In just a couple of days, Formula One will be entering a new era with virtually every team going into the Australian GP blind, with questions over reliability and performance of the engine that has undergone a dramatic change that could well dictate the course the sport will take in the immediate future.
The change in the engine specs is one of the few landmark new regulations, including the highly unpopular double-points final race, are obviously designed to inject an element of excitement that was missing, courtesy the domination of Vettel and Red Bull the past few seasons.
The changes in regulations were also justified on grounds of providing a “level playing field” and in a bid to narrow the gap between the front runners and the stragglers. I am not sure whether this argument has any validity considering that historically, Formula One has always been about rich teams scoring over and dominating those further down the pit-lane.
Whatever, after a quarter of century, the turbo makes its return, though in the form of a 1.6 litre V6 in marked contrast to the turbo-boosted monstrous engines that dished out over a 1,000 horses back in the 1980s. The new engine is a climb down from the 2.4 litre V8 of the season gone by with the rev limiter down to 15,000 from 18,000, but with Energy Recovery Systems (ERS) to harness and deploy energy generated by exhaust heat and while braking.
Though being compact and very complex, the new hybrid tubro engines are expected to be far more fuel efficient and hence the cars will be allowed a maximum load of 100 Kgs of fuel that itself will put a ceiling on the “unlimited boost”.
It would also make it mandatory for the drivers to fine-tune the art of not just tyre management but also the engine of which only five are allowed per car during the season. Further, the drivers will also have to understand and master the two types of ERS – the Motor Generator Unit - Kinetic (MGU-K) and the Motor Generator Unit – Heat.
The MGU-K is like the KERS that harnessed energy released during braking, but the new unit is more powerful and capable of releasing energy for 10 times longer per lap. The MGU-H is directly linked to the turbocharger, absorbing the power from the turbine shaft besides recovering heat energy from the exhaust gases.
As crucial is the ability of the engineers to ensure that the turbo-lag is cut to zero or at least as close to it, and this could impact the lap time as any lag will massively influence exit speeds through the corner.
Yet, for all the changes, no team is certain of what to expect in the opening few races this season. Red Bull and Vettel, for instance, seem to have plenty of issues going into Melbourne, and they are on record saying they do not expect to win the first race. The recent pre-season test sessions, at best, are indicative, but never quite definitive. The same can be said of the Melbourne outing.
The other critical aspect concerns the software. With the freeze on aero development for five seasons, the backend boys will be hard at work to tweak the software to enhance the engine performance. It is obvious then that as the season progresses, there will be constant work on the software and perhaps, we will see the best of the first season only late in the year.
Thus, the first race in Melbourne this Sunday will be more about judging who is where in relation to competition rather than whether Vettel and Red Bull will continue their dominance. Given the scenario, I doubt if the two will enjoy as successful a season as last year.
Ferrari and Williams are already being held up as potentially strong challengers to Red Bull, but these could be just that – speculation. However, I got to hear the sound of the Ferrari engine and also that of the Renault and the difference was fairly obvious. Ferrari, with its high-pitched scream sounded like a F1 car, while the Red Bull was more a deep-throated growl, much like an angry mongrel ready to challenge intrusion into its space.
The V8 engine, introduced in 2006, seemed to peak only towards the end of its seven-year tenure with Renault-powered Red Bull and Vettel enjoying a Schumacher-like dominance that reduced F1 to a yawn.
Going into the new season this weekend, a lot if merely theory and speculation, though the engines will be sounding different, and that is the only certainty. My gut feeling is that it will be Alonso’s year and in my book, he is the best driver on the grid, but suffered last year with a package that was nowhere close to the Red Bull.
Now, with new engines and regulations, the time is ripe for a new dawn for Ferrari and Alonso. If there is any truth in the reports emanating from Italy, then the Prancing Horse seems to be ahead of the field in terms of developing a winning engine. However, only when the European swing begins in May will the season hot up as by then, lessons would have been learnt from the four fly-away races.