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Formula 1

F1 can ditch hybrids – but is it a ‘Flintstone’ move?

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
8 min read

Mercedes and Red Bull are fierce title rivals in 2021 but are also fighting on a different front as Formula 1 bids to settle on what regulations to enforce for its next-generation engine.

A short summary of their respective positions is simple: Mercedes wants F1 to stick with hybrids and increase the electrical element, Red Bull wants new fuels to be the sustainable component so F1 can return to a traditional, high-revving internal combustion engine.

Jul 19 : British Grand Prix review

As one of F1’s all-time most enduring engine manufacturers, and one of its most successful, Mercedes is expected to continue with the new rules in 2025 through its High Performance Powertrains division.

With the road car company embracing electrification and the V6 turbo-hybrid era launching Mercedes’ works F1 team to an unprecedented run of championship success, it is unsurprising Mercedes wishes for the next-generation F1 engine to embrace a significant electric component.

Toto Wolff F1 Mercedes

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel but we need to increase the electric power, because this is where the world is going,” says Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff.

“But I think the major point is that there will be millions and millions of vehicles [with internal combustion engines] on the streets for a long time and I think we can really help, as the fastest laboratory in the world, to develop sustainable fuels, with our fuel and oil partners.

“That is the big differential, that even though we will be running internal combustion engines they will be fuelled by high-tech fuel and that is something we should be proud of, because Formula 1 will have some sort of pioneer role to introduce these fuels to all kinds of vehicles and industrial applications.”

F1 and the FIA have a desire to have fully sustainable fuels at the heart of its engine development. This will begin in 2022, with the introduction of a 10% ethanol mix, with the idea of having ‘100% sustainable fuels’ – although the definition of that is slightly unclear – for the new engine rules.

Red Bull believes that can be taken even further. The company is preparing to build its first-ever F1 engine and is setting up a new company to do that, and at the same time is making its case for a departure from the current rules.

Red Bull Racing Factory F1

Presently, Red Bull is the only ‘new’ entity F1 has a firm commitment from for 2025. The Volkswagen Group is part of F1’s current rules thinktank but that does not mean a decision to join the grid is imminent.

These brands can therefore meddle with the discussions without a real desire to enter the championship and Red Bull is leaning on that by laying out the argument for F1 not being beholden to the desires of the automotive industry.

“I don’t think we should bend ourselves out of shape to accommodate a specific manufacturer,” says Red Bull Racing CEO Christian Horner.

“What we have to do is come up with something that is right for Formula 1, that’s right for the long-term future of the sport. We have seen manufacturers come and go over generations. T

“The fundamental question is where does Formula 1 want to be, where does it fall? If you follow the theory of where OEMs are going, electrification, then we could end up in Formula E in eight or night years time.

Stoffel Vandoorne Mercedes Formula E

“That isn’t Formula 1. Formula 1 for me is about noise, it’s about entertainment, it’s about the fastest cars in the world. The fact that we are going this biofuel route with sustainable fuels, the combustion engine does have a future.

“There is no reason [not] to think ‘Why not introduce high-revving engines that sound fantastic and are doing it in an environmentally friendly manner?’. Biofuels and sustainable fuels enable you to do that.

“Formula 1 and the governing body need to decide where do they want to place it because on the one hand you’ve got full electrification, you can look at a middle ground that is effectively some form of hybrid that potentially may not have relevance longer-term, or you say ‘Formula 1 actually, we’re here to entertain, the combustion engine does have a future as part of Formula 1 but we are going to do it in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly manner’.

“And if people want to be part of that then great, and if they don’t then so be it.”

It’s the first real case a major player in F1 has made to ditch the controversial hybrids that have been criticised for everything from their noise to their complexity to their cost and to their impact on the entertainment on-track.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Red Bull, a team that has not won a title since the V8 engine era ended and a company that is just starting out on the long road to designing its own power unit, wishes for a return to simpler times.

