There was a lot of discussion about the subject of the engine freeze over the Sochi race weekend, with Mercedes now looking likely to block moves, led by Ferrari’s Marco Mattiacci, to allow an ‘unfreeze’ period during the 2015 season for everyone to do some development. However as the decision at this stage to implement an ‘unfreeze’ window for 2016 requires only a majority vote on the forthcoming F1 Commission meeting, that does look a realistic proposition.
So will this mean Mercedes enjoys another dominant year? It is looking that way.
Mercedes finished 1-2-3-4-5 in both qualifying and the race in Sochi and this has not been an isolated episode, as the Mercedes-powered cars have taken most of the spoils this year. Ferrari hasn’t had a top three qualifying result all season and Fernando Alonso has just two podiums to show for the year. He has slipped to 6th in the drivers championship, while Valtteri Bottas the Williams driver powered by Mercedes, is now 4th in the standings behind the two Mercedes drivers and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo. Williams are comfortably third ahead of Ferrari, with all four Mercedes teams in the Top six of the constructors’ table.
There has been plenty of to-ing and fro-ing on engine freezes in recent months in the F1 Strategy Group, with Christian Horner breaking the omertà of the F1 Strategy Group by revealing details of discussion points; in a Singapore meeting they had had a unanimous vote to introduce one ‘unfreeze’ window on 2015, but that Mercedes had changed its stance at the Sochi meeting. Mercedes argues that the Singapore meeting was an informal discussion on the topic and in principle they were interested, but when the vote came in Sochi, at which the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone voted in favour of the unfreeze, there were details which were not acceptable to Mercedes, such as that the updates in the ‘unfreeze’ window had to be made simultaneously available to all teams and with no additional costs passed on to customers. Mercedes will supply eight cars in 2015, Honda just two.
Now the indications are that Mercedes and its three customer teams will vote against it in the next F1 Commission meeting and that will mean it will not pass for 2015 as unanimity is needed to get something through for next year. But everyone accepts that it will be adopted for 2016 at that same F1 commission meeting.
Why allow an ‘unfreeze’?
Those who favour the unfreeze point to F1 as a pinnacle of innovation and technology in motorsport and say that this does not align with the concept of freezing technology. But it has been F1’s policy for some time in the interest of saving costs, along with restricting the number of engines. These were moves initially proposed by former Jaguar team principal Tony Purnell diubg the Mosley era of the FIA. The V8 engines were frozen after a certain point.
What is unsaid, is that the engine manufacturers have been free to develop flat out in parallel with their 2014 programmes to the extent that the units which will be homologated and used from February 2015 onwards will be quite different from the ones in action currently. Many of Mercedes’ rivals have learned about engine architecture, position of turbos, dimensions of exhaust pipes and such like and will have been working on their 2015 units accordingly. No doubt all will have made gains, but it was interesting to note that recently Red Bull’s Helmut Marko said that the “definitive” Renault engine would not be available to them until July 2015, indicating that they are running late.
As a newcomer to the sport, albeit one who represents its most powerful team, Mattiacci has been working hard to get an early ‘win’ on this unfreeze topic, looking to level the playing field a little and he thought he was making progress.
It is noticeable that the volume has been turned up on this debate since rumours began to emerge that Mercedes’ power unit upgrade for 2015 is a significant one, so it looks possible that next season could be as Mercedes-dominated as this year has been.
The new constructors’ champions have an advantage that they are not keen to lose in a hurry, but Mercedes boss Toto Wolff also points out that once rules are made, the sport should avoid changing them at the last minute as this incurs extra costs, which most of the customer teams in F1 are not in a position to pay.
Wolff: Short term changes = cost increases
“Who invented this governance process must have given it a thought, and the reasoning is you don’t want to have regulations changing three months before the start of the season,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff at the weekend.
“That translates into escalating costs, out of control costs, and this is why there is a process in place and that it needs to be unanimous after a certain date. For the following year (2016) you need a majority vote and you can decide on technical and sporting regulations based on a majority.
“The earlier the decisions are being made, the better you can prepare and the less you spend. We all have the responsibility to look at costs.”
When the hybrid turbo rules were being drawn up all parties discussed what would happen if one manufacturer got a giant leap and it was agreed by all teams and manufacturers that this would not be in the best interest of the sport. The outcome was the rule we have whereby development is permitted on selected areas of the Power Units at the end of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, then the engines will be locked. In retrospect this was not enough.
The customer question
Next season Mercedes will continue to have three customers as well as the works team; Force India, Lotus and Williams. Renault meanwhile will have only the two Red Bull backed teams plus Caterham if it survives. As the Red Bull is a ‘works’ deal, there is no financial revenue, so they have just one – maybe two – teams paying the $20 million per season, compared to the three sets of revenue for Mercedes. Ferrari has Sauber and Marussia paying them, neither of which is in robust financial shape.
Horner’s Red Bull team won four straight world championships with dominant years in 2011 and 2013, but the ban on various aspects of the exhaust blown diffusers on which those championships were largely won, were sudden and did knock the team back along the way. But they still bounced back to win each time, as Mercedes probably would from an ‘unfreeze’, simply because they do a better job with this technology than the others. The chassis also plays a part, of course.
After Sunday’s race Horner said that the unfreeze is ‘important’ for the sport.
“We saw today Nico’s performance – the true performance is that they can drive through the field, and I think it’s too out of kilter, five Mercedes-powered cars in the top five. The immaturity of this technology is still quite raw, and I think Mercedes shouldn’t be afraid of competition. They are doing a super job but I think it’s healthy for F1 that Ferrari, Honda, Renault should have that ability to close that gap, otherwise we’re going to end up in a very stagnant position.
“I think it’s a bigger issue than just about the teams. It’s about what’s right for the sport, what’s right for the fans. It’s easy to take a self-interest position, but when you look at what is the right thing for F1, I think it’s to have competition. The rules are the rules, which they are at the moment, but I think we need to be big enough to say let’s open a little bit, be responsible on costs so there is no impact for the customer teams, but have that position.”
“You’ve got until February (to develop the 2015 engines), and then you’re locked down again. So it’s a very, very small window in order to achieve that. There was an agreement in Singapore, everybody voted unanimously to have one further step in the season, but that seems to have been reneged on.”
What do you think? Should F1 have found a way to introduce an ‘unfreeze’ window for 2015? Leave your comments below