Previous Columns

The Way It Is/ An inside look at Renault and Ferrari's fierce battle for supremacy in F1

by Gordon Kirby

This year has witnessed a tremendous Formula One world championship battle between Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher and their respective Renault and Ferrari teams. Schumacher and Ferrari have made a remarkable comeback in the season's second half after Alonso built a twenty-five point, mid-season advantage. By winning the Chinese GP the weekend before last Schumacher pulled himself into a tie with Alonso and looked like winning again in Japan this past weekend until his Ferrari engine failed shortly after the second round of pitstops.

Ferrari has an incredible reliability record of course, and this was the first time in more than six years--since the French GP back in 2000--that Schumacher has dropped out of a race because of a blown engine. Alonso went on to score his seventh win of the year--his first victory since Canada in June--giving the young Spaniard a ten-point lead, 126 to 116, going into the season finale in Brazil in two weeks. This means Schumacher can stop Alonso from repeating as champion only by winning in Brazil while Alonso fails to finish. In the constructors championship, Ferrari leads Renault by nine points, 195 to 186, after Japanese GP pole winner Felipe Massa finished second on Sunday ahead of Alonso's teammate Giancarlo Fisichella.

This year's F1 cars have been powered by new, smaller V8 engines which are banned from any further technical development for the next five years following last weekend's race in Japan. Last year, the FIA mandated an end to F1's long-standing V-10 era, requiring F1's seven competing manufacturers--Ferrari, Renault, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Honda, Toyota and Cosworth--produce new 2.4 liter V-8s for the new season. The latest engines would essentially be eight-tenths of the old V-10s. They would have two less cylinders and the FIA required the new engines have the same individual cylinder capacity as last year's V-10s, so the new engines were based very much on the old power units.

There were quite a few additional restrictions, including a ninety-degree vee-angle and a ban on titanium pieces, and FIA president Max Mosley announced at the British GP in June that engine development in F1 would be frozen in 2008. Mosley later brought the freeze forward to take effect next season.

The teams and manufacturers debated the details of the engine specification freeze with Mosley and the FIA all summer. Some wanted to continue to develop their latest engines through next season, but Mosley insisted the freeze would take effect at the end of this season. In the end, Mosley won the argument and the freeze took effect after last weekend's race in Japan. Renault's chief F1 engine designer Denis Chevrier is among those who agree with the freeze.

"Renault is very positive about the frozen engine because of the basic request to try to make Formula One not as expensive," Chevrier told me earlier this year. "It is purely political, but an absolutely vital aspect for Renault to keep enjoying competing in Formula One and to have a good view that Formula One is good for us, but we need as well to make the costs less."

Mercedes-Benz motorsports boss Norbert Haug has been a big proponent of cost-cutting in F1. "We pushed very much from Mercedes for these changes over the last two years," Haug said. "The process started in Monaco this year. You never can stop people spending money. If they have money they should spend it. I have no problem with that, but in an ideal world we would have rules where you spend $50 million or $500 million and you can be competitive with $50 million if you're smarter and work more efficiently. That's what we have to achieve and I think we are headed in that direction. Mercedes-Benz are spending less than in years before and we are very efficient. I'm quite pleased with the progress we have made in that direction, especially the last two years. And that's the right direction."

This year's rules were already quite restrictive. The bore size of this year's V-8 engines was fixed at 98 millimeters. So too was the vee angle of the engine block set at ninety degrees, and the position of the crankshaft was also specified.

"The main parameters were defined by the rules so it was more a matter of fine-tuning the components to make sure you were getting the maximum performance from them," said Ferrari engine man Mattia Binotto. "It was the same parameters as we had for the V-10, so it was not really different with the V-8. If you look at it, we were reduced from a V-10 to a V-8 simply by taking off two cylinders, so that meant each cylinder had the same capacity as the V-10. The main dimensions were respected so it was a matter of improving, step by step, what we had with the V-10. The philosophy of the V-8 in that respect was not much different."

Renault had to change from a 72-degree V-10 to a ninety-degree V-8 so last year's championship-winning team had to make some more fundamental changes to both engine and car for the new season.

"We were on a good path with our V-10 engine compared to our competitors," said Renault's chief engine designer Chevrier. "So we had to try to keep what we expected were some strengths of our V-10 engine and to integrate them into the new V-8. We had some knowledge that some of the main things to work on would be the amount of vibration and the direction of the vibrations, which are different in a V-8 compared to a V-10. These aspects meant it required some care about the outside equipment and the structural parts of the car.

