Viry-Chatillon, France: In the 1968 Hugo Award-winning book ‘Stand on Zanzibar’, set in the year 2010, a character speaks these utterly simple but deeply philosophical words: “It is supposed to be automatic, but someone needs to push the button.”
In next year’s Formula One championship, drivers could well be the button-pushers writer John Brunner imagined. In a sport which is characterised by technological sophistication, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), motorsport’s governing body, has radically changed engine specifications for F1 races next season. With just six months to go until the 2014 season, manufacturers are racing against time to perfect the brand-new engines, or power units, as they will be called from 2014.
We are inventing new technologies... There have been no such power units so far
The new regulations mean that engine designers will have as much an influence, if not more, on the outcome of a race as a genius driver such as three-time world champion and 2013 season leader Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing.
The person designing Vettel’s engine, among others’, is Pierre-Jean Tardy, chief of French automobile giant Renault’s 2014 F1 development project at Viry-Chatillon, 18 miles south of Paris.
“We are inventing new technologies,” Tardy says. "There have been no such power units so far."
The new regulations state that the engines will have fewer cylinders (six, instead of eight); lower displacement (1.6 litre instead of 2.4 litre) and lower RPM (15,000 instead of 18,000). To compensate for this loss of power, engine makers can introduce a turbocharger (to generate more power) and two energy recovery devices that will supply electric power, similar to what is used in passenger hybrid cars.
Despite the restrictions, engine makers will have to keep the interest in the sport alive by achieving current speeds. A typical F1 car can touch speeds of 300 Kph (186 mph), while on some circuits cars can reach speeds of up to 320 Kph (198 mph).
With the stakes so high, teams will demand greater bang for their buck. Renault, along with Ferrari and Mercedes – the two other engine suppliers for the 2014 season – are therefore under pressure to deliver engines that win.
“We are starting on a clean slate,” says Tardy.
The driving force behind the change in regulations have been engine suppliers (and car manufacturers) like Renault who wanted a greater connect between their Formula One and road car projects. That’s the reason why there is greater emphasis on low fuel consumption and hybrid power. Tardy says it will make the sport more environment-responsible; in fact, the fuel consumption in the 2014 season will go down by 40 per cent.
The March 2014 race in Australia will be the first one in many years to have radically different engines. Not surprisingly, reliability and longevity of the engines through the season would be their first test. In the event that all three manufacturers are able to create reliable power units, the competition would then focus on fuel management and electric power using one of the two energy recovery devices. The pressure, therefore, is intense.
“Starting 2014,” Tardy says, “there will be restrictions on the amount of fuel (100 kg) used per race and flow of fuel (100 kg per hour)."
We will continue developing the engine until the first race in 2014. The pressure’s building
The fuel limitation is significant because you cannot go flat out throughout the race which lasts for 90 minutes on average. Most cars consume up to 160 kg of fuel per race at present.
“We have to optimize each fuel molecule,” he says.
"The reliability of the engines and power management would determine a team’s success or failure in 2014."
Tardy refuses to divulge details about the amount of electric power that they could generate as he deems it to be too sensitive.
“This is another area where you could gain an edge over the competition,” he says.
You wouldn’t want to take a gamble on such sensitive matters with the stakes so high. It is this secrecy and excitement that makes next year’s championship special. In fact, Tardy, who has been working at the Renault F1 engine facility for the past 18 years, says he hasn’t witnessed such drastic changes in engine specifications.
His colleague, Audrey Vastroux, who is head of engine testing at Renault Sport F1, agrees.
"Energy recovery efficiency would be key to determining the winner next year," she says.
"We will continue developing the engine until the first race in 2014. The pressure’s building."
Tardy and his team would be under even more pressure to continue their winning streak with Red Bull Racing. After all, Vettel has won the world championship from 2010-2012, and is on his way to win the title this year too.
The French engineer reckons that the big risk is to be down on performance.
"If there is a performance gap in the engines, neither the aerodynamics nor the driver can be of much help," he says.
If that happens, the drivers could end up being what Brunner wrote about someone being needed to push the button.