However, the complexity of these powertrains is on a new level for a sport that was always pretty complicated, and the development costs have been eye-watering. To make matters worse, the results have been pretty lopsided. Mercedes-AMG did a better job than anyone else right out of the gate and has been the class of the field ever since. Of the 132 races held since the new regulations started in 2014, it has won 98 of them.
Meanwhile, the other engine manufacturers have tried to catch up. Ferrari made some impressive power gains in 2019 before giving them all up again in a still-secret settlement with the sport over alleged cheating. Renault was candid about underestimating its rivals and acrimoniously fell out with Red Bull Racing. Honda entered the sport in 2015, a year earlier than it had planned but a year after the other three OEMs. It has played catchup ever since, although so far, it’s the only other OEM to rack up any wins in 2020 (one each for Red Bull and Alpha Tauri).
The next five years?
F1 has been working itself into a state about future engine rules for some time now. A burgeoning global financial crisis and then the arrival of COVID-19 have been the most recent spanners in the works, leading at long last to cost caps and big restrictions on engine development for the next few seasons until a new, yet-to-be-decided powertrain arrives in 2026. This should keep costs down, but it also locks in the inequality of performance between the different makes.
Each OEM is allowed a single upgrade to its V6, turbocharger, and MGU-K in 2021, and then again in 2022 and 2023. It’s even more restrictive for the MGU-K, control electronics, and the hybrid battery—these can have a single upgrade between 2020 and the end of 2021, and then a single upgrade between 2022-2023. After that, the specification of all these components are frozen until the end of 2025.
Red Bull’s ultimatum
Red Bull needs engines for its two teams, and it needs them soon—by next month, in fact, if it’s to design 2022’s cars around them.
Mercedes has ruled out adding Red Bull as a customer, citing a lack of bandwidth; it currently supplies powertrains to the Williams and Racing Point teams as well as its own, and next year adds McLaren to the roster as well. A Red Bull return to Renault power seems unlikely given the acrimonious split between the two in 2018, but either Renault or Ferrari would be considered if its preferred option doesn’t pan out.
That preferred option would be to stick with the Honda powertrains it currently has, assuming it can maintain and assemble them. But Marko says Red Bull is only prepared to do that if there is a total freeze on powertrain development from 2021 until 2025. Simply put, the costs of developing new iterations of these powertrains is beyond the reaches of all but major OEMs.
But a complete freeze on powertrain development would require unanimous consent from the remaining three OEMs, and that is currently lacking. Mercedes is OK with the idea, which is unsurprising given its utter dominance. Renault says it will sign off, but only on the condition that the different powertrains are brought into parity before being locked. And Ferrari says absolutely not. Which seems to bring us to an impasse—and back to Marko’s ultimatum.