Back in the day, Formula 1 teams would chew through engines like candy. BMW would somehow extract 1600 horsepower from a 1.6-litre four-cylinder, run it for three laps in qualifying, and then pull the motor out, throw it away, and install a (slightly) less high-strung motor for the race. Life was beautiful.
Unfortunately, life was also ludicrously expensive. Formula 1 teams can’t afford to be burning through three blocks a weekend, particularly now that these blocks aren’t coming out of high-mileage lease return 318is. Rules were put in place to limit the number of power-unit components each team uses, both to control costs and to encourage teams to develop technologies that are more applicable to road use. Rules and Formula 1 always combine to create byzantine complexity, so the system is a lot more arcane than you might think.
A Formula 1 power unit is split into six components: the internal combustion engine (ICE), which you’ll recognize from your own car; the turbocharger; the Motor Generation Unit-Kinetic (MGU-K), which as the name suggests recovers kinetic energy as the car goes around the track; the Motor Generation Unit-Heat (MGU-H), which scavenges wasted heat from the engine to produce a certain amount of energy; an Energy Store (ES), usually just a fancy battery; and the Control Electronics (CE), the electronic systems that control the whole shebang. For those six components, each driver is allowed to use four examples per championship season. Go over and you incur a grid penalty. When Fernando Alonso wore through his fourth engine of the season and had to plop in the fifth, he incurred a ten-place grid penalty, for example.
This whole dynamic is important because, as we near the end of the season, every place on the grid becomes more and more important, and every power unit component the teams use accumulates more and more miles. As teams run up against the upper limit of their allowance, they can either replace aging parts and accept a grid penalty, or try to stretch those parts to the end of their service lives and beyond. Both strategies are risky.
Who’s sitting where at this late stage? Here’s a state of the engine union and props for how the rest of the 2017 F1 season will play out.
Lewis Hamilton ICE: 4 TC: 4 MGU-H: 4 MGU-K: 3 ES: 3 CE: 3
Valtteri Bottas: ICE: 4 TC: 4 MGU-H: 4 MGU-K: 3 ES: 3 CE: 3
Both Mercedes drivers are down to their last major power-unit elements with more than a quarter of the season remaining. This might strike you as aggressive, and appear as though the Silver Arrows are running through their engines at an unsustainable rate for a Constructor’s Championship contender, but of course there’s a strategy behind it all.
Mercedes introduced their fourth engine early in order to avoid being subject to the new oil-consumption requirements introduced after the Italian Grand Prix. For the rest of the season, all Mercedes engines will be allowed to burn 1.2 litres of oil per 100 kilometers instead of 0.9. Burning oil allows teams to run more aggressive engine configurations and make more power than they are otherwise capable of. That makes a huge difference for the oil-hungry, high-strung turbocharged engines that are the rule in Formula 1, and is the central benefit of having a strong early spec engine.
Teams with remaining engine issues to work out will have to wait until their new specification engines are developed to introduce them, and will thus have to work around more stringent oil-consumption requirements, likely compounding their problems. Unless Mercedes’s competitors can work out something seriously impressive to overcome their disadvantage in oil consumption allowance, Mercedes will continue to enjoy the powertrain advantage they’ve held since the beginning of the turbo era.
- Odds a Mercedes driver takes a grid penalty to replace power unit components during 2017 season: 4/1
- Odds Lewis Hamilton either takes a grid penalty or suffers an engine failure before the end of the season: 6/1
Daniel Ricciardo: ICE: 5 TC: 5 MGU-H: 6 MGU-K: 3 ES: 3 CE: 3
Max Verstappen: ICE: 5 TC: 5 MGU-H: 5 MGU-K: 3 ES: 3 CE: 3
Both Red Bull drivers are running Renault power units and have already exceeded their allowance of critical power-unit components. Ricciardo took on a 25-place grid penalty at Monza (and Verstappen a 15-place penalty) to replace a series of components, because they weren’t likely to be competitive on the low-downforce, idiosyncratic track, and they liked their chances in Singapore. The strategy paid off, at least for the Australian Ricciardo, who managed a second-place behind an imperious Lewis Hamilton. As Red Bull is largely, if not entirely, out of the race for the Driver’s and Constructors Championship, expect them to accept more grid penalties at tracks they don’t like or don’t qualify well at, and target tracks they do like with fresh equipment.
- Odds a Red Bull driver takes another grid penalty to replace power-unit components during 2017 season: 2/3
- Odds Daniel Ricciardo either takes another grid penalty or suffers an engine failure before the end of the season: 3/2
Sebastian Vettel: ICE: 3 TC: 4 MGU-H: 3 MGU-K: 3 ES: 3 CE: 4
Kimi Raikkonen: ICE: 3 TC: 4 MGU-H: 4 MGU-K: 3 ES: 3 CE: 3
Ferrari powers three teams, and not one of the drivers in Ferrari-powered cars has exceeded his allowance of power-unit components. Sebastian Vettel came pretty close to destroying his third internal combustion engine in his crash at Singapore, and it certainly didn’t look healthy dumping fluid all around the track, but Ferrari have apparently deemed the unit in question suitable for further use.
It was surprising Ferrari did not make use of the fourth engine before their home grand prix, as the current specification motor hasn’t exactly been down on power, and now all future engines will have to abide by the more stringent oil-consumption standard. The Maranello factory must have something seriously impressive in mind for their fourth engine if they believe they’ll be more successful with less oil consumption. As it stands, however, they’re at a slight disadvantage to Mercedes.
The advantage they do have is in keeping that fourth power unit very fresh. They’ve not even begun to run in their fourth ICE, and while the oil-consumption issue is a problem, few things beat low miles when it comes to reliability.
- Odds a Ferrari driver takes a grid penalty to replace power-unit components during 2017 season: 3/1
- Odds Sebastian Vettel either takes a grid penalty or suffers an engine failure before the end of the season: 5/1