Power play over new F1 rules
A major revolution in Formula 1 engine and car design scheduled for the 2013 season is under threat.
The plan is to replace the current 2.4-litre V8 engines with 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbos fitted with extensive environmental technology and for the cars to be made more efficient.
The idea is to help popularise sustainable technologies, which are already being used in road cars, and therefore to insulate F1 from any accusations that it is profligate with resources. As a result, it is hoped F1 will become more attractive to other car companies.
Except that the changes, which we have discussed extensively on this blog over the last year or so, might not happen - at least not in two years' time.
They are already formally part of the regulations for 2013. But F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone has recently given voice to a view within the sport that the changes should either be postponed or abandoned. And he has a powerful ally in the shape of Ferrari.
Publicly, Ecclestone's objections to the new engine focus on three fundamental areas:
- Spectacle - he believes the new engines will sound flatter, quieter and less dramatic than the current ones, reducing an important part of the sport's appeal
- Money - he is worried the sport cannot afford the cost of developing the engines, which will be between 40-100 million Euros (£36-89m) depending on which estimate you believe.
- Ferrari - the Italian legend runs F1's most famous and therefore most important team and its views need to be taken seriously. It is opposed to the new engine formula because it feels it has no synergy with its road cars and because it feels there are cheaper and more effective ways of making F1 more fuel-efficient.
Ferrari is as aware of the need to market energy-efficient technologies as anyone. It is embracing environmental technology on its road cars - it has, for example, released a version of its California GT car with a version of the stop-start systems that are becoming increasingly common in road cars, and it has developed a hybrid version of its monster 599 supercar.
It has objected specifically to the size of the engine - why restrict it to four cylinders, president Luca di Montezemolo has asked, branding the current rule "pathetic"?
Will Ferrari's opposition mean the 2013 engine changes go up in smoke? Photo: Getty
Ferrari is also pushing to ensure the 2013 chassis rules reflect its belief that the importance of aerodynamics is out of all proportion in F1. It wants them to be reined in so other aspects such as the mechanical and suspension set-up have more relevance, as is the case with road cars
But it is not just Ecclestone and Ferrari. Although the teams approved these rules, which they worked on with Jean Todt, president of governing body the FIA, other team principals have reservations, too.
One told me the arguments put forward for introducing the new engines do not stand up, in his view.
One of those arguments was that F1's use of increasingly outmoded engine technology was a barrier not only to attracting new sponsors of the kind that want to be associated with sustainability, but also to new car manufacturers entering the sport.
The engine change was proposed after German giant Volkswagen Audi indicated that it could be interested in F1 if the engine formula mirrored the future direction of road cars.
Doubters point out that not only have no new sponsors obviously been attracted, but that VW has since decided not to enter F1 for the foreseeable future.
As a result, the critics say, all the new rules will do is increase the cost for the existing participants. That is a major concern at a time when, according to one team boss, "there are a few teams on the breadline".
Equally, it seems that, among the current engine manufacturers, not only Ferrari is getting cold feet.
Mercedes would prefer not to change the rules; it is concerned about the expense and questions whether it is necessary, although I understand it has told fellow stakeholders it will go along with what everyone else agrees. Independent Cosworth is said to be not that keen either, although it told BBC Sport it was "neutral" and dismissed suggestions that it could not afford to build the engines. Only Renault will publicly say it is in favour.
The environmental argument is getting a bit of kicking, too.
The emissions created by an entire season of F1 races are less than those produced by one Boeing 747 flying to Japan. Road car manufacturers are already developing these engines. So why, some say, is F1 bothering? F1, the argument goes, should be about escapism, and the sport should be focusing on delivering more races like the recent thrilling Chinese Grand Prix.
So why not abandon or postpone the plan? Well, it is not as simple as that.
Renault's backing is rooted in marketing - it does not, unlike Mercedes and Ferrari, run its own F1 team and, unlike Cosworth, racing engines are not its core business.