"We considered we had combustion chambers and quite good pistons and good driving gears, so we decided we would not modify everything. So in fact our V-8 was a continuity from our V-10. In terms of pure technical approach, it was really an evolution of the V-10. We changed the packaging of the cylinders but the main basic structural parts of each cylinder and combustion chamber stayed close to the same.

"We concentrated on what was different to produce some proper packaging, to make an engine which was in accordance with the rules in terms of weight and was very good in terms of pure integration into the car, as we had already worked a lot with the V-10 to make a very homogenous car. Because we had a narrow vee angle it required that we changed the car quite a lot as well."

Chevrier said Renault also put a lot of work into the correct ignition timing for a V-8 as well as the intake and exhaust ports. "We had to work as well a lot defining what was the best ignition timing order," Chevrier said. "We knew this was something that was strategical because in accordance with the choice you make on the firing order you have some different amount of vibration and some issues with the distribution of the valve area as well.

"So we tried to make some pre-studies in advance from a theoretical point of view and make some basic tests to see what would be the definitive arrangement. In addition, we knew there was quite a significant amount of work to do on the intake and exhaust systems in accordance with being a V-8, not a V-10. You had to take all these things into account.

"We knew some other aspects would be easier," Chevrier added. "For example, by being shorter, the engine made the life of the parts easier. Think about the camshafts, for example. The shorter they are the easier it is for them to be rigid, to have good control of the valve movement and so on."

A V-8 tends to develop serious harmonic vibrations above 17,000 rpm. All the manufacturers knew there would be a lot of work to properly contend with the high-speed shake from a V-8, but all were surprised that the problem was solved more quickly then they anticipated.

"It didn't give us a lot of problems," Chevrier said. "When you have some experienced people, they were in a situation to deal with it. We had to take care with some external components, some ancillaries, but the fact is the pure amount of g-loads in vibrations are not higher than it was with the V-10. The directions are different, the combinations are different, but it's not another world."

Ferrari's Binotto said the main problem with the harmonic shake from a V-8 was in best absorbing the shock waves through the chassis and transmission. "A V-8 itself compared to a V-10 in terms of vibration is quite a lot more severe," Binotto acknowledged. "We knew from our experience that these vibrations would have a big impact. Really, the main impact is not on the most significant components of the engine like the crankshaft. It's more into everything around the engine. The vibrations go into the chassis and the gearbox and it's these things that suffer from the vibrations in the end.

"When you are thinking about a new V-8 you have to think about the impact of these vibrations on all the components that are around the engine. We were really starting to get some high revs compared to what we had from the V-10 and that had quite a big impact on all the engine components, on every single component you are using on the engine."

Intense competition among the engine manufacturers resulted in this year's 2.4 liter V-8s revving to more than 20,000 rpm. With no significant changes to F1's aerodynamic rules for this year and a change in the tire rules allowing teams to change tires whenever they wished, 2006's smaller engines were used much harder than the old V-10s.

"Another point we had to take into account has been the fact that everything else on the car had improved," Chevrier observed. "The rules were not restraining the aero progress and the tires went back to tires that you can change whenever you want during the race. So in addition to the normal yearly progression you had a very large increase in the performance of the tires and the fact that their life could be shorter. So the request in terms of hard load on the V-8 was significantly harder than it was with the V-10. In the end, that was nearly the most challenging job."

Added Ferrari's Binotto: "There is much more wide-open throttle each lap with the V-8 than there was with the V-10. The drivers have the same grip and need the same power through the corners so they open the throttle earlier with the V-8. This means the average revs during a lap are also much higher than they were with the V-10. So we are stretching the V-8s more than we were the V-10s. You are revving higher and you are more often on full throttle. So that was quite a big challenge."

Titanium pieces are among those items now banned by the FIA so everyone worked hard to improve the quality of the lower grade material permitted. "We had to deal with some restrictions on materials as well," Renault's Chevrier said. "That was another challenging business because we had pushed the V-10 in terms of materials and we had to produce a V-8 without some materials that were not allowed anymore."

