How the FIA Can Make 2021's Formula 1 Engines Real Neat

The day of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, an open letter to nos amis at F1's regulating body.

portrait of Italian Benetton-Renault driver Gianca
GABRIEL BOUYS—AFP/Getty Images

Dear Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile,

As you and I both know all too well, nobody is satisfied with the current engine regulations in Formula 1.

Fans' bellyaching over the sound of the "power units" continues to rumble. Engine suppliers bemoan the constrictive reliability targets and steep costs associated with boosting an engine's power and reliability in tandem. Drivers make clear their frustrations with disparity between power units, which handicaps cars otherwise capable of points, podiums, or wins. You and Liberty Media hear the complaints loud and clear, and are working to conceptualize 2021's engine regulations by the end of May, and have them codified by the World Motor Sport Council the following month.

You likely read the report by Autosport, which lays out working goals for your next-gen engine regs, suggesting simplified, cheaper engines, with standardized parts and ameliorated fears of failure. A technological trickle-down to consumer vehicles is intended to attract manufacturers, while increased noise is meant do the same for spectators. Some of your suggestions are forward steps, such as the engine suppliers' agreement to strip the MGU-H (motor-generator unit, heat), whose development cost rivals the expense of establishing a colony on Pluto. Though power outputs will dip, cost of the engines will fall further. I doubt any team will object to this result, but you're missing the fanbase's fundamental issues with the sport.

Other details of the proposal are uninspired, like your plan to continue the 1.6-liter, turbocharged hybrid V-6 engine configuration. To clarify, I have always been a proponent of the exhaust notes emitted by the current V-6 engines; I found them an improvement over the preceding 2.4-liter, naturally-aspirated V-8s. Every post-'08 V-8, limited to 18,000 rpm, sounded identically tinny, sort of similar to a MotoGP bike. But as of 2014, F1 engines could be identified by their sound alone—Mercedes and Ferrari produce choral notes, Renault sports a unique buzz, and Honda (fittingly) sounds like a garbage disposal full of nickels. I am unopposed to the continued use of hybrid V-6 engines, but I believe the FIA is passing up a prime opportunity to give suppliers freedom of design, which could result in a greater variety of exhaust notes among the cars.

My recommendation, FIA? Keep the turbo, keep the displacement, but ditch the V-6 format mandate. Current engine suppliers would hesitate to throw away years of knowledge of their V-6s, likely applicable to 2021's engines, but future entrants would have the option to tailor their designs to attain advantages unavailable to V-6 users. One newcomer could sacrifice power delivery for slick rear-end packaging, and build a V-4, while another could opt for 8 cylinders (or more) to maximize drivability, packaging be damned. Never mind the subtle variations in performance between the engines; just imagine the cacophony (and occasionally, harmony) we could enjoy if manufacturers are allowed to build the engine they want—within the displacement rules, that is.

This would scratch the variety itch not quite scratched since 2006, when the Toro Rosso STR1 ran a limited 3.0-liter V-10 among a field of V-8 competitors, but it would fail to solve the another quandary: volume. Efficiency is king in today's ruleset because of the limited fuel capacity and refueling ban. Noise, being a byproduct of wasted energy, sits on a seesaw across from horsepower, and the energy otherwise used for bursting spectators' eardrums is now captured by the turbocharger. The limit to sound, then, is how much fuel can be burned, and that is governed by the 100 kilogram per hour fuel flow limit.

I propose a repeal of the flow rate rules, limited to either qualifying or the Grand Prix itself—each presents distinct problems. Derestricting fuel flow for qualifying could revive ultra high-stakes qualifying sessions by forcing drivers to wrangle cars making four-digit horsepower figures around the track. Though exciting, this may widen the gulf between those with the best engines and those with subpar units, as we saw in 2014.

On the other hand, allowing fuel use freedom in the race—while maintaining the refuel ban—gives teams the chance to run high-risk, high-reward fuel strategies, which could throw a joker into a Grand Prix's procession. As we saw with this year's Chinese Grand Prix, strategies of this nature—as exemplified by Red Bull with its pit stop gambles—make for entrancing races. The tension of Ricciardo's forward charge through the field on faster tires with lap counts waning gave us a firework finale to the race. I see similar being possible with adventurous fuel strategies, the likes of which are almost un-discernible to audiences within the confines of present fuel flow regulations.

