It’s no news that good engines make fast cars; but in Formula One the term engine does not solely translate to horsepower and mph – it’s a crucial part of the team’s strategy to win the race.
Formula One car manufacturers have to balance two aspects of an engine’s potential: it has to be strong enough for the car to achieve maximum speed, but it also has to be fairly small and light, not to weigh the car down and to minimise the drag.
“… a modern Formula One engine will consume a phenomenal 450 litres of air every second, with race fuel consumption typically around the 75 l/100 km (4 mpg) mark. Revving at such massive speeds equates to an accelerative force on the pistons of more than 8000 times gravity”
It shouldn’t surprise then that engine failures are among the most common causes for retirements from a Grand Prix; this is what happened in Valencia in Sebastian Vettel’s case. The surprising bit here is that it also happened at the same race to Romain Grosjean from Lotus, who, like Red Bull, also run on Renault engines.
Whilst the Renault mechanics are investigating the individual causes of the alternator damages, Vettel has been reported to have been seeking conspiracy in the works of the European Grand Prix. Together with Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko they allegedly questioned the deployment of the Safety Car after the second collision of the race between Jean-Eric Vernge’s and Heikki Kovalainen, although this decision had not been made after Bruno Senna had collided with Kamui Kobayashi. Vettel is said to have suggested that the Safety Car allowed the slower cars to catch up with him, which meant he had lost his increasing time advantage as a leader which also led to the alternator overheating and eventually providing an untimely finish to his participation in the race.
This reasoning comes from the simple physics of the functioning of an F1 engine, which is designed to operate at high speeds with an ample amount of airflow to cool it down; at the beginning of the race the formation lap has to be carefully planned, firstly to make sure enough traction can be provided to the tyres (short stints of fast speed and breaking) to get them warmed and adjusted to the track, and secondly, not to allow the car to become stationary for too long as this can lead to the engine overheating.
However, former Formula One driver Hans-Joachim Stuck was quoted by MotorTweets saying that slow driving behind a Safety Car cannot induce such damage on the engine, as this would have been the case with all the other cars on track.
“If the Red Bull overheated during the Safety Car period, then there it was designed wrong. The cars have to be able to handle all temperatures,” said Stuck for Yahoo Eurosport.
In the pursuit of a more greener and responsible sport, the current regulations allow the use of up to eight engines during a Championship, with every driver using additional engines being penalised by being dropped 10 places on the grid for the following race. As mentioned earlier, the FIA is pushing the introduction of turbocharged V6 engines from 2014, a move that many teams fear will eliminate them from the Championships due to the increased cost of these more sustainable engines.
However, AUTOSPORT calculated that, despite the induction year seeing the highest prices for the new system (engine + Energy Reduction System, ERS), the average over a five-year period will be similar to the current cost of a V8 engine +KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) package (average £13M versus £12M respectively).