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Power Struggles

2014 Mercedes V6 engine

First, a question: who was the last F1 driver to win a World Championship Grand Prix in a turbo-charged car? (answer at end)

Second, a history lesson: turbo-charged engines went out at the end of the 1988 season, when McLaren used Honda power to make Ayrton Senna the World Champion for the first time and to claim the Constructors’ Championship for what was the fourth time in the team’s history to that date.

Obviously that means that none of the current drivers have any experience of racing in F1 with turbo-charged engines, which are the new norm for 2014. The Energy Recovery Systems, a huge step up from the KERS we had come to know, will deploy twice the power and have 10 times the capacity of the previous technology, allowing the driver to call on an extra 120 kilowatts of power for more than half a minute on every racing lap.

Through the 64-year history of the World Championship a total of 12 engine suppliers have powered the title-winning drivers. But in 2014 only three companies will be supplying engines to the sport’s 11 teams: Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault.

Of those, only Ferrari and Renault have previous F1 experience with turbo-charging – Mercedes retired from the sport way back in 1955 and returned only in 2010, well into the V8 normally aspirated era which began in 2006.

Third, today’s vocabulary practice: back in the late Eighties all the talk was of turbos, boost, wastegates and throttle lag, each of which was responsible at various times for team and driver frustrations as they all got to grips with the technology of the time. Turbo/engine failure was perhaps the most common reason given for retirements.

As the great Alain Prost has said, “You have to say that the turbo engine years generated interest in F1: everyone was interested in this new technical challenge. It was also a bit of an emotional journey, insofar as huge developments were expected at each race.”

Will we see the same hair-tearing at the start of 2014 when the radical new F1 comes to Melbourne? Probably not – the issues raised by the technology a quarter of a century ago have been largely by-passed.

On the other hand, there is a new generation of complex technology to be mastered: two turbos at work to provide the ‘boost’ in engine power which is the technology’s whole raison d’être.

Boost – pressurizing the engine to more than its nominal cylindrical capacity – also equates to fuel use, and fuel flow is one of the central elements of the new power train technology in F1. It’s limited to 100 kilos per hour, and the total fuel allowed is 100 kilos per Grand Prix. The fuel flow limit puts a check on the amount of boost that can be derived.

We don’t have wastegates any more, either: they were escape exits for excess energy back in the day. Nowadays the turbo will have a second electric motor attached to it to convert that excess energy into instantly usable electricity.

And that in turn means throttle lag shouldn’t be a problem, as it used to be, with drivers desperately waiting for what old-timers like Derek Warwick used to call that ‘kick in the back’ that propelled the cars forward at breakneck speeds.

But how well will the three engine-suppliers succeed in recuperating energy, storing it and deploying it effectively?

Many expert analysts believe that, following the bullet-proof reliability of engines we have come to expect in recent years, engines will not only make the difference but may also be the weakest link in the chain of components that contributes to a Grand Prix car’s performance.

“It’s a return to an era when the driver will need to be strategic and very calculating in how he uses his racing car,” adds Prost. “Being quick will no longer be enough on its own: you’ll need to be quick and sensitive.” And that should suit a certain young German down to the ground…

Ferrari have now contested a staggering 870 Grands Prix, winning an equally amazing 222 of them. But there were only two wins in 2013, both for Fernando Alonso, and there has been some fairly loud sabre-rattling from Mr. Di Montezemolo ahead of the new F1 era. The Italian marque will supply not only the scarlet cars of the Scuderia, but also Sauber and Marussia.

Mercedes will cater for four teams: the works cars, of course, plus McLaren, Force India and Williams. Teams like Sir Frank’s will be desperately hoping that wholesale changes level the playing-field and allow the independents like Williams back into the race, so to say.

Renault, meanwhile, bring a brilliant record of success in the last two decades – 12 Constructors’ titles and 11 Drivers’ between 1992 and 2013 – to their pursuit of continued glory in the new era. Can four straight titles with Red Bull become five with the new power trains?

With so much change in the offing, any degree of continuity can only be a positive. That’s why Mercedes looks such an attractive bet: the only team with the same drivers as it had in 2013, both Rosberg and Hamilton operating at a high level, and a genuine ambition to build on last year’s runners-up status.

But if you can’t make up your mind, hang fire for another year. In 2015 Honda will return yet again to F1, where they bridged the end of the turbo era and the return to normally aspirated engines with five straight title wins from 1987 through 1991. And you can bet they’re coming back to win…

A: Alain Prost, winner of the 1988 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide in his McLaren Honda

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