Formula 1 is an incestuous business.
People are baffled about how the world’s largest engine maker, Honda, could have got its hybrid turbo engine programme so wrong, year after year. And perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that it has not been incestuous enough.
Let me explain.
There is a limited pool of expertise at the highest level in F1 and it commands a high value and it tends to move around.
Peter Prodromou left Red Bull Racing, at the end of their dominant period, for McLaren and after a few months ‘gardening leave’ took a headful of secrets about how Adrian Newey’s complex aerodynamics and rake angles work to his new employers in Woking.
There isn’t much about how Ferrari operates today that Mercedes don’t know from hiring James Allison, from the set up of the engineering and design departments, simulation tools and the engine facility to the way the chief strategist thinks.
Top operations engineer Jock Clear moved the opposite way, so the knowledge gains cancelled each other out!
This is a time honoured tradition and it’s actually a good thing for F1 because it raises the standard across the field. A good example of that is Toro Rosso and its transformation from Minardi era staff to the team it is today.
When Giorgio Ascanelli (above) was running it, the team was largely Italians. Nothing wrong with that, but as staff came in from UK based teams and Red Bull Technology in the UK (not necessarily all British but who had worked for UK based teams) the know how of everything from the simple to the complex infused the team and the standard went up.
It’s all about ideas and processes. There are some things F1 teams do that any rival team can notice and copy, such as the pivoting front jack for faster pit stops. But there are thousands of little processes and ideas that are percolated in teams and refreshed through learnings and staff changes, that keep moving F1 teams forward.
The same is even more true for the rarified world of hybrid turbo F1 engines. Mercedes got the jump on everyone else in 2014 by focussing on energy regeneration from the KERS days and investing in a centre of excellence on this technology at Brixworth, near Northampton.
The highly organised engineers, under Andy Cowell, were looking ahead to the 2014 F1 season when the game changer would be hybrid technology. Mercedes saw the opportunity and took it. Ferrari and Renault were left behind.
But not for long. By 2015 the Ferrari was a good step closer on engine power and had improved markedly on recovery rates and on driveability. The original Ferrari hybrid power unit was too sudden in the way it moved between engine modes, which unsettled the engine, created vibration and also unsettled the driver. Power delivery was all over the place.
The Mercedes was smoother and that made for a better and more drivable engine. That know how transferred.
By 2016 the engine was the best part of the Ferrari car, the chassis was now letting it down. This year there is nothing to chose between Mercedes and Ferrari packages.
That’s partly because Ferrari spent a lot of money, but also because some engineers had been recruited from Mercedes with know-how. They tried to get Cowell himself but he stayed loyal to the three pointed star.
Others moved too; from last year to this Renault picked up two Mercedes and two Ferrari engineers to help drive the recovery of their programme, which still lags behind the top two (much to Red Bull’s frustration).i
The rotation of information is critical to F1 and this is where Honda gave itself a handicap. Already they were up against it because of coming in late to the party when other manufacturers had three to five years headstart on the technology. But to compound that, they are cut off and isolated in Japan without the throughput of the know-how that has rotated through the Europe based builders.
It’s a similar thing with tyre knowledge. The top teams have tyre technicians with years of experience of different teams and it’s very valuable with unpredictable tyres such as the Pirellis.
Honda has a proud tradition of training engineers in F1 who then go on to the other areas of the business. It’s always been part of the rationale for going racing, as well as to show the challenging spirit.
They are now in the realms of damaging the brand, the longer their problems in F1 go on.
They appear not to have sought to headhunt Mercedes or Ferrari engineers. You might think that for a German or an Italian it would not be attractive to go to Japan to work, but speaking to F1 engineers that’s what is considered a ‘no-lose’ situation. You go there for three to five years on big money, the product can only get better as a result and you can come back to the UK richer and with reputation enhanced.
“It’s hard to get a move like that wrong”, one engineer told this site.
The problem is lead times; both with the engines themselves due to it taking months for castings and so on and also for gardening leave for engineers with the know-how; typically up to 12 months.
Honda urgently needs an injection of know-how and a season of development with Sauber.
They owe McLaren for the failures of the past three years, so a temporary separation in 2018, with Honda continuing to fund the McLaren team and white label Mercedes engines, until being reunited again in 2019 would make business sense on all sides.
Let’s see if it happens or whether the relationship is past even that solution.
What do you think? Leave your comments below