong next year. So too can Honda who have also got their V8 up and running in a car, no doubt aided by some American domestic racing experience.

A Fernando Alonso related poll is running on PlanetF1 Readers are asked whether Alonso deserved to win this year's title. Of course internet polls cannot be relied upon totally for their accuracy but apparently a little more than half of the respondents believed that he does not. I can't for the life of me understand why that should be the case. I think he's driven really well for Renault, taking crucial victories and making very few mistakes. He's temprament is superb and he's also incredibly quick. Let us not forget that Fisichella up until this point has beaten every team mate thats come across his path. That includes the likes of Ralf Schumacher and Jenson Button. Yes, he's had his share of poor luck but by and large the Spaniard has had the upper hand.

Alonso to my mind deserves the championship this year. Even Ron Dennis would agree to that. Looks like he'll be the first of the year 2001 class, a group that includes Montoya and Raikkonen, to win the world championship. Its great to see that all three are currently thriving, winning races with a bright future ahead.

The final word on the Raikkonen, Schumacher and Valentino Rossi rumours must go to Bernie Ecclestone who says in this article that Raikkonen will replace a retiring Schumacher after 2006. The Finn would be driving alongside Valentino Rossi. This despite all the denials by Kimi. Schumacher at least has owned up to the possibility of retirement after 2006. A decision the German says will be forthcoming in March of next year. In the meantime, FIAT's chairman Luca diMontezemolo and Ferrari boss Jean Todt are both saying nice things about Rossi. This has earned the disapproval of one Niki Lauda, former Ferrari driver. Personally I'd prefer to see Raikkonen remain at McLaren and Fernando Alonso Maranello bound. Whatever it is, Bernie's word should never be ignored in Formula 1 because they have a habit of coming true.

BAR has finally released Anthony Davidson and the Brit is free to look elsewhere for a race seat. The only thing he's got right now is a Jordan test. If those BAR morons had released him last year, Anthony would be in a Williams by now. So much for keeping him as a future race driver, instead BAR go and hire Rubens Barrichello and are fighting to keep Jenson Button. Can you believe the 90 million dollar story? Jeez.

Wish I was back in London. McLaren are throwing a bash at Harrods featuring last years MP4/19, the overrated Mercedes SLR and a McLaren Mercedes Formula 1 simulator. Apparently the quickest customer on the simulator will get to win prizes. Never mind the prizes but if I beat Kimi's time on the simulator, can I then have a go in the real MP4/20? In fact Senna's 1988 MP4/4 as driven by his nephew Bruno at Goodwood will do just fine.

Interesting article at about Petronas. The Petronas E01 engine designed by Sauber Petronas Engineering headed by ex-Honda man Osamu Goto will be licensing the technology to a couple of Chinese car companies, Nanjing and Brilliance. The article also tells the tale of an aborted Formula 1 engine programme under SPE and Osamu after the Asian economic crisis.

Anyway, its just funny. The 2.0 litre Petronas E01 engine was fitted to a Proton Satria (Mitsubishi Colt) and a Proton Perdana (Mitsubishi Eterna) and it was thought that these would make it into production. I have a friend who had sampled both cars fitted with these prototype engines and apparently they're stunningly superb. That would have been something to us performance starved enthusiasts in Malaysia but that plan was ditched. Instead what did Proton do? Source underpowered Renault engines for the Proton Waja (Impian in the UK) and Savvy and fit in the Proton designed and completely rubbish Campro engine in the Gen2. The Campro engine is known to have some serious design issues. I'm sure the cronies have their reasons but from a car buyer and enthusiast standpoint, they're morons. There goes an opportunity to delight high performance enthusiasts.

Make no mistake, despite the astronomical sales of these horribly borring family cars like the Toyota Camry and Innova (ugh!), there are lots of performance enthusiasts just waiting to get their hands on an affordable offering. At the moment you just can't find a good enthusiast car for under 100,000 ringgit in Malaysia and thats completely sad. No, bloody Satria GTis absolutely do not count. In these days it can't even be considered anywhere near high performance. And I'm not shelling out 70 grand for technology thats more than 12 years old.

