Formula One is playing catch-up. With international series like the World Sportscars integrating hybrid technology and the new Formula E championship gaining momentum, the powers that be felt it was time to put F1 back in line with modern automotive thinking.
After a couple of false starts, the final chosen solution was a small 1.6-litre V6 turbo combined with two hybrid-style electric motors.
The petrol engine has a smaller block with a smaller bore. This uses less fuel because there is less overall cylinder volume but it would also deliver less power – so there is a single turbocharger to offset that. Its boost is unrestricted, but a fuel flow restriction will ensure it is unlikely to rise beyond 3.5bar.
This fuel flow restriction, along with a total fuel usage restriction, means that the leaner the engine can run, the more boost it can get and the more power it will deliver – so a more efficient engine will also be a more powerful one. Again, that ticks the box for positive environmental messaging.
Even the most efficient engines will only produce around 600bhp, however, and that is some way down on the 800+ delivered last year.
This is where the hybrid propulsion units come in.
The button-press power boost currently delivered by KERS has made way for on-tap electric energy from two sources – ERS-K, a more powerful version of KERS system that uses kinetic energy from braking, and ERS-H, using heat from turbocharger.
In total, this is allowed to deliver twice the energy boost for five times longer than the current system, with the additional 160bhp bringing the engine power back to current levels but with a fuel consumption reduction of a third.
The ERS energy will be automatically fed in without any requirement from the driver to push a button - a similar approach to that used in the Le Mans style cars.
All this will make a significant change to racing.
The way electric power is delivered – with on-off torque – could well make it extremely hard to control and will require drivers to alter their style of driving.
Also, the push-to-pass opportunities that KERS once delivered will be no more, and that could result in a reduction in overtaking.
But the thing that will have the most significant effect is the limit on total race fuel.
Teams will have no restriction on fuel levels in qualifying but will have just 100kg (about 2/3 of what teams started with last year) available to use during a race.
In practice and qualifying, therefore, the car can run at the fuel flow limit – so engines and car set-up will need to focus on maximising the opportunity in this situation. But in races, fuel management could be vital, with more fuel-efficient and not necessarily faster cars winning on the day.
Some insiders suspect the pace difference between qualifying and race could be up to a second, while racing will now become an even greater game of strategy, revolving around when to use up fuel by allowing higher fuel flow rates and when to conserve.
This could bring F1 back to off-the limit racing – which is something it was heavily criticised for last year when tyre degradation did not allow cars to race at their maximum.
If that happens this time, then because it is an integrated and fundamental part of the rules, it will be much harder to fix.
In early races, however, the main focus will be on reliability.
Last year, teams had the luxury of eight engines per driver. This time, they can use up just five before suffering a penalty. This rule is more complex than before, as each power unit is split into six defined parts – engine, MCU-K, MGU-H, energy store, turbo and electronics - and each item can only be replaced up to five times without penalty.
So is F1 right to have made the change?
It has not been without its controversy, particularly in terms of the high cost for development, which has been passed on to the paying customer teams who now pay significantly more for an engine supply than they did last year.
In times when F1 is struggling to budget effectively, it can easily be argued that this is the wrong way to go.
But while it may be a hard hit now, for its future, to keep itself relevant, and to give it a long-term future, F1 has most definitely made the right decision.
Next week, how will the changes in aerodynamics and car performance affect the running order...
- Nature & Environment
- Renewable Energy & Energy Saving