Sebastian Vettel Red Bull F1 2013

Without an automotive company as a major shareholder in the team, it’s certainly easier for Red Bull to take the contrarian position on this topic and play to the gallery’s desire for emotive technology.

“When you hear Fernando Alonso running his V10 Renault around Abu Dhabi the emotion, the noise is still for me such a key factor that is missing from the sport,” says Horner.

“We need to turn the volume up. We need to do it in a responsible manner, in a cost effective manner, in a way that’s sustainable, that’s environmentally friendly, but it needs to be entertainment.

“That’s why people turn the TVs on. That’s why people watch this sport.”

Fernando Alonso, Renault F1 Abu Dhabi demo

But is it realistic?

“With the sustainable fuels you can have an engine that is environmentally friendly and I think that would be an enormous achievement for Formula 1,” Horner says.

“And who knows exactly where the future is headed. I know politically electrification is being pushed and there are questions over is it actually the right route for 25 years or 30 years’ time?

“Formula 1 can play a key role with the fuels, with the fuel partners we have, on sustainability, on zero emissions, with high performant, high-revving, emotive engines. And wouldn’t it be fantastic if we went that route?

“I’m sure every grand prix would be packed.

Lewis Hamilton British GP F1 Mercedes

“Formula E, of which most of these automotive companies run in, if that’s the future why isn’t that being seen as the route forward over the next 10 years?

“Formula 1 still has an appeal because of the combustion engine. Because of the noise and the emotion and the fact that it is Formula 1, the biggest and best racing series in the world.”

Wolff, unsurprisingly, disagrees. While he shares Horner’s personal enthusiasm for the old world of F1 engines – “I’d like to have a 12-cylinder that screams down the roads” – he says “we are not the most relevant generation anymore”.

His argument is that younger fans are not wedded to the noise an engine makes and, in terms of partners, sponsors and stakeholders, F1 will lose “complete relevance” if it does turn its back on the environment.

Toto Wolff Mercedes Christian Horner Red Bull F1

That isn’t quite Horner’s argument. Assuming F1 and the FIA are right to back sustainable fuels then there would seem to at least be a legitimate case for F1 only embracing these fuels and making that its environmental centrepiece.

Wolff’s position is that F1 needs that and electrification – at least for this incoming set of engine rules.

“We can’t go back to a Flintstone engine,” he says. “And on the other side going all electric at that stage is too early.

“We should come up with a power unit that we can be proud of, and being proud means having still the audio-visual experience for the fans from an internal combustion engine, and have a hybrid component that is very strong on the electrical side so we are giving the electrical side at least equal the performance of the ICE, or more.

“It’s in my opinion the transition step to something in 2030 that can be very different depending on where the car market goes, and we see some of the big auto manufacturers commit to the 2030s to be all-electric.”

Christian Horner Red Bull Toto Wolff Mercedes F1

Where Wolff and Horner are clearly aligned is that F1 can be a fantastic laboratory for turning sustainable fuels into something that quickly becomes pump fuel for everyday use.

“That can be a real contribution to the planet that we develop high performance fuels that work for us, and if you listen to our fuel partners what we need to achieve is not a spaceship fuel but something that the final customer can actually utilise in his own machine,” says Wolff.

“It’s not only cars that will be on the roads but it’s also all kinds of industrial applications or machines that run on fuel or kerosene that may utilise our development and our science. I strongly believe in that.”

This rare example of common ground in these engine discussions is why Horner says there are “elements of alignment that are close and there are other different views that will get thrashed out”.

Cost and complexity are also among the points of discussion in these high-level meetings, and controlling the spending required to build and maintain the new engines is a basic principle that all parties agree on.

The target for the new engine rules is still 2025 although Red Bull continues to make noises in public that 2026 is more realistic. This would suit it better as it gives the new company more time to prepare.

But these are all matters that, while important, are secondary to establishing what kind of technology will underpin the regulatory framework.

That process is not going to be helped by F1’s two biggest rivals having such opposing views.

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