Minardi is apparently going to be taken over by Red Bull. Pitpass article is here. Red Bull, concerned about the lack of racing seats for their young 'uns wants to take over the Faenza based squad and turn it into Red Bull Team USA. Presumably they'll put Scott Speed in one. If this is true then that just fantastic news for Minardi. I've always thought the little squad deserves better than what they've got now. A large dollop of cash would be of enormous benefit and I'm sure they'll make better use of the funds than some of the other teams in the paddock.

This also plays into the hands of Bernie and Max. With Paul Stoddart out of the way, thats a big thorn out of their sides. Plus, with Red Bull already signing up to the Concorde agreement, here's another team that could do so by default.

Speaking of Concorde agreements, according to Bernie a number of teams are on the verge of signing the new one. Moreover, the FIA president believes the GPMA is all show and no go. In recent months after the announcement of the GPMA we've in fact hardly heard anything from these blokes. All the talk seems to be on reconciliation. Now that Frank Williams is free of BMW he's expressed some concerns about the GPMA especially commercially.

Williams' stance lately has been puzzling. Rumour has it they are on the verge of switching to Bridgestone tyres for next season. And now these reservations regarding the GPMA tells me he's about to sign up with Bernie sometime soon and could be one of those people Max keeps referring to.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Michelin To Leave?

First, a note to my friends who are getting married in the future. I know you've probably consulted the feng shui master or the vedic guru on your most auspicious marriage date but spare a thought for your petrolhead friends. In addition to the advice of sages, please consult the official FIA Formula 1 world championship calendar for suitable wedding days. Oh well, needless to say I missed today's grand prix. Guess I'll have to catch the repeat tomorrow night.

Much has been said about the need for cost control in a sport that is in danger of running away with ever escalating budgets. Tyres and more specifically the need for tyre testing has been identified as a major line item in any team's budget. Some say this figure approaches 70 million dollars in the case of the big teams.

In addition to this, the current one tyre regulations dictating a single tyre throughout qualifying and the race has resulted in a safety hazard. Witness, Kimi Raikkonen's Nurburgring incident and today's race in Monza where both Kimi and Juan Pablo Montoya experienced major tyre problems. Raikkonen chose to pit but Juan Pablo decided to take a Kimi like gamble and continue on. Most racing drivers would have taken that decision and why not? They're there to win and sometimes you need to take risks.

Then there was Indianapolis where tyres again were the issue and Michelin declared their products unsafe to run throughout the entire race. So, the problem is two fold. Cost and safety. And so, the powers and some of the teams including Renault I believe, think that the way forward is a single control tyre. And it seems to me a lot of fans seem to think the same way.

However, I do sympathize with Michelin, who during the weekend issued a statement condemning the proposed control tyre proposals. I must say I sympathize with them and I think they are absolutely correct.

A company enters Formula 1 to prove their worth. It is competition that drives them to excel. A company that supplies everyone with the same component, in this case tyres, have nothing really to prove. There is little need for innovation and improvement. It is competition against a rival that drives the need and promotes technological advancement. Now, in the case of racing, I think very few technologies are actually directly applicable to road users but this is inconsequential. The fact is, engineers are given a challenge and they develop greater understanding and skills that are applicable when developing road car technology.

One thing I admired about Honda's involvement in Formula 1 during the 1980s was that it was less of a marketing effort than a chance given to their brightest engineers to experience competitive pressures and to meet extreme challenges and beat them. And so it is I believe with Michelin. Whether Michelin bids for exclusive supplier status in 2008 is also of no consequence. As fellow blogger Jay Steele states, they have nothing to prove and they are already the world's leading tyre supplier. What they are looking for is competition.

And of course, they're looking for bragging rights. When Goodyear were the sole supplier, I don't think they got much marketing mileage out of that. But when you beat a rival thats a different story. Ask Bridgestone how proud they must have been to remove Goodyear from the top spot in a straight fight. It must have been immensely satisfying and something concrete for the marketing boys to use.

