Alain Prost was on hand in Abu Dhabi this weekend as Renault Sport upped the noise about 2014 engines with a briefing for selected media.
Prost was on good form, providing insight into the driving techniques necessary to do well with the new small capacity hybrid turbo engines coming in next year. His message was clear, it will be intelligent and adaptable drivers who will thrive, by being open to changing their driving style and working hard behind the scenes to learn how to get more from the powertrain.
“It has always been the case (that F1 drivers need to be intelligent to succeed)” said Prost. “But when you have a new technology like this one you have to work on it. You have to be more involved. Driving style could well have a big influence. So you have to adapt to that; it’s not going to be easy. If you do not understand, then you will struggle.”
The powertrains will have far more modes than today, variables in power, torque, fuel saving and how the driver makes use of these will have a bearing on strategy as well as performance.
One major difference is that whereas today a car will be able to reach the finish of the race if the KERS stops working, with a loss of performance of around 0.4s per lap, next year a failure of the hybrid system will probably spell retirement and even if a “nurse it home” mode works, it will lead to significant drop in performance as the hybrid system injects around 160bhp of the 760bhp total.
As this is a fairly immature technology, reliability is going to be a challenge. Engineers suggest that the engines themselves should be fairly reliable, but getting the hybrid units and the batteries to last for four races will be hard to achieve in the first year. So it could re-introduce the variable into the championship of drivers having a few non-scoring weekends in their title challenge.
The powertrain harvests energy from two sources; heat energy from the turbo and kinetic energy from braking. It stores them as electricity in two separate motor generator units, which release the energy back into the system. The last time F1 engines had turbos, in Prost’s day, the delay on power delivery when the driver applied the throttle (known as turbo lag) could be measured in seconds.
With the 2014 engines, to avoid this, some of the energy harvested from the turbo will be reintroduced electronically to spin the turbo up instantly when the driver applies throttle exiting a corner and this will mean no turbo lag.
Prost gave the example of his McLaren Honda team mate Ayrton Senna, who famously devised his own technique for eliminating turbo lag, by pumping the throttle on and off very quickly under braking before accelerating from the corner, so he would have full power on corner exit.
There is no need for that with the new engines, as the system will take care of that itself. Getting a good efficient system for this is clearly going to be a hugely important area for the engine makers to get right. As explained by JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan in a previous article, the most common type of corner in F1 is the sub 130km/h corner and getting the car optimised for traction out of those corners is one of the reasons why Red Bull and to a lesser extent Mercedes have thrived, while Ferrari has struggled this year.
With no exhaust blown diffusers allowed next year, the system to avoid turbo lag will be key. There is no question of traction control being allowed with these systems.
“It is very interesting technically. It is going to be controlled by electronics, but it still depends on how the driver is going to use it and how he will use the throttle,” said Prost.
“You can imagine how drivers will develop their style during the winter testing. We will be able to see quite a difference between the styles (of driving)”
Prost won many races in the turbo era of the 1980s by conserving fuel and tyres and then pushing through to the front in the closing stages of races, a methodical approach which earned him the nickname “The Professor”. He believes we could well see drivers replicating that next year. Only 100 kilos of fuel will be allowed, compared to 150kg today.
No driver aids are allowed, so the driver will still be in charge of commanding the amount of torque the engine delivers.
Key points of 2014 powertrains
The powertrain will be allowed to harvest 2 mega joules of energy, five times as much as currently.
The hybrid system will be able to release 10 times the energy of today back into the engine.
Without factoring in changes in tyres, the cars will be around 1.5 seconds per lap slower
The cars will have less drag, which will help maintain high speeds and improve fuel consumption.
Powertrains will have to be more reliable than today. Assuming a 20 race calendar (the current working one does not have New Jersey or Mexico on it) each engine will have to last for 4 Grands Prix.