December 11, 2023

here’s what lies behind the 2026 power unit war


We can call it an underground war. On the surface, only the bickering between Christian Horner and Toto Wolff has emerged, but the game is quite complex and, above all, far from defined.

The FIA approved the 2026 power unit regulation last year, so there should be no major doubts about the engines to be adopted in three years. However, beyond the facade statements to avoid destabilizing the system, there is strong dissatisfaction among the constructors: Mercedes, Ferrari, Alpine, Honda, Red Bull Powertrains, and Audi are working on the single-cylinders to define the turbocharged V6 that will give life to the new internal combustion engine. Still, there are serious, very serious doubts about the definition of the electrical part that should provide 50% of the energy needed to reach a combined power of about a thousand horsepower, like the units in use today.

And this is where the problem lies because, to please Audi (and Porsche, which then backed out), concessions were made to the Germans, who are now putting everyone in serious difficulty. The 50% of electrical energy to produce about 500 horsepower (without the banned MGU-H to convince the four rings) is proving to be a very complex exercise, to the point that we hear about very large batteries and fuel that will have to be burned to generate current.

Christian Horner, CEO of Red Bull Powertrains, was the first to lift the lid, hinting that from 2026 we could see drivers performing strange maneuvers on the straight to favor battery charging: “The new cars risk being like Frankenstein: drivers will be forced to slow down on the straight and even shift gears to recharge the batteries.”

And Toto Wolff, sarcastically, replied, “It won’t happen. Do you think it’s possible that, for the level of innovation reached in this sport, the constructors won’t know how to build power units capable of producing energy without the drivers having to brake on the straight? The truth is, they have problems with their engine and hope to change the rules midway, which have already been decided.”

Initially, it seemed like the usual squabble between the two, which always pops up in the paddock. However, digging deeper, it emerges that there is some truth in both their words. The F1 Commission scheduled for July 31, after the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, will have to address this thorny issue, and it’s not easy to predict the outcome of the discussion.

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The idea of seeing cars that could further increase their weight by about 30-40 kilograms is frightening since the current limit of 798 kg is already considered quite high, and going beyond it could pose safety issues, especially to accommodate much larger batteries under the driver’s seat.

Thus, a compromise solution could be found to save both sides: reducing the percentage of electrical power to be delivered by the hybrid system to allow for smaller batteries and a weight reduction that brings the cars closer to the values of the 2023 single-seaters. Of course, those who are more advanced in the development of the 2026 engines might not be thrilled, but in the end, a compromise solution could also work for the FIA. The commission headed by Nikolas Tombazis is aware that it might be necessary to take a step back, but it is not yet clear to what extent the endothermic-electric ratio will be shifted.

It’s clear that reaching the fateful thousand horsepower will require some enhancements to the V6 as well, so it’s easy to predict a fierce battle on this front. Additionally, there is also the issue of fuels: as we know, the 2026 power units will be powered by zero-impact environmental petrol. Initially, it seemed that Aramco would become the sole supplier of e-fuel, while Stefano Domenicali, in an exclusive interview with the Italian version of Motorsport conducted by Italian journalist Robert Chinchero, clearly stated, “… we decided to leave the field open not to hinder the technological relationships that have linked teams and engine manufacturers to companies in the sector for many years. We introduced a single supplier in F.2 and F.3 because it aligns with the philosophy of those categories, but Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, a technological testing ground where this type of research must also be present, a useful and preparatory challenge for the major mobility challenges.”

“Our task will be to define a development window within which fuel producers can operate; we cannot leave the field entirely open, otherwise we risk unbalancing the values in play. But, I repeat, this will be a very important game, as companies are understanding that the Formula 1 program can potentially give them the opportunity to patent new technologies.”

In addition to e-fuel, there is also biofuel, two green fuels with very different chemical characteristics and calorific and, therefore, performance properties that are hard to compare. Some manufacturers are pushing in one direction, while others are going in the opposite direction. The reason is simple: there are significant government funding and incentives driving research, and Formula 1, of course, can become an extraordinary testing ground, especially due to its unparalleled visibility compared to any other platform. Petronas (Mercedes) is pushing towards biofuel because the British Government is investing in this area, while Aramco and Exxon Mobil are betting on e-fuel, and the role of Shell is not yet clear.

The risk is to end up studying a Balance of Performance (BoP) for the fuels, which is essential to balance the differences between the two fuels. This would be something far from the DNA of Formula 1, as the pinnacle of motorsport abhors corrective measures. To avoid a “holy war” breaking out over which fuel is more “green,” another compromise solution is on the horizon: defining a single fuel with a 70% e-fuel content and the remaining 30% biofuel (the values, of course, are indicative and will be subject to extensive discussions).

But a compromise would be welcomed by all parties: it would avoid the dreaded BoP and, most importantly, F1 (the oil companies) would not lose access to the funds allocated for research. In short, it would be the power of the dollar that drives towards a shareable solution, if not a shared one…

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