Ferrari's Binotto made the point that the devil is in the details. "We are quite restricted in the materials we can use so the metallurgy is very important as far as quality of the materials and the coating of the materials is very important," Binotto said. "With the rules we have today the general quality of all the components and all the details are very important. What can make a significant difference from one team to another is the sum of all the details."

Another item not allowed under this year's rules were sonically adjustable inlet trumpets. "With the V-8, the adjustable inlet trumpets were not allowed," Binotto said. "That was really a good thing in terms of torque and by having a fixed inlet or trumpet you are forced to restrict the torque at low revs. The only way to avoid that is to try to keep the revs up and make sure you are using the engine in the right rev range where you have the maximum performance."

Binotto added that the FIA's requirement for each engine to last two races--until Japan last weekend--has not been a problem to achieve for this year's engines. "We had the target of two races on the V-10 and we had the same target on the V-8," Binotto noted. "The stress on the components of each cylinder is very similar because the inlet charge is the same, the pressure in the combustion chamber is the same--apart from the normal improvements we make year by year--and the fact the general use of the engine is more severe. So finishing a two-race distance with the V-8 is very similar to what we had with the V-10."

While Binotto was happy to talk about the number of V-8s built this year by Ferrari, Chevrier would not quote a number for Renault. "It is not any different compared to the V-10," Binotto said. "With the V-10 the general amount was around two hundred engines per season."

Commented Chevrier about the number of engines in service: "We are not ready to talk about it because it gives an idea of how organized we are. We were in the same range as the V-10 because it is the same rules. We needed to do two races per engine and we needed to make some development through the year. As far as the overall number of structural parts, it was a bit less. Because it's a V-8, it has fewer cylinders and is a little less demanding on some of the parts than a V-10."

Mercedes-Benz has been a distant third this year and according to M-B's Norbert Haug the German manufacturer built fewer than half the number of engines this year than Ferrari and Renault. "We are very efficient," Haug declared. "There are people who are building more than 200 engines a year. We are definitely bulding less than half of that, but we have an efficient process in place and I think our engines are technically quite strong and stable. We're still not where we want to be, but I would say we're very close to the limit."

With the smallest budget by far among F1's 2006 engine builders, Cosworth did the job with fewer engines than anyone else. "We built around seventy engines for Williams this year, and that included rebuilds so it's not seventy brand new engines. It's a smaller number," said Cosworth's Alex Hitzinger who recently left the independent engine builder to join Scuderia Toro Rosso.

There were even greater differences in the number of engineers and technicians involved in producing the engines for the likes of Renault, Mercedes and Cosworth. Renault employed more than two thousand people in building its F1 engines, Mercedes utilized around four hundred and Cosworth did it with only a hundred and fifty people! Of course, Cosworth's forty-year run in F1 has come to an end, leaving the category as the exclusive preserve of a handful of major motor manufacturers.

"Globally, the number of people dedicated to engines is about 2,050 people," Chevrier said. "That includes designers, testing people involved in the factory, people to make the parts, people purchasing the parts and producing the parts, people making the calculations and the drawings, as well as the test team and race team. It's very difficult to say how many engineers. I would say it would be around forty percent of all those people."

Norbert Haug reiterated Mercedes-Benz's increasing efficiency. "It doesn't compare to other manufacturers because we build probably seventy percent of the engine on our own," Haug commented. "We do not get lots of parts from the outside. All in all, we are probably four hundred people, including production."

And of course, Cosworth put them all to shame. "In engine design we were about twenty-five people," Hitzinger reported. "The whole of engineering, we were about fifty. And everybody involved in Formula 1, you could probably say about 150."

For many years, Cosworth's role of playing David against the Goliaths of F1 showed that enthusiasm can come close to competing with cubic dollars, but it can't match the inevitable result as demonstrated by Renault and Ferrari. The days of little guys like Cosworth have come to a sad end.

It will be interesting therefore, to see how F1's engine specification freeze works out over the next few years. Now that the manufacturers--Ferrari, Renault, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Honda and Toyota--dominate the sport, owning or co-owning most of the teams, will the freeze have a real impact on reducing F1's massive budgets?

As many people retort, they'll just spend their money elsewhere on other technical aspects of the car, or on the drivers, hospitality, entertainment and pr. And of course, how the freeze will be enforced remains an open question to all. The real point surely, is that Mosley and the FIA have exerted their authority, and will continue to do so.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page