The closeness of the relationship between Formula 1 and the automotive industry has ebbed and flowed over the years, but there has always been a clear connection. With car makers undergoing epochal changes to tackle the climate crisis through growing electrification, new technologies and the drive towards carbon-neutrality, F1 needs to follow or will lose its much-vaunted ‘road relevance’.
Four manufacturers supply F1’s engines, which are more correctly referred to as power units given they incorporate a 1.6-litre turbo V6 and an electric motor that’s powered by energy recovered from the front brakes and exhaust. However, Honda is on its way out at the end of 2021, citing its need to focus on achieving carbon-neutrality by 2050, leaving just Ferrari and Mercedes-AMG – F1’s two longest-serving manufacturer supporters – plus Renault.
With F1’s financial affairs now in better order, thanks to the imposition of a cost cap, a more equitable share of prize money among the 10 teams and chassis regulations changing dramatically next year, attention is increasingly turning to engine technology. The next-generation power unit is set to be introduced in 2025 and could easily have a lifespan of a decade or more, taking F1 into the mid-2030s. It and the drive for synthetic fuels are part of F1’s own objective of achieving a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030.
Ross Brawn – who was a key architect of Mercedes’ success in the 2010s and before that Ferrari’s technical director in the all-conquering Michael Schumacher era – is at the forefront of this process, as F1’s managing director of motorsport. The quality of the sporting product is his top priority, but he believes that can be served while offering the right technical and marketing playground for manufacturers.
“We want to achieve both aims, making sure we have an entertaining and competitive championship with integrity, but then offer an environment where we can make it a viable investment for these brands and companies to be involved in Formula 1 to enhance and lift the level,” is how Brawn sees balancing up these potentially competing challenges.
To achieve that, F1 is attempting to involve manufacturers more closely with the conception of the rules. It’s certainly a change of approach; F1 did try to do this under its previous ownership, but there has been a dramatic switch in the way things are done since US company Liberty Media took it over in 2016 – both in terms of reaching out to manufacturers and more actively following technological trends. The objective is that this can lead to a technological arena that works as a sport and, crucially, keeps spending under control.
“Until Liberty got involved, F1 was rather passive in this respect,” says Brawn. “Yet we have a huge part in this process, the teams have a huge part and the FIA [motorsport’s global governing body] has a huge part. We’ve been able to generate our own opinions and our own expertise on what we want to do. The best way forward comes from studying trends, studying technologies and learning from history.