And this applies to components other than tyres. Max Mosley had proposed a single brake manufacturer for all teams but thankfully this has been dropped. I cannot imagine Brembo being the sole brake supplier. Their competition with AP Racing and Carbon Industrie is immense and it ought to remain so. Again, it gives the engineers the experience of innovation. Competition after all should improve the breed. In this case, it improves the engineers.

From a fan point of view, there was absolutely nothing wrong in the years before Bridgestone made their Formula 1 debut. Goodyear stopped making single lap "qualifying special" tyres but the quality of racing did not deteriorate. Yes, tyres were eliminated as a major factor and focus went on other things.

However, as the Michelin statement points out, some manufacturers go to the extent of favouring certain teams when designing their products. No secret who they're referring to. When Bridgestone won their first world championship it was with McLaren. However, when Ferrari were forced to use the Japanese rubber in 1999, Bridgestone started to favour Maranello. To such an extent that all the other major teams switched to Michelin within a couple of years of the marques return.

There are good reasons why Bridgestone does such things. Marketing mileage with such a well known name as Ferrari must be one of them. And hence, I think, they cannot be trusted to favour all teams equally. Inevitably I think, Ferrari will still be the favoured one.

Luca di Montezemolo wishes to see tyres eliminated as a factor in the sport. Of couse, he would. Especially when his cars are finishing a lap down in front of the tifosi. Of couse, he and Ferrari fans would think that races are now boring. Their asses are being whipped but good. We didn't see Luca complain about last year when clearly the Bridgestones were the rubber to have. The problem with Ferrari is that they simply cannot accept that in sport there will be ups and downs. If Ferrari lose, then to them, its time to change the rules. Of course the rules will be changed. Ferrari wants it so.

I say let Ferrari eat shit. Its their insistence of favourable terms that forced teams to switch en masse to Michelin. Now they're suffering and all the better for it.

As for competition per se, imagine a scenario where there was only a single engine manufacturer. After all, why not? Engines are also a huge line item in the budget. Now, would that be any fun at all? Sure, it would probably put more emphasis on the drivers and their skills but it just wouldn't be Formula 1 any more. In fact, I'm all for Goodyear to rejoin the fray and make life more interesting for the two incumbents.

Why should Formula 1 be dumbed down? Its about man AND machine after all. The competition should be multi faceted and multi-dimensional. I think that adds to the interest and the attraction.

As for costs, I think thats a bullshit argument. If sponsor A gives you 100 million dollars a season then you're definitely going to find a way to spend that money. If not on the tyres then you're going to spend it on aero. Do you really believe the new proposals for constant downforce is going to work? No its not because the moment you specify a downforce limit, the designers are going to come up with ways to reduce drag for that amount of downforce. I think they call it reducing the drag to lift ratio or something. Or worse yet, to find a way around those regulations. These designers are geniuses, they'll find a way round anything that stupid FIA lawyer dreams up.

As for the safety aspect, this can be addressed quite simply by changing the regulations. Even Luca agrees on this one. The regulations are just plain silly and artificial. Not to mention a hazard for everyone. That bloody lawyer at the head of the FIA has got to be removed. He's great at politics but just plain incompetent on running the sport.

All in all, I'm against the proposed 2008 tyre regulations. Mainly because I think that the probable supplier will be Bridgestone and those bastards and their Italian masters cannot be trusted. Secondly, I've always believed that Formula 1 should also be the ultimate technological expression. Not through electronic gizmos but innovation in good old fashioned mechanical engineering. That includes the freedom to innovate on brakes, aero, mechanical engine components, transmissions and of course tyres.

Sadly the way things are going right now Formula 1 is headed for a bleak future. We've already seen it with Formula 3000 evolving into this dreadful monocultured formula called GP2. Where once there were multiple chassis and engines now they're all Dallara-Renaults. Is the racing any more exciting? I doubt it.