I’ve been thinking about another decision reached yesterday by the World Motor Sport Council, namely equalising the engines from the top downwards, rather than from the bottom up, as was done last year.
This was graphically demonstrated at the last two Grands Prix, where the Toyota looked the worst but even the Renault was well short of the Mercedes. I’ve heard estimates of a 20-30hp advantage for Mercedes over Toyota.
The FIA says that “should the teams wish to eliminate this performance differential, they may be allowed to do so by reducing the performance of the more powerful engines. However, no engine upgrades will be allowed.”
Last year the weakest engines were the Renault and the Honda and they were told that they could bring their power levels up to the others, which Renault did. But this year two key factors are different.
First FOTA has well and truly made its mark on F1, through the breakaway threat, and the teams were effectively allowed to come up with their own rules package, following the meeting after Silverstone at which the breakaway and the budget cap were shelved.
So the FIA is tossing this issue back to FOTA and saying that its up to them to sort it out between them. As this issue is a possible fault line between FOTA members, it provides them with a test. The twist is that the best must lower its standards, which is not the F1 way, and it is asking a lot of Mercedes and Ferrari, both of whom are keen to get back to the front of the grid in 2010 with their works teams after an embarrassing season. They owe it to their fans and their sponsors to be competitive next season and voluntarily knocking 20hp – worth 2/10ths of a second at most tracks- makes that challenge greater, especially with the cars being so close on performance. FOTA wants unity and harmony between competitors, but the engine builders will not want to show their performance figures to their rivals, so it’s going to be a thorny one to resolve.
But the other factor which has changed since this time last year is the return of Cosworth, which will power the four new teams (or at least three of them depending on what USF1 decides to do). As the Cosworth is based on a 2006 design, and the FIA originally wanted it to be allowed to run at 20,000 revs, the feeling in the paddock is that the engine will be some way off the power of the best engine.
Every little helps and knocking 20-30hp off the Mercedes will help to reduce the gap to the back of the grid teams.
Cosworth insist that their engine is at least a match for the Renault and Toyota and maybe even the Ferrari, as managing director Tim Routsis told me that computer simulations show that the results of the races in the first half of the season would have been the same if the front runners had been using Cosworths, based on the performance figures they have.
We will see in the New Year, when the new teams hit the track alongside the existing teams. But the FIA will not want the new teams to be well off the pace, so the engine downgrade is very much in their interests too.