Will Formula 1 Be Moving to 1,000 Horsepower Engines for 2017?

Australian F1 Grand Prix - Qualifying
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Formula One may not be as popular in the U.S. as NASCAR, but for fans of racing, it’s hard to find a better series for outright performance. Innovation, aerodynamics, and downforce rule the day, with engines wailing away as drivers fly around the track at absolutely ludicrous speeds. It isn’t a free for all though, and the governing body, known as the F.I.A., regularly makes changes to the rules in order to make racing safer or more fair.

According to AUTOSPORT, Daniel Ricciardo, a driver for Red Bull’s Formula One team, thinks that the FIA should do just that and change the rules to allow for Formula One to use 1,000 horsepower engines.

“I think every driver in every category would like to go 50 kilometers per hour faster, and that includes the MotoGP guys — who are going ridiculously fast,” Ricciardo said. “We are all up for going faster and having more power. It creates adrenaline at the end of the day and that is why we do it. Maybe it could also separate a bit more the guys with a bit more commitment than the others — as going faster is always a good thing for us young kids.”

For the 2014 season, Formula One made a major change, dropping the previous 2.4 liter, naturally aspirated V8 engines that were previously in use. Instead, more fuel-efficient 1.6 liter, turbocharged V6 engines were used. While still incredibly powerful, the newer engines now make around 600 horsepower, approximately 150 horsepower less than before.

F1 Grand Prix of Russia
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To partly make up for the drop in power, however, two electronic Energy Recovery Systems have been added to temporarily add 160 horsepower for a little over 30 seconds per lap. The previous generation had a more primitive ERS called the Kinetic Energy Recovery System, or KERS, that worked a lot like the regenerative braking system on most consumer hybrids to give the engine a short burst of extra power, but that system only added 80 horsepower for five or six seconds. Additionally, the driver had to manually push a button to activate KERS, which is no longer the case with the new hybrid system.

The new, more advanced ERS has the ability to work as a power boost to allow a driver to go for a pass, but it can also be used to assist the engine in order to save fuel, which is now also limited for each race. How and when to use the extra ERS power has added an extra level of strategy to each race that at least theoretically makes the races more interesting. It also adds complexity and weight, which not only leeches acceleration but could also lead to more reliability issues.

Even with the new ERS system being both advanced and more powerful, less power out of the engines means that there’s less separating the truly great drivers from the ones who are merely very good.

“It would be nice to get that back and to have some corners on the calendar where the real good guys are taking it full [flat], and the ones who don’t have that last bit of commitment are having a lift. That would be nice to get back definitely,” said Ricciardo.

F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi - Race
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Red Bull’s Team Principal, Christian Horner, agrees with his driver. “I think we need to evolve, we need to improve,” Horner said. “We have head room at the moment that we can make the cars go quicker, and we need to use that. We need to make the cars more spectacular, harder to drive, so that the difference in drivers becomes more apparent. At the moment the difference in drivers is marginal because at a certain level it is difficult to have too much of a variance between drivers.”

When racing teams begin referring to their race cars as too easy to drive, perhaps they have a point. Electronic driver aids like stability control and traction control are still banned, but it’s still a little hard to get as excited about the new turbocharged 1.6 liter engine when it wasn’t very long ago that Formula One cars were running V12s and V10s, even if now the cars come with an electronic “turboboost.” Would a legend like Ayrton Senna have become the legend that he is today if he had been driving the current cars? Would Michael Schumacher have become even more of a legend if he’d had the opportunity to drive even faster, more challenging cars? Is Daniel Ricciardo truly a better driver than Lewis Hamilton? It’s impossible to answer all of those questions, but if we want to give the truly great drivers the opportunity to separate themselves from the pack, sticking with cars that they’re calling too easy to drive is counter intuitive.

So will Formula One change the power cap on engines? Will there be 1,000 horsepower F1 cars tearing around the track for the 2017 season? No one really knows yet, and guessing one way or the other wouldn’t be anything other than pure speculation. Increasing the power that much would, however, limit the impact that ERS can have on performance. There is a marked difference between how a 760 horsepower car accelerates compared to a 600 horsepower car, but with 1,000 horsepower on tap, teams may find that the extra 160 horsepower isn’t as significant.

F1 Testing in Jerez - Day Four
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That said, drivers who could extract as much performance as possible out of the much more powerful cars would probably see a greater difference in lap times compared to less competitive drivers. This may lead to one or two drivers dominating the season, but it could also lead to more exciting races, with drivers having the power to make more passes and generally drive more aggressively. More passes and lead changes would certainly make for a more exciting race to watch from the stands, but higher speeds could also lead to more disastrous crashes.

It’s hard to see a racing series becoming more enjoyable and exciting to watch as a bad thing. It’s also understandable why drivers would want their cars to make as much power as possible as well, but making these changes will still come with risks. Hopefully the FIA will seriously consider the proposal and take the time to find a way to balance safety and competition with power and excitement.