The 2021 Formula 1 Engine Dilemma

Craig Woollard looks at F1's looming engine crisis and how current problems could be resolved for 2021 and if returning to V8, V10, or V12 engines is a feasible option.

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It is clear that the 2021 Formula 1 engine should differ from the current 1.6-litre, V6 turbocharged hybrid power units currently in the middle of the modern cars.

The fourth season of the current rules has seen no extra manufacturers powering F1 teams. Cosworth established that producing these expensive, complex units without a development freeze was simply not cost effective and they dropped out at the same time as the V8 engine of the previous era. In their place, we eventually gained Honda, although the less said of their performance to date since returning to F1, the better, for the sake of McLaren and Honda fans.

The sport’s governing body, the FIA, the teams and F1’s new bosses all seem to agree that it is vital that F1 aims to have cheaper engines as soon as possible. It also seems as if volume is a priority as well. The response to this tweet was pretty interesting. It does appear as if sheer noise is a priority for F1.

In defence of the current power units, the technology is absolutely remarkable. It was the manufacturers at the time who agreed to running them, and to their credit they have remained committed to these units. The incredible amount of power delivered despite using so much less fuel remains mind-boggling. The consequence of this is vastly increased cost, which has helped contribute to the demise of both the Manor and Caterham teams, as well as a different noise. Not everybody dislikes this different noise, but some feel that the different noise means that it returning to prehistoric technology in V8s, V10s or even V12s is the solution to this dilemma.

Unsurprising plot twist: it isn’t. Who will build these engines? Ask yourself that before deciding that a certain type of engine or power unit is the solution to this problem. The likes of Cosworth and Judd may be happy enough to produce V10s, but the huge manufacturers, who have priorities in the road industry? It’s highly unlikely that they will be interested at all, and that is a problem.

It’s a similar tale if F1 remains with the type of unit we have now, or something even more complex which may be seen in the LMP1 hybrid-spaceships in the World Endurance Championship. Privateers will simply not be able to throw the sort of money at such as project as Mercedes, Ferrari, Honda or Renault.

Essentially, the next F1 power unit or engine must satisfy six aims: attract huge engine manufacturers, attract smaller engine manufacturers, boast horsepower not far from or surpassing 1000 brake horsepower, continue to use considerably less fuel than the gas-guzzling naturally-aspirated engines of the past, whilst also drastically reducing the costs and increasing the noise.

Therefore the answer to this dilemma is not an easy one. To claim that it is supposedly as simple as bringing back V8s, V10s or V12s is just naïve. But to remain with the current power units would be uninspiring at best, and likely will not attract the likes of the Volkswagen Group, who were present at the most recent meeting regarding engines.

The last of these aims should remain up for debate, however. If the racing is good enough, then there is no reason for there to be any complaints about the noise. Sorting out the racing is by far a bigger priority than increasing the volume, something which does not come without consequence either, primarily from local residents near circuits. Not once did I see a comment about the lack of sound coming from Formula E cars during the Mexico ePrix, but that is because it produced one of the finest races in the series’ young history.

And FE’s exciting racing is not the only problem for F1. Another manufacturer (this time BMW) has committed itself to the all-electric series, which is another blow for the likes of F1. FE is not short on manufacturers now both big and small. To a degree, this is an issue within LMP1 as well, so F1 is not alone here. But FE should continue to do its own thing, and F1 as well as LMP1 should do a separate thing as well.

The main reason for the change in sound is primarily down to the usage of turbochargers, and unfortunately for those craving more sound, the turbo engine is making a serious return. It is something which has been clear to see in the road industry, as well as in touring car and sportscar racing. So it seems apparent that sticking to turbo engines is likely in the future.

Hybrids have been critical in reducing the amount of fuel used during a race. These things are also popping up more and more on road cars, as well as in the top-end machines such as Porsche’s 918 Spyder, McLaren’s P1 and Ferrari’s LaFerrari. Whilst expensive, continuing the trend of hybrid power also seems inevitable.

Nobody knows precisely what the 2021 F1 engine will look like. The discussions are still in very early stages, although it seems highly unlikely that any decision will be skewed from the desires of those wearing rose-tinted glasses. F1 is about progression, the best drivers and the most ingenious of technologies. F1’s power unit of the future may even be a concept which may have not even been conceived yet. Finding a compromise which satisfies the outline for what this new power unit or engine will be is going to be very difficult. But there should be hope and confidence that the brainpower and resources within F1 and the FIA will be able to find the best solution for everybody.
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