Tempers blow hot in F1's latest engine dispute
A dreary Friday at the British Grand Prix, with limited on-track running because of the wet weather, was enlivened by a public row in a news conference between the bosses of Formula 1's leading two teams.
McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh and Red Bull's Christian Horner disputed the rights and wrongs of the latest ruling from motorsport's governing body the FIA on off-throttle blowing of diffusers.
If that sounds technical, it's because it is - very. But it's also very important, so please bear with me while I explain the complicated bit as simply as possible.
Over the last year, this technology, which was pioneered by Red Bull last summer, has been increasingly prevalent in F1 because of the dramatic effects it has on improving a car's aerodynamics, and therefore its cornering speed and lap time.
Basically, teams have been blowing exhaust gases over the rear floor of their cars even when the driver is off the accelerator going into a corner.
This ensures downforce remains consistent, whereas if you blow your diffuser only when the driver is on the throttle, it produces instability when a driver least wants it - on the entry to a corner.
There are two types of blowing of a diffuser - hot and cold.
Cold-blowing is what was pioneered by Renault and Red Bull in 2010 - the throttles are left open but fuel is not introduced, so only air goes through the exhaust.
Horner (left) and Whitmarsh clashed over the new regulations. Photo: Getty Images
Hot-blowing - which generates much more energy and therefore downforce - is when fuel is introduced and burnt but the ignition is retarded to stop the engine pushing the car on while the driver is slowing it down.
Leading engineers say hot-blowing can give an advantage of as much as second a lap over no blowing at all, while cold-blowing is worth about 0.3-0.4secs.
The row started when the FIA decided to introduce a limit of 10% of throttle when the driver was not pressing the accelerator.
Many of the teams objected to that. Mercedes - which supplies McLaren, Mercedes and Force India - argued that they should be allowed to introduce fuel on what is called the overrun, which is when the engine is acting as a brake, for reliability reasons.
Renault objected to this, claiming that it meant Mercedes teams would be getting an advantage, and arguing they should be allowed to cold-blow to provide them with the equivalent advantage. This is what was allowed on Friday at Silverstone.
But Renault's rivals object because the French engine company has now been allowed to have a 50% throttle opening when the driver is entering the corner.
This is what Whitmarsh calls "a very substantial performance benefit". To which Horner responds: "Why is it any more of a performance benefit than fired overrun?"
The irony in all this is that sources say Renault were only using 45% open throttles even before the ruling. If that is true, it means the new rule actually allows them more off-throttle blowing than before.
The Mercedes teams, by contrast, have been "constrained" in terms of the hot-blowing they were doing, according to Whitmarsh. How this all affects Ferrari - who are also believed to have been hot-blowing - is unclear.
Of course, the big question is how those of us watching can be sure that we are watching a level playing field.
I sought out a leading, highly experienced engineer for an answer. He says, in a nutshell, that we can't. But as a reassurance, he did add that "Charlie is very experienced at not having the wool pulled over his eyes."
Charlie being Charlie Whiting, F1's race director.
As a protest against the new ruling, the Mercedes teams ran in second practice with 50% open throttle during braking. Then, there was an explosive exchange in the drivers' briefing with Whiting, with McLaren's Lewis Hamilton particularly animated on the matter.
And now all the engine manufacturers have been summoned to another meeting with Whiting.
Will the new rules put a dampener on Red Bull's domination of the 2011 season? Photo: Reuters
I would imagine this will run into Saturday and possibly race day, too. F1 loves nothing more than a good row over technology.
For those interested, here is an edited transcript of the row between Whitmarsh and Horner. Those who want to read the whole thing will find it on the FIA website. (https://www.fia.com).
The argument started when I asked whether there was a level playing field and whether this was the end of the matter.
Horner: "First of all there was a technical directive that effectively turned it all off. That was met with reticence by the manufacturers, and it has been very much a manufacturer issue.
"Certain teams were then allowed to have fired overrun, to fuel their overrun, of which there were also secondary benefits, through the exhaust plumes and thrusts that creates.
"Renault presented their position to the FIA - and let's not forget this is an extraordinarily complex matter - to demonstrate that precedent is there that - for purposes of throttle blip (when changing down the gears) and reliability - cold-air blowing, open throttle, was a necessary part of the operation of their engine otherwise it would cause serious issues.
"It would be unfair to allow fired overrun and not allow the same parameters for another engine manufacturer.
"It is a very difficult job for the FIA to pick their way through this and I think all credit to them, they have looked to be as fair, balanced and equitable as they decreed they would be, to come up with a solution that they have.
"We are not totally happy with the solution that we have, that's for sure. I'm sure Martin isn't with his and I'm sure there are a lot of conspiracies in the paddock.
"But that's just circumstantial at the end of the day. The fundamentals are that the engine manufacturers have been treated in a fair and equitable manner."
Whitmarsh: "I'm sure people set out to do that. There have been about six technical directives on the subject so far and when the goalposts are moving part-way through a practice session, it makes it quite difficult.
"To do this in a fairly cloudy, ambiguous and changing way, inevitably in a competitive environment every team feels it's been hard done by. At the moment, potentially a lot of teams will end up making arguments to cold-blow.
"Renault have been in that domain for some time. Other teams haven't and don't have that experience. We are talking a very substantial performance benefit here."
Horner: "Why is it any more of a performance benefit than fired overrun? At the end of the day, Renault is allowed a fired over-run but it can't for reliability purposes."
Whitmarsh: "No, but clearly if under braking the throttles are open 50%, it is a reasonable benefit. It is a lot of gas going through. I would imagine all engines will end up doing that, which isn't what was envisaged when it was said we are going to stop engine blowing."
Horner: "So Mercedes engines aren't firing on overrun?"
Whitmarsh: "They've been constrained."
Horner: "As have Renault."
Whitmarsh: "Providing the constraints are the same for everyone, but clearly the fact we're having this discussion, it's messy.
"The intention people believed was that we were going to stop exhausts blowing when the driver didn't have his foot on the throttle. I think that was a simple concept. But that concept has been deflected. Therefore it hasn't been clear.
"The fact these things were only coming out in the course of today [Friday] is fairly extraordinary. But nonetheless I'm sure we'll remain calm and pick our way through.
"But probably better to make changes to the regulations between seasons and not in seasons, and to make regulations that are clear and unambiguous.
"At the moment a lot of people are getting emotional about the situation and I can understand why it's frustrating for the engineers not to know what it is we are allowed to do. By cold blowing, you're getting an extra 30 or 40 points of rear downforce in braking and that's quite an attractive thing, so if you can do it you're going to do it."
Horner: "Let's not make any mistake here. Firing on overrun, the thrust that that generates through the exhaust, generates a bigger effect. Let's just be absolutely clear on that."
Whitmarsh: "And that's been largely contained. A lot of those strategies are not permissible now."
Horner: "I read the technical directive that four-cylinder fired over-run was permissible for certain competitors and that includes your engine. As far as we understood, before Renault were allowed their parameters ,obviously there was a significant advantage going to any Mercedes-powered team.
"As you can see, it's a massively complex subject and the one thing Martin and I will agree on is it should have been addressed at the end of the year. But unfortunately here we are."