Think of the following: A modern Formula 1 car consists of nearly 80.000 components. Its power unit – the most sophisticated part – consists of around 5.000 components and its complex electronics require more than one kilometre of cables that are linked to about 100 sensors and actuators which monitor and control the vehicle constantly. These parts and the cars are forever changing so that you never see the same vehicle from one race to another. Do you think this is a bit over the top? Take a deep breath. That’s just the tiny collection of stuff that actually made it on track. Formula 1 has always been as much about rejecting ideas as it is about finding them.
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An armada of highly skilled engineers and craftsmen at the very top of their game work around the clock designing, building, testing, and sometimes binning an eye-watering amount of unused technology and parts that never make it on the car but would probably still cause any small-sized race team to turn green from envy. Formula 1‘s top spenders test one new part every seventeen minutes in their 24-hour wind tunnel shifts. That’s 85 parts a day!
It’s a level of productivity and innovation that’s hard to imagine. And it’s hard to control. Einstein taught us that real human ingenuity is to be able to foresee the wider effects of an ingenious invention long before the genius does. Same applies to Formula 1’s relentless innovators as Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone have had to experience on countless occasions. By the time the FIA has established a new rule framework, the teams have already invented its exemption. These issues are not unique to Formula 1. But the sport serves once again as a prime example for the problems of modern mobility with all its complexities and problems. Much as policymakers have underestimated the capacity of one of the most advanced car manufacturers to develop means that effectively undergo their control systems, Formula 1 has always struggled to establish a rule book that would serve for more than one season before the engineers come up with new inventions that require adaptations or before the negative consequences of such rules eventually come to light.
Formula 1 has always struggled to establish a rule book that would serve for more than one season before the engineers come up with new inventions that require adaptations or before the negative consequences of such rules eventually come to light.
The introduction of efficient hybrid turbo engines was a forward-thinking, radical and progressive approach. It may not have been a popular one, but there is no doubt that in today’s conditions it makes a lot of sense to use the power of Formula 1 and its development speed in order to design mobility systems that are suitable for the street. Giving the manufacturers an opportunity to come up with promising drive systems has proven to be the right step, not just in Formula 1, but also in the WEC. However, unlike the Le Mans prototype class, Formula 1’s future is dependant on a grid that consists of a mixture of manufacturer-backed teams as well as independent ones. This has always been the case and always will be – unless spectators are happy to see a homogenous field of near-identical cars built by the same three manufacturers, and those manufacturers see the need to enter more than two cars at the associated cost.
In making way for more sustainable, but also more complex technological solutions, the governing bodies failed to take a look at the predictable consequences: the rise of power of those who can afford to throw money at such tasks and benefit from the solutions, and their unwillingness to offer such solutions to others at a reasonable price. The consequence is an even bigger power gap between the top teams and the independent teams. A mistake which Jean Todt admitted. Some players, such as Christian Horner, are now suggesting an independent engine manufacturer, but whoever he has in mind could never provide anything near as competitive as the hybrid engines by Mercedes or Ferrari. Honda’s and Renault’s struggles show how difficult it is to build something of equal performance even if you have the appropriate spending power. How would an independent manufacturer be able to keep up and offer its solution at an affordable price tag? A standard power unit, on the other hand, would mean the end of innovation and development – at the expense of those who have already invested in it and who need it in order to justify their continued commitment to Formula 1.
It’s catch 22. Again.