Formula 1 is no longer about brute horsepower and the smell of gasoline. Since its ’80s and ’90s heydays, F1 has transformed into a greener, safer and more technologically advanced sport. Cars are now powered by hybrid gasoline/electric motors that are the most efficient and complex in the world.
The power is still brutal, but it’s clean. The 1.6-liter turbocharged engines generate 800 horsepower. Batteries tap an additional 160 horsepower for 33 seconds per lap, charged by regenerative braking and redundant turbo energy. With all that engaged, the cars can hit 230 mph on the straights. At the same time, they have the most efficient gasoline vehicle engines in the world.
Along with the green emphasis, F1 is safer than it’s ever been. Where fatal accidents seemed to happen almost every year in the ’70s and ’80s, there has only been one death in the last 25 years. The sport’s body and most supporters would never turn the clock back to those ugly times. What real fans do want is more sport to this sport.
To achieve that, teams and fans endure endless rules covering everything from development to racing. For instance, Ferrari’s Sebastien Vettel was judged to have re-entered the track dangerously near the end of the recent Canadian Grand Prix. The subsequent five-second violation, added after the race ended, handed the victory to Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and aggravated many fans of the sport.
That incident shows how the rules and complexity of F1 have put off fans, but it’s the costs that are especially challenging for a mid-tier team like Renault. At the French Grand Prix at Castellet, I spoke with numerous team leaders and the drivers, Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg, about the new challenges facing F1.
Tricky rules and trickier tech
If you haven’t been following F1 for awhile — you wouldn’t be alone — here’s a quick explainer on the major new rules and cutting-edge technology.
In the ’80s heyday of F1 power, BMW’s 1.5-liter M12 engine produced up to 1,500 horsepower. While that created incredible speeds (and sounds), the cars were extremely wasteful. Since 2014, F1 cars pack complex turbocharged hybrid engines that are the most efficient in the world, converting half the fuel energy to road power. “The rules right now in Formula 1 push the renewable element and the efficiency,” said Renault engine technical director Remi Taffin during the French Grand Prix.
The motors, so complex that they’re called power units, tap energy that’s normally wasted from the turbocharger and braking to charge a small battery. This then feeds energy back to an electric motor, making them more efficient than any diesel or gasoline engine out there. “In Formula, there’s really that desire to burn less gas on each lap,” said Renault Sport Racing hybrid engineer Nicolas Espesson.
F1 teams have also pushed the development of these motors — both in power and efficiency — at an incredible rate. “Compared to 2014, the power output [in 2019 cars] is 109 horsepower greater using the same amount of fuel,” Mercedes has said.
On top of that, F1 has numerous rules that limit the way cars can be operated. Teams are limited to five engines per car per season, rather than swapping out power units after every race. “We used to have motors that could last for about 300 km (200 miles), now we have motors that have to go for 7-8,000 km (4,400-5,000 miles),” said Taffin.
There are further restrictions on wind tunnels, road testing, computer simulations, and particularly, racing, with referee-like stewards watching for illegal or dangerous incidents. The main aim is to increase driver safety, limit the financial advantages of richer teams and keep the sport competitive. The latter two objectives have been wildly unmet, however.
Insane tech requires equally insane bank balances
Renault might be one of the largest car builders in the world (in alliance with Nissan and Mitsubishi), but when it comes to F1, its budget is far below the top-spending teams of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. That’s because it’s limited by parent Renault, which must answer to its investors.
According to team financial figures (compiled by Racefans.net), Ferrari spent $410 million, Mercedes $400 million, Red Bull $310 million, McLaren $220 million and Renault $190 million in 2018, not including marketing and driver salaries. “Clearly a massive performance gap exists between the ‘big three’ — Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull — and the rest,” said Racefans. “This is reflected in the size of their budgets.”
It costs about $100 million to design and field an F1 car, with the rest of the budget going to development. That means that Renault has just $90 million to spend on future designs, compared to $300 million for Mercedes.
A lot of that budget is directed toward R&D — and apparent when I visited Renault’s F1 manufacturing and design facility in Enstone, UK. The company recently spent about $60 million to update the facility, which it re-acquired from Lotus in 2015.
In a bid to keep teams competitive regardless of budget, the rules restrict certain design aspects. Wind tunnel usage is limited to 60 hours and 68 individual test runs per week and teams must use 60 percent maximum scale models with winds no faster than around 120 mph. Even aerodynamic simulation (CFD or computational fluid dynamics) testing is limited. Winter track testing takes place over just eight days and in-season testing happens over four two-day sessions.
Teams have to make the most of every test.
The Enstone facility produces just four to five cars, each one worth a reported $70 million or so. It takes about 150,000 man-hours and 15,000 parts to make each one. Renault employs over 100 designers that work in an open space “white room” to create around 20,000 CAD drawings.
The parts are made of exotic materials like titanium, advanced carbon fiber and a high-nickel alloy called Inconel used for exhaust systems. Many of them are manufactured in a clean, dust-free room with finely controlled temperatures and air pressure.
Renault also has a 30,000 square foot wind tunnel and state-of-the-art observation room where 20 engineers monitor each race. It also has a highly advanced car simulator that lets engineers test out vehicle design tweaks.
To justify all this expense, and the idea of operating a factory F1 team in the first place, Renault had pitched it as a marketing opportunity, particularly in Asia. “We lacked a marketing tool to develop the name Renault in countries where it wasn’t known and to make the image of Renault more attractive,” said Renault Sport president Jerome Stoll. “In the Chinese market, which is a very targeted part of Renault’s expansion … we’ve had particularly good exposure with this sport that is well represented on TV, radio, etc.”
“At the same time, when we get a good result, we have a lot more people interested in the brand and interested in coming to Grand Prix,” Stoll added during the Castellet race.