News and views on motorsports

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Latest News From The Frontlines

In the battle for the future of grand prix racing, peace seems such an overused word. Seen it too many times in the past so naturally, I'll take the latest peace declaration with a large grain of salt. Having come to terms with commercial arrangements, the GPMA have finally (or so it seems) kissed and made up with the FIA and Max Mosley. In a meeting in Munich which up until now had been kept under wraps, some significant details emerged.

Social relevance, green technologies, road car relevance were all hailed as the major objectives for the future. All very nice but significantly, the governance of the sport and decisions over the rules will be made by the FIA and the manufacturers, which indeed bypasses the teams. Of course, many teams now are owned by the manufacturers but this really puts folks like Frank Williams in a spot.

Of course they FIA and the manufacturers say they will make decisions in consultation with the teams. But then Max Mosley has rammed down things people's throats in the past in direct contradiction to clauses in the Concorde, so I doubt if teams like Williams will take it too kindly. And really, for a person who supposedly was championing the cause of the independent teams, this latest development seems like a big discrepancy. From this article in ITV-F1 :

"In future individual teams’ management will relinquish their involvement and instead be represented by the manufacturers themselves, who will discuss prospective rules with the FIA at main board level."

Though the teams may hate this but they brought it upon themselves by not uniting strongly against Bernie, Max and indeed, even the manufacturers. Though indeed many team bosses have already cashed out and made lots of money in the process. And it seems increasingly likely that Ron Dennis will be making even more money than all of them when he and Ojjeh finally sells out to Mercedes.

But there are some good points about this latest development. One of Max Mosley's plans was to see a return to the old fuel consumption formula of the eighties but with a significant twist. Consumption of fuel would be defined in terms of energy content rather than volume of a specific fuel type. Instead of limiting fuel to say 150 litres of pump petrol for the duration of a race, it would be defined as limited to say xxx Kilojoules of energy for the race. This is significant for it means that alternative fuels could be used.

Also, the engine type and configuration would be free. And this means the possibility of vastly different types of engines and of course technical innovation and most of all, variety. There would no longer be just V8s or V10s in the field. There could be a methane powered turbocharged V16 and it wouldn't matter. But of course, in focusing on energy consumption, it is the manufacturers who have the advantage. They have been researching these technologies for decades now. At the beginning, I foresee many technologies introduced will not be new ones but simply redeveloped and redeployed for racing purposes. And in the broader scheme of things, as marketing tools.

There are many factors involved with Cosworth's departure from grand prix racing but I wonder if this new future is not one of them. Though they have built alternative fuel powerplants in the shape of methanol Indy race engines, I wonder how their comparatively meager budget could cope with the full weight of different technologies from manufacturer labs, already in advanced state of development. The effort required by the likes of Cosworth to catch up would I think be too much for them.

Change can create new opportunities. There are literally dozens of small, highly innovative companies out there whose main purpose is to develop alternative powerplants. Perhaps from these companies will emerge the new Cosworths and Ilmors of the future. Personally I feel that they should simply specify a simple hydrogen internal combustion (IC) engine formula. It is far easier to adapt your road car to burn hydrogen than it is to say, methanol. In fact, BMW themselves have made significant research into this and if I'm not mistaken, some buses in Los Angeles already use hydrogen IC. Fuel cell technology is expensive so why not use a cheaper, proven technology instead? Hydrogen combustion is clean and the technology is already in use everyday by you and me. This would have been better for it meant that companies like Cosworth could still be relevant to grand prix racing.

So much for Cosworth but what of Ferrari? I mean, they are a manufacturer of road cars as well to be sure. But theirs are high performance road cars. I mean, I love Ferrari road cars (in stark contrast to the racing team) but try defining the social relevance of a Ferrari 599 GTB. Ferrari are in many ways are in the same boat as Cosworth. Though their business be highly profitable and thus affords them a larger R & D budget but how will they steal an edge over the manufacturers who, as I said, already have alternative technologies long in development. That will be interesting. And as far as governance in the sport is concerned, it will be interesting to see how they plan to get their way what with the GPMA scoring such a significant victory by being at the "board level" in future decision making.

It seems slightly sinister then that the sport will effectively become a manufacturer testing facility. What started as a championship to find the world's best driver and racing team have now been infused with new objectives of road, social and industry relevance. In the past, I have condemned this as an unnecessary corruption of what is racing's pinnacle. But I am in the minority I know. Predicting the future one way or another is often foolish, so I'll just hope that at least the (new) Establishment will form detailed regulations that bring about more spectator excitement, such as measures to improve overtaking.

1 comment:

Clive said...

I think we're in agreement on most things. But I see the FIA/GPMA vision of the future as lacking much hope for the smaller constructors or innovators. Read the FIA technical regulations and note how they specify very precisely almost every aspect of the car - it's no wonder they all look alike these days! And the FIA/GPMA agreement will mean even tighter control of what is possible. In other words, there will be virtually no room for technical innovation or invention. The manufacturers have what they want - as you say, a testing ground for road car engineering. The question is, where is the sport in that?