Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is F1 road car relevant? like Skinny jeans

Much talk about Formula 1 these days is about how to fix the sport for the future. Waning viewer numbers, fewer fans at races and a lack of sponsors all suggest that the series is having difficulties at the moment and yet if you listened to the cultural wave of hybrid delight and sustainability, you would think F1 is perfectly poised for success.

For many fans, the slide started with the 2014 spec V6 turbo hybrid engines and the FIA even considered a second spec engine that was cheaper for the 2017 season. The reason the new hybrid spec was brought in to F1 is that Mercedes and Renault were keen to have a format more closely matched with their mass production road car engines. A format that would be closer to their own road car efforts in which to make F1 a more attractive reason to participate.

That makes sense if you are a manufacturer. Get the series to move toward a sustainability message and technological format and then you'll get people/companies writing checks to participate in the sport. The opportunity to rapid prototype technology in the crucible of F1 is also a very appealing element of F1 for manufacturers and engineers.

When you consider the future of road cars, you read a lot of predictions that a small ICE component coupled with batteries for power and harvesting is the way forward. I'm no road car engineer but I am a consumer and while I do see smaller ICE components and turbo boost to make them torquey, I am not sure when the predicted wave of hybrid and all-electric car buying is supposed to begin. Right now, it's in the single digits among car sales.

An "industry" needs an angle and it is much like trying to repackage a product or create a new one on the wave of a cultural movement. I tend to think that hybrid electrics cars are like skinny jeans; trendy, popular right now and craftily targeted to certain demographics that manufacturers are trying to energize with this new wave of excitement. How to translate ideological cultural mores into dollars. Appeal to social responsibility and you may just find you can get marketing and investment cash much easier than you can if you were peddling V8 normal combustion engines or baggy jeans made from fossil fuels.

Fair enough but that isn't the trend in car buying right now. To suggest that road cars only need 200bhp and a small ICE with lots of electrics, batteries and energy recovery systems to putter around town is missing large and vast segments of the market. Regardless, that is the movement that is supporting F1 as we speak.

Road car engineers aren't lost

Safety Car 2010 C 588

One of the recurring narratives I hear from fans—not necessarily F1 engineers—is that F1 is the hub of car innovation and without them, road car engineers wouldn't have as many cool technology pieces for their road cars such as paddle shifters and other F1-based tech that has trickled down. There is some cross-pollination but to slather road car engineers as incompetent if not for F1 is really nonsense.

Mercedes' SLS AMG Electric Drive road car was instrumental in helping their HPP group—the folks who build the F1 car—refine their understanding on how to work with large batteries. The innovation was working in reverse and that's no surprise when you consider that consumer technology has been leading commercial application for over five years now.

Mercedes isn't sitting around a garage in Germany waiting for the boffins in F1 to teach them how to innovate something new, the company has a massive effort in two-way communication capitalizing on the breadth of their engineering power to keep a consistent flow of innovation back and forth. They have engaged F1 as a rapid prototype series and crucible for road car engineers to work with F1 engineers to prove out technologies. I would venture to guess that the innovation flow is in favor of the road car division which is kept completely separate from their racing division.

For Porsche, their LMP1 racing division is completely integrated into their road car division as part of their technology transfer while using test benches and resources of the street car development department. For Porsche, and one would presume Ferrari, the relationship between racing and road car divisions are much closer as the 911 GT and Ferrari 458 are high performance road cars with racing as their DNA. No wonder then that the transfer of innovation is as much road car division derived as it is racing division.

Technology, not marketing

Renaultf1 engine1

One of the hold-out weapon arguments of the current form of racing, be it Formula 1 or Le Mans, is really what compels manufacturers to be involved in the series. Corporate involvement will be approved in the boardroom as long as there is a set of regulations that clearly define a road map for technological innovation. Technology and the creation or improvement of technology in a product has become a bigger driver than the old days of simple marketing or "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" types of approaches.

Very few manufacturers would spend $300-$400 million on a program that was simply a marketing effort which makes Red Bull quite the standout in a sea of reasoned road car innovation efforts. One need only consider Honda's return to F1 as an example.