Renault's F1 managing director Jean-Francois Caubet says the fact the sport is changing to a new more sustainable engine formula is one of three reasons for staying involved.
"The proposed rules are road-relevant and completely in line with Renault's road car strategy," he says. "We have already started design concepts on the 2013 engine, as this dovetails with our plans in road cars."
The French company plans for such engines - let's call them small capacity turbo-hybrid - to make up at least 70% of its road-car portfolio by 2015. It accepts the new F1 rules will cost money, but believes that is a price worth paying.
Caubet says Renault's presence in F1 is not "dependent on any future engine regulations", but does add the company is "very supportive of any regulations that make F1 more relevant to the overall aims of the Renault group".
Equally, proponents of the new engines point out that it is unfair to say no new manufacturers or sponsors have come in as a result of the new rules.
The change is still two years away, so how is it possible to know whether new sponsors will be attracted?
And just because no new car manufacturers have entered yet does not mean they will not. VW got cold feet, it is believed, because F1 took so long to agree the rules. Either way, the only sure thing is that new companies will not enter F1 if the engine rules stay the same.
As for Ecclestone, cynics in F1 - and there are many - believe his objections are at least as much about a couple of other issues he has not mentioned publicly.
One is that he and Todt simply do not get along. As someone who knows Ecclestone well said: "He's against it because Todt is for it."
Todt and Ecclestone do not see eye to eye on the new rules. Photo: Getty
There is also the fact that the sport's stakeholders are embarking on what will be tough and protracted negotiations aimed at extending the Concorde Agreement, the document that binds together the teams, the FIA and the commercial rights holders.
Ecclestone - representing the commercial rights holders, CVC - knows that both the teams and the FIA are unhappy with their financial arrangements and are asking for an improvement.
The teams are a potentially major headache for him. Currently, they get 47% of F1's revenues divided between them - and they are angling for as much as 80%. The teams are united under the umbrella group Fota, and have resisted all attempts to break them up over the last few years. Some believe Ecclestone sees the argument over engines as a chance to annex Ferrari and split Fota.
Of Ecclestone's public concerns, the least plausible is over the sound of the engines.
F1 used 1.5-litre turbo engines - and a formula restricting fuel usage, which is also part of the new rules - in the mid-1980s. Far from driving fans away, this is looked back on as one of the most exciting eras in the sport's history.
Insiders point out that only a handful of die-hard aficionados care about the sound of the engines - and that these people will watch anyway. The wider TV audience - which is of far more critical importance to the financial health of the sport - would probably not even notice the difference.
Equally, even if the sound of the engines is a concern, this can be addressed at least to some degree by tuning the exhaust.
As for affordability, the argument that the smaller teams will not be able to afford the new engines is easy to resolve - the manufacturers simply have to agree not to pass on the cost of development, and to keep the sale price of the engines the same as it is now.
In such situations, F1 usually finds a compromise - although that would mean Todt being seen to publicly back down, which is far from an easy sell when this is the first big change in F1 rules under his presidency.
But what would the compromise be?
An influential figure has recently proposed that the new rules could be postponed for a year until 2014. This would coincide with the fact that Pirelli's contract as tyre supplier runs out at the end of 2013 and allow the planned change of wheel-rim diameter from 13 to 15 inches to coincide with the new chassis rules, on which the wheel change has a significant impact.
Perhaps the current engines could be retained but with their Kers systems increased in power, and used to promote efficiency - such as running the cars purely on electric power in the pit lane. Perhaps a fuel restriction - part of the new rules anyway - could be introduced but not the new engines. Or a combination of some or all of the above.
The problem is that while all these arguments are going on, 2013 is getting ever closer, and engines have a long lead time. Manufacturers have already started work on the new designs, because that's what the rules say will be required.
Insiders say that, realistically, any decision will have to be made by the end of the summer. Any longer than that, and any objections will be academic - enough money will have been spent on the new engines that they might as well be adopted.
So if Ecclestone and Ferrari are going to spike the 2013 engine rules, they are going to have to get on with it.