Positives and Negatives of Formula 1's V6 Hybrid Power Units After 2015 Season

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2015

Positives and Negatives of Formula 1's V6 Hybrid Power Units After 2015 Season

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    The 2015 Formula One season marked the second year of the highly controversial V6 turbo regulations.

    Since their introduction at the beginning of 2014, the hybrid engines have been the subject of much debate, with some claiming they serve no purpose in the so-called pinnacle of motorsport and others welcoming F1's arrival in the real world.

    Over the last two years, 38 grands prix have been completed with hybrid power alone—the majority of which have been won by two-time world champions Mercedes—and we are edging ever closer to a time when the V6 power units will be judged either as a resounding success or a failed experiment.

    Their only duty is to power 20-odd cars along a circuit, but the effect of the modern-day engines has been felt far beyond the track, from the boardroom to the political arena that is an F1 paddock.

    From their technological brilliance to that divisive sound, here are the positives and negatives of the V6 turbo powertrains.

Positive: Luring Back Big Names

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    Mercedes. Ferrari. Williams. Red Bull. McLaren. Honda. Renault. Aston Martin.

    Should Aston's widely anticipated rebranding of Force India be finalised, the 2016 grid will boast the widest array of big-name manufacturers than at any stage since 2008-09, when the likes of BMW and Toyota took on the usual suspects.

    And the effect of the V6 power units—the challenge of mastering the hybrid technology, their relevance to the future of the road-car industry—will have played an instrumental role in luring major companies back to the pinnacle of motorsport.

    Honda, which dropped Formula One like a stone at the end of '08, announced a deal to re-establish its historic alliance with McLaren as long ago as mid-2013—six months before the V6 turbo regulations came into effect—such was its enthusiasm for the brave new world.

    Bored with life as an engine supplier, meanwhile, Renault couldn't stomach the thought of walking away from a set of rules it fought so hard to be introduced—as reported by BBC Sport's Andrew Benson in 2011—and promptly purchased the Lotus team for 2016.

    And with Red Bull's Christian Horner telling an FIA press conference that his team held talks with the Volkswagen Group—which has had limited involvement in F1—prior to the rather distracting emissions scandal, it is clear the appeal of the current regulations stretches far and wide.

    From those with no real history in the sport to companies content with dipping in and out, major manufacturers want to be part of modern-day F1.

    It hasn't always been this way, you know.

Negative: The Sound

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    What exactly is wrong with the grunt of these V6 engines? The futuristic whir of the turbo and energy recovery systems working in perfect harmony? Or that bizarre rattling noise we occasionally hear in the higher gears?

    And isn't it rather nice that each power unit sounds slightly different, giving the four current manufacturers their own signature sound?

    The simple truth is that there is nothing wrong with noise produced by the modern-day power units. Except that they aren't the V8 engines. Or the previous V10 units, which last screeched around an F1 circuit a decade ago but still live on in the eardrums of many an F1 enthusiast.

    That wouldn't normally be a problem if those within F1 encouraged the watching world to move on and embrace the modern era. 

    But when a four-time world champion denounced the noise as "s--t" after the very first race with the new engines, per ESPN F1, the V6s were condemned to fighting a losing battle at an early stage, and it is surprising just how many allow their enjoyment of F1 to be dictated by a matter as trivial as the sound of the cars.

    While the groan of the V6 power units is more than bearable, a true indication of what F1 lost at the beginning of 2014 came when Williams recently released a "cockpit cam" video, in which the engine note was barely distinguishable above the wind.

    Compare that to Lucas di Grassi's helmet camera at Spa-Francorchamps from the seat of a V8-powered car and you realise that F1 no longer arouses the senses in the way it once did.

Negative: Poor Reliability

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    At the beginning of 2014, we didn't care too much about who would win the first race of the V6 era. We didn't allow ourselves to worry about who would establish an early advantage in the championship battle or wonder which team stood as the best of the rest behind Mercedes.

    Instead, our main concern was just how many cars would survive those 58 laps at Albert Park.

    Looking back, it's amusing that the new regulations were greeted with such suspicion and pessimism, that we didn't trust the teams to quickly get to grips with the new engines and the new demands to deliver a respectable show from the very beginning.

    Any fears that F1 was sleepwalking its way toward a sporting and PR disaster were quickly extinguished as the sport simply carried on as normal with no seriously high attrition rates.

    Not so much in 2015, though, when "DNS" almost merited its own place on the leaderboard.

    As in 2014, the tone was set in Australia when just 15 of a possible 20 cars took the start and only 11 were still circulating at the finish.

    The sight of Jenson Button's MP4-30 sitting mournfully in a corner of the McLaren-Honda garage during the Bahrain Grand Prix, where he failed to set a lap time in qualifying or the race, encapsulated the team's season and became a regular occurrence as several drivers were reduced to brief cameo appearances.

    At a time of restricted power-unit component usage, an unreliable team is an undisciplined team, with Button and team-mate Fernando Alonso dropping a combined 320 places on the grid due to engine-related penalties in 2015, per GPUpdate.net.

    If the technology doesn't mature in time for Season 3, the V6s could become synonymous with clouds of smoke, pre-race shutdowns and comical penalties.

Positive: The Technology

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    After the tyre-preservation era of 2011-13, this was supposed to be the generation of fuel saving.

    With cars running with a third less fuel, lifting and coasting—rather than full-throttle racing—was meant to be the aim of the game as the pinnacle of motorsport became an efficiency exhibition.