Why Honda came back to F1

McLaren Honda USGP

Honda says that technology was definitely a big part of their decision to return to F1. The knowledge gained from it's hybrid format will trickle down to their road cars in the future. They are keen to lean more about combustion, high-pressure direct injection systems, turbocharger efficiency, fuel and lubricant technology as well as hybrid battery, power electronics and heat regeneration.

For Honda, the road car division already has a firm grasp on turbo combustion and direct injection technologies but where it may gain headway and insight is in the heat regeneration area and a key attraction of F1 is how quickly the concept of heat regeneration has come to reality.

Once again, F1 isn't always teaching road car engineers how to do their job so much as identifying a regulatory framework and rapidly testing those innovations in what would otherwise take years in the road car divisions. This, then, is F1's appeal.

One might argue that if Toyota and BMW are making serious advancements in hydrogen engines, then perhaps the next wave of F1 regulatory parameters could be hydrogen technologies and other key regenerative systems to innovate with.

Not all who wander are lost

Arrivebene Ferrari team monza 2015

The key here is that not all of F1's technology trickles down to road cars. That simply doesn't happen. It does help manufacturers find ways forward through innovative technology and sets direction for them by informing them in which ways the automotive world is heading. Again, looking for the technological and cultural wave to ride.

The key here is that the FIA's regulatory change to hybrid turbo V6's was specifically in the wheelhouse of manufacturers such as Mercedes. For Mercedes, the innovation paths are more closely aligned than ever thanks to the regulatory framework and the crucible of F1 and competition is the motivation for serious innovation and rapid prototyping that simply isn't in the road car division at that level. The speed in which an idea can be developed and the risk involved is much higher in F1 than the automotive world.

Heat

F1 car engine renault 600

The direct relevance for road cars could be the thermal efficiency that F1 cars experience. Manufacturers are all shooting for 40% thermal efficiency and this can be directly translated to road cars. On one hand, you could argue they may have done that with the old V8's but coupling the thermal efficiency with regenerative properties from MGU-H systems and KERS adds to a complete ecosystem and it could be argued which division, racing or road, innovated what? Then again, that's the current appeal to F1 for manufacturers because the two divisions working together is a real plus for Mercedes although Ferrari and Porsche have, perhaps, always had that luxury.

Also-rans

Force India Garage

The challenge then becomes the other teams who are not aligned with a manufacturer. What is the appeal of F1 for them given it has completely capitalized on its appeal to the manufacturers? Where can Force India, Williams F1, Red Bull and Sauber gain from their involvement if they are also not getting a larger portion of prize money? Remember, sponsors aren't flocking to the series like they used to and the reason the series is viable is through race hosting fees, TV broadcast rights fees and advertising which comprises of the prize money that these non-manufacturer works teams rely on but get less of.

What compels them to participate in a sport that is catering to manufacturers and becoming more and more expensive with the technology evolution and changing regulatory format that champions technology on the leading edge of capital investment and R&D? Is it any wonder the engine supply contracts tripled? There is that fickle factor to consider when heavily weighting your series to manufacturers who can come and go with little notice leaving big voids in the series.

Does this or will this eventually mean that the non-works teams will need to be a second format or a two-spec series in the future? That is exactly what the FIA and Formula 1 were implying with their announcement that unless engine supply costs didn't reduce, they would offer a tender for a second spec engine that is cheaper.

Follow the money

Money Bag 600

The fact is, free money isn't around anymore. Tobacco money isn't propping up the series and unfortunately the technology industry isn't filling the void so you have to hand it to F1 for capitalizing on it's main appeal of innovation and rapid prototyping for manufacturers.

If tomorrow, the world ditched the cultural wave of hybrids, sustainability and skinny jeans and went to V12's and acid-wash relaxed fit jeans, then perhaps F1's appeal might change and a new regulatory direction would be created. The point is, follow the money and that's exactly what F1 is doing. Meanwhile, I'll be over here in my 501's (which I've worn for decades) watching the ebb and flow of innovation, money and cultural mores.

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