New formula for Grand Prix

Many engineers in Formula One could lose their jobs if plans to reduce the amount of in-car technology and pre-race testing come into force over the next few years. The changes are due to be ratified at the F1 World Council later this month, and imposed in 2006.

Pressure is building within the sport to find ways of reducing the cost of taking part in Grand Prix racing and making the races themselves more competitive. The FIA, the sports governing body, Bernie Ecclestone who owns the commercial rights to F1, and many of the teams themselves agree that change is needed in order to keep top-flight motor racing alive.

Max Mosely, president of the FIA, outlined his proposals again at the end of last month for slashing the amount that teams need to spend on their cars, thereby opening up the grid to more competitors, from 10 to 12 teams, and shortening the performance gap between the existing cars.

Among plans to reduce the engine size from 3000cc to a smaller V8 2400cc, Mosely suggested that the amount of testing permitted should also be dramatically reduced. All the electronic driver aids would go, the most significant of which is traction control, and there are also plans to reduce the vehicle’s grip in order to create more chances for overtaking. A new rule for the 2004 season is that teams can only use a single engine per car for the entire race weekend, but Mosely also raised the possibility of engines in the future having to last for longer, maybe even three or four race weekends.

Unlike previous attempts to make the sport more competitive, the latest set of proposed changes will be non-negotiable. Bernie Ecclestone is one of those determined to deliver a long-overdue shake-up. He wants better value for spectators and television, and is said to be prepared to double the money of all the teams involved as an incentive for adopting the changes.

While this will make life easier for the smaller independent teams, the likes of Ferrari, which spends in excess of £300m a year on F1, and Renault realise that costs must come down, and the most expedient way to achieve this is to cut the amount of high-technology put into the vehicles. But what will this mean for the engineers involved, the specialist automotive companies that work in F1 and the possibility of technology transfer from the F1 hothouse to the road car?

The wealthier teams spend a large proportion of their budgets on testing and development. Lucca Mazzocco, an account manager for the Renault F1 team who works with Altran, one of Renault’s technology partners, said a ban on these areas would have a severe impact on the teams themselves and levels of interest in F1. The sport is also an opportunity for research and development departments to showcase their latest technologies, he said.

‘High technology is one of the things that attracts people and interest to F1. These cars are more sophisticated than jet fighters, and the interaction of the human being and technology is what is interesting. It also provides companies with the opportunity to showcase their technologies. A lot of people will lose their jobs if the testing is restricted. I hope it never happens.’

In the past the concept of ‘technology transfer’ was seen as a good reason for car makers to take part in F1. New engine and chassis technologies developed in racing would filter down into their road cars. But as Mosely pointed out in advance of this month’s world council, the big racing budgets have changed the sport so much that this is no longer a significant trend.

‘If you have a crankshaft problem in F1 you can get an exotic material from the aerospace industry. If you have a problem in a road car where you are producing maybe a million cars you can’t solve it by buying something very expensive; you have to solve it by clever design. ‘Why don’t we have this in Formula One. If they can design it really cleverly using ordinary materials they will be successful, and it is the same sort of assertion that the industry itself needs. it is a useful way of spending time and money, whereas an exotic material is a complete waste.’

Last week Renault was in the process of testing a new engine for its cars at Silverstone. The team, which is currently second behind Ferrari in the constructors championship, has produced one of the most reliable engine designs of the season. The new one-engine rule has taken its toll on many of the teams, and only Ferrari and Renault have a 100 per cent finish record.

The general rule of thumb in F1 is that the team that spends the most cash will come out on top. Much of Renault’s cash has gone into the new engine which, although reliable, has not given the performance required to close the gap on Ferrari. The Silverstone test saw the first of two significant performance upgrades in time for the Montreal Grand Prix this weekend.

Mark Herd, a Renault F1 test engineer working on the new engine said they had achieved a ‘reasonable’ increase in power and revs.

‘We’ve run the engines here for the first time, and the drivers said they could feel the difference. Because the engines at a race weekend have to travel about 700km, we aim to run the engines here for at least that to validate that improvement.’

The Silverstone test days, which are so important for the likes of Renault who want to make big changes to their cars during theseason, could be abolished under the new rules. Herd and his colleagues, who work frantically during these strictly regulated periods, could also be affected by the changes. But as an engineer, he recognises the development and design points made by Mosely.

‘I think we would welcome things like that because if everyone is having to spend lots of money to get hold of an exotic material then why do it? Certainly using engineering to find clever ways of solving things seems sensible. But at the end of the day you have to go for what’s cost effective. It might be that you have to buy something from outside rather than employ five people to find a way of doing it.’Some areas of racing engineering, such as the braking and software and control systems, do contribute to development of road cars in a limited way, he said.

‘We do have people from many companies, who work on road cars, who come to work in our R&D department. That brings benefits for us, because they might be a specialist in vibration for example. And equally for them it’s a bit of a perk.

‘But from that point of view the reason that Renault is in Formula One is for the marketing, rather than the expectation that the technology is going to feed down into their road cars.’

Herd agreed that something has got to be done to improve the spectacle of F1 racing, both by making the cars more competitive and improving the chances of overtaking. Michael Shumacher, in typical fashion, led last month’s European Grand Prix from pole position until he crossed the finishing line.

Herd said the rule changes necessary to achieve this would have to be ‘fundamental’ to make any difference, as those teams with money can afford plenty of testing to get round the limitations new design regulations might place upon a car’s performance.

‘There are two things: one is the financial side, even out the spending; the other is to make the cars more able to overtake. This probably involves taking away some of the grip. Whether this should be mechanical (reducing grip of the tyres) or aerodynamic (reducing the downforce) whatever you do has got to be quite significant. If you limit the downforce in one area, people are always going to claw it back elsewhere. Over the winter the amount of elements allowed in the rear wing were limited, and straight away we lost maybe 10 per cent of our downforce. So then we did three or for months of wind tunnel work and got most of it back.

‘If they really want to effect the way things are going then they have got to make some fundamental changes,’ he said.