    Yet, like the pre-2014 reliability concerns, the belief that the V6 power units would have a severe effect on the spectacle was misplaced. Even on the circuits where fuel consumption is high, there is nothing a handful of laps behind the safety car, virtual or otherwise, cannot solve.

    Likewise, the reduction from eight to six cylinders has had no real impact.

    Lewis Hamilton's pole-position time at the 2015 Italian GP at Monza—the most power-dependent circuit of all—was around 0.4 seconds faster than Sebastian Vettel's pole lap at the same venue in 2013, the final year of the V8 regulations.

    Indeed, Andy Cowell, the head of Mercedes High Performance Powertrains, has claimed the V6s—after just two full seasons—are already more powerful than the V8 and V10 engines due to the energy recovery systems and fuel-flow restrictions, per James Allen via F1's Alex Kalinauckas.

    The modern engines also provide a more complete test of manufacturers, with the official website of Shell claiming it was responsible for 25 per cent of Ferrari's "total performance gain" in 2015, encouraging competitors to not only extract more from themselves but their technical partners.

    Less really is more in the V6 era.

Negative: Power to the Manufacturers

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    As a Formula One season resumes following the traditional summer break, the driver market usually dominates the headlines.

    But in 2015, the much-loved "silly season" was completely overshadowed by the engine market as teams tried to get their hands on the best possible powertrain for 2016 in what is now an engine-based formula.

    It was the most extreme reminder that Mercedes and Ferrari, the only manufacturers to truly master the V6 technology thus far, currently have too much power, to the point where they can effectively play God with customer teams.

    Ferrari's close technical partnership with the brand-new Haas team, who will arrive on the grid at the beginning of next season, will ensure the American outfit will be reasonably competitive from the start.

    Mercedes' engine deal with Manor, meanwhile, should give the perennial backmarkers—nailed to the back of the grid throughout their time in F1—a golden opportunity to finally make a substantial leap up the competitive order.

    But most concerning was how the manufacturers conspired to leave Red Bull Racing dangling.

    Although both Mercedes and Ferrari initially displayed a willingness to join forces with Red Bull for 2016, their shared reluctance to reach an engine agreement, as reported by Sky Sports' Pete Gill and James Galloway, cast the four-time world champions' future in serious doubt.

    And while Red Bull arguably had themselves to blame for their shoddy treatment of Renault, and were eventually rescued by an innovative deal with TAG Heuer, that the leading manufacturers were able to usher a team of Red Bull's stature so close to the exit door was alarming and potentially very dangerous for F1.

    No competitor should be allowed to force another out of the sport, but the only way the beasts of Ferrari and Mercedes will be tamed is if Renault and Honda resolve their ongoing issues and put themselves in a position to offer adequate alternatives and more variety.

Positive: In-Season Development

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    The discovery of a loophole in the regulations by Ferrari technical director James Allison, as reported by Autosport's Jonathan Noble in January, remains the biggest moment of the V6 era to date.

    Having been prevented from making meaningful improvements to their power units throughout 2014, meaning the competitive order remained static all season long, the manufacturers were granted the freedom to develop across 2015 using the engine-token system.

    Honda and Renault proved unable to drag themselves completely out of trouble using the currency, with Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo telling Sky Sports' James Galloway and Mike Wise that the latter's B-specification unit, introduced at the Brazilian GP, was no better than the previous version despite the use of seven tokens.

    But the new system did offer a new dimension, and fascinating new tactics, to the fight at the front.

    Ferrari's incremental use of their tokens allowed the Prancing Horse to keep Mercedes, who preferred to spend theirs in a single, major upgrade at the Italian GP, honest for much of the season, although in-season development did bring with it some hazards.

    Was it a coincidence, after all, that Sebastian Vettel suffered an engine issue in qualifying in Canada, where Ferrari introduced their first round of in-season updates? Or that Mercedes, having seen Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg finish each of the first 11 grands prix, endured a run of three retirements in four races after the Monza upgrade?

    At times, it felt like manufacturers—due to the sheer complexity of the V6 technology—risked disrupting rather than furthering their progress when they made changes to their engines.

    After the make-do-with-what-you-have situation in 2014, though, self-improvement must be encouraged—even if there are slight hiccups along the way.

Negative: The Cost

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    The V6 power units may produce just as much power as the previous engines with a third less fuel, and their relevance to the wider world may appeal to major motoring manufacturers.

    But are they really worth—as estimated by the Independent's Christian Sylt—twice as much as the V8 units at £18 million?

    Take a look around the 2015 paddock and the answer soon becomes clear.

    Manor are the walking wounded, a shadow of the team who entered administration at the end of 2014 and without their lifelong friends at Caterham, who were unable to come through the other side.

    Despite claiming their best-ever constructors' championship finish with fifth place in 2015, Force India were unable to run their 2015-spec car until the last of three pre-season tests after deputy team principal Bob Fernley told Sky Sports' Pete Gill of "cash-flow issues."

    Sauber were unable to sustain their promising early-season form, ultimately finishing a distant ninth in the standings having been unable to keep up in the development race.

    And the Lotus employees—those poor, poor Lotus employees—were denied shelter from the teeming rain at Suzuka after being denied access to their hospitality unit.

    The troubles facing the traditional midfield teams were central to FIA president Jean Todt's plan to set a maximum price for customer engines, as noted by Sky Sports' Mark Hughes, before considering the introduction of a low-cost "alternative" engine for 2017.

    That particular idea was quickly shot down for what it was—nonsensical and unnecessarily complicated—but it's clear something needs to change.


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