Tomorrow, February 28th, is the deadline for the new hybrid turbo F1 power units to be homologated. This means that the engine makers, Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault have to send the FIA a sample engine and the specification of this engine and Energy Recovery System is then fixed for the season.
It is clear from the testing so far that Mercedes and Ferrari are in a position to do this, but Renault has been playing catch up after suffering a range of problems with the energy storage side of its power unit.
So what will happen next? Will Renault be allowed to make changes to its power unit after the homologation deadline and how does the process work?
How homologation works
On Friday February 28th the engine manufacturers have to place a sample power unit, comprising an engine, battery, motor generator units, in a box together with a disc containing all the drawings of the power unit components. This is then sealed by the FIA and taken away. At any stage of the season they can take out the unit and the drawings and request any engine from the race pool of any team and compare it with what is in the box.
If they don’t match then there are severe penalties.
What happens if there is a problem with the power unit at the time of homologation?
If a manufacturer has a reliability problem, he can apply to the FIA to make some changes. This can also be done on cost grounds, to avoid a situation where a greedy supplier starts charging double for a component, knowing that it’s part of what is sealed in the FIA box.
If there is a reliability issue, the manufacturer writes to the FIA highlighting the problem and specifying the fix it would like to carry out. It has to prove that this fix does not enhance the performance. The FIA considers it and if satisfied, writes to the other manufacturers requesting their permission for the change. The other manufacturers have five days to reply.
It’s likely with such a complex new technology that all three manufacturers will take the opportunity to apply for reliability fixes, even the ones that are covering thousands of kilometres at the moment.
If one of the power trains is performing significantly worse than the others, can the manufacturrer apply for a performance upgrade?
Not in principle. However if that situation arises it is clearly not in the interests of the sport so some common sense needs to be applied. The rule makers looked at this and pre-empted it in some ways; they decided that all manufacturers should be allowed to make a small number of performance upgrades after one year, so the engines will be re-homologated this time next year. And in 2016 there will be a smaller list of areas where they can make further performance steps.
The spirit of this rule (rather like any innovation in chassis design a team introduces which others cannot copy) is that if one manufacturer has the edge he should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of his hard work for a season, but then the others will be allowed to close up next season. But if there is one manufacturer lagging behind, then what happens?
The question then arises, could a powerful lobby, for example comprising Renault powered teams, persuade the FIA to let them make performance steps DURING this season in the interests of the sport, if they were behind?
There are precedents for this. In 2008/9 Renault and Honda both applied for such a dispensation. The V8 engines had been introduced a grew years earlier and Renault won the 2006 world championship with Fernando Alonso, but for 2007 the rev limit was dropped to 19,000rpm and Renault and Honda became less competitive. In 2008 a further drop to 18,000rpm and a new rule saying that for 2009, in addition to introducing KERS, drivers could each have a maximum of 8 engines per season meant that they were both down on power.
Honda pulled out of F1, but Renault got its dispensation and was allowed to make some performance changes.
This week in the final Bahrain test we will see how Renault is doing at fixing its problems and we will get a better idea of how its performance compares with Mercedes and Ferrari when the engine runs at full power.
And we’ll see where we go from there…