A byproduct of freed fuel use is that engines could exploit a broader rev range. As of today, engines are permitted to rev to 15 grand, but few even scrape 12 due to the current fuel flow limits. With more juice available, the slack can be taken up, and every last rev can be used. I propose removing the regulatory rev limit, and before anyone cries wolf about rev ranges skyrocketing, remember that high revs are neither efficiency- nor longevity-friendly to engines. Extreme engine speeds would be used sparingly.

These fuel and rev rules assume that fuel tank rules (soon 110 kilograms) are upheld, and the refueling ban with it. Engine efficiency would remain valuable, and I would not expect radical fuel strategies to be common, due to their inherent risk, and the additional toll high rpm takes on the limited supply of engines. Speaking of which, current engine manufacturers have complained that the ever-tightening belt that is the seasonal engine cap (three as of 2018) is escalating engine program costs, not shrinking them. Even reigning champion Lewis Hamilton lambasts the rule, citing it as a reason why the 2017 championship ended early. If the result of allowing more engines to be used per season is decreased cost and a more competitive championship, then double the limit, why don't you?

Burning through more engines flies in the face of cost-cutting, I admit. One solution to this is the proposal of standardized parts, and while I understand the merits of that, an engine that reacts negatively to a standardized part could drive costs back upward with failures. F1 engines are sensitive enough to flawed components designed in-house; outsourced parts are a curveball thrown to the engineers.

Many of the most expensive parts—turbocharger, cylinder head, or rotating assembly—are those where standardization would save significant sums, but for two major reasons, this is a poor idea. Design teams would whine ad nauseam that they could design a cheaper, better part in-house; homogenizing complex parts will satisfy nobody but team accountants. The other major concern is how teams and their varying petrochemical sponsors would handle different oils in standard parts. In a standardized turbocharger, one sponsor's oil may lubricate as intended, where another's may have a flaw allowing accelerated wear, forcing early replacement, and defeating the purpose of a cheap standard part. Pushing F1 too hard in the direction of a spec series could backfire, and the only standard outcome may be frustration with these parts.

Beyond noise and expense, other targets of the FIA's current engine proposals are conceptually flawed, such as the envrionment-friendly image F1 tries to portray with its hybrid engines. Fans interested in racing that pretends to be socially responsible watch Formula E. F1 cannot at once both be a glitzy-glam international racing series that puts champagne-spraying gratuity on a pedestal and the sensible leader of sustainable motorsport. Every gram of fuel saved by hybrid systems during the race is offset by a kilogram burned hauling the ten-team traveling circus that is F1 across the globe for the twenty-plus Grands Prix over the course of a season.

And don't even get me started on the politically questionable countries to which F1 gives its patronage.

As silly as it is for F1 to wear the guise of responsibility, hybrid systems do indeed tie into the goal of developing road-relevant technologies through F1. If anything, F1 could both encourage it further and improve racing by deregulation of kinetic energy recovery and deployment. The MGU-K (motor-generator unit, kinetic) is restrained to a 160 horsepower output for 33 seconds per lap, but electric propulsion technology is a generation beyond what it was when the system was introduced in 2014; technical advances since then could allow more efficient energy harvesting, and increased deployment power. If I ran the zoo, kinetic energy recovery, storage capacity, and deployment would be unlimited. Engine power output would climb, and companies could refine electric drivetrains in the torture test that is motorsport.

I admit this idea is the most harebrained of those you will read today. The MGU-H's development runaway could be mirrored in the MGU-K arms race, and the MGU-K money pit could take the MGU-H's place in the path toward cost reduction.

With almost every idea posited above comes compromise, but you will be hard pressed to find fresh suggestions that don't. Consider what F1 could look like in 2021 and beyond if the benefits of these proposals outweigh their drawbacks. Imagine the formation lap echoing with idling engines of cylinders many and few, from stubby V-4s to slim V-6s and 8s, maybe even a Porsche-made flat 6. After the starting lights go out, the order shakes up in an instant, cars throughout the field starting on diverging race strategies, to re-converge later in the race, when teams can cash in on early aggression with track position, or fuel reserved for late-race assaults on the lead.

We all want nail-biting races, supported by a soundtrack of shrieking engines. These are the means by which this future may be made real. Entertain the notion, will you, FIA?

Yours,

James Gilboy