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What the 2021 engine proposal tells us about F1's future

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A vision for Formula One's future is starting to emerge after the FIA and FOM outlined their proposal for the sport's next set of engine regulations. Ever since F1 came under new ownership in January, fans and teams have been waiting to see which direction the sport will take, and Tuesday's announcement represents the first piece of that puzzle falling into place. Existing contracts within the sport mean 2021 is the target season for F1's new dawn, giving the sport a workable timeframe without the temptation for knee-jerk reactions along the way.

Pushing aside the politics

It should be noted that Formula One's regulations have been in a constant state of flux since its inaugural season in 1950. Unlike other sports where the length of the pitch or size of the ball is not up for debate, the regulations in motorsport are altered regularly from year to year. The main priority for rule changes in the past three decades has been safety -- and the introduction of additional cockpit protection next year underlines the FIA's push for ever-safer racing cars. But F1 can't help tinkering with the regulations to achieve other aims too, and the most recent cycle of rule changes in 2009, 2014 and 2017 have been as controversial as they've been constructive.

In a sport where the teams are allowed to have a say in the regulations that ultimately define their success, it's no surprise that the highly political rule-making process has struggled to stumble across a sustainable formula. Each change has addressed the perceived weaknesses of the sport at the time -- be it a lack of overtaking, a lack of road-car relevance or a lack of outright speed -- but each change has also created a series of unintended consequences.

The hope this time around is that a united FIA and FOM can rise above the self-interest of the teams and deliver a healthier, more entertaining sport for the future. That vision is being crafted by former Ferrari technical director and Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn, who was recruited by F1's new owners earlier this year to manage the sporting side of the series.

"We want a proper meritocracy, we want the best teams to win in F1," Brawn said in a recent interview with Motorsport.com. "But when they have an off day we want the guy in the middle of the pack coming through and winning a race. That's a great story, that's a great thing for the sport, and we want to encourage that. And we want the midfield team who gets a great driver one year, suddenly they're winning races, and telling a big story.

"F1 is at a crossroads at the moment. For many years there was no structure to develop the sporting, technical and financial framework that the sport was run with. It was the teams themselves that were trying to make the rules up, and as the competitors, they weren't the best people to do that. We now have an organisation, a structure.

"I have engineers, I have technicians, I have financial strategists who are looking at the business of F1 to find better solutions, to improve the sustainability and to improve the competitiveness of all the teams, so that we have much better racing.

"And I'm very optimistic. We've had a very good response from the teams, and over the next few months we'll be introducing the ideas we've got, and working with the teams to refine them, and they'll be coming in the next few years."

Analysing the 2021 formula

The objectives: While the proposed 2021 engine formula doesn't feature the screaming V12 that many fans had been dreaming of, it does tick many of the boxes needed for Brawn's masterplan to succeed. The main focus is on making the power units cheaper and more closely matched in performance, and for that reason it should be no surprise that the single turbo V6 layout hasn't changed.

A complete overhaul of the regulations is rarely conducive to performance convergence or lower costs -- as the 2014 engine regulations proved -- whereas an element of stability should help achieve both. It's already clear this season that the power outputs of Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault are converging rather than separating and that trend should continue up until 2021 before carrying over. What's more, a complete overhaul would have resulted in manufacturers switching their focus to 2021 early in order to gain an advantage, effectively freezing the existing discrepancies in performance for the next three seasons.

Keeping it simple:The removal of the MGU-H -- the part of the hybrid system that recovers heat energy from the turbo -- takes away the most technically complex element of the current power units. That should make it easier and cheaper for new manufacturers to enter the sport at a competitive level, but in doing so it removes one of the most interesting elements from a research and development point of view.

It remains to be seen what Mercedes will make of the change after spending a significant amount of money mastering the technology over the last four years and incorporating a road-going version in its Project One hypercar, due for production in 2019. The yet-to-be-released details of the up-rated MGU-K will be crucial for manufacturers wanting to make a link between their hybrid road cars and their racing cars in F1.

More noise: Whether upping the rev limit will improve the exhaust note of the 2021 engines also remains to be seen (or, perhaps, heard). Many purists argue a V6 is inherently one of the worst-sounding cylinder configurations in the motoring world, and the addition of a turbocharger -- even without an MGU-H attached -- does nothing to improve that. It's also not clear how the super-efficient V6s will be coaxed up to the new 18,000 rpm limit, given that gearshifts currently occur 3,000 rpm short of the existing 15,000 rpm limit due to increased friction and diminished efficiency towards the redline.

Such details are expected to emerge when a full version of the regulations are finalised in 2018, but the basic concept of the new regulations is clear: Hold the interest of the existing manufacturers while allowing new players to enter the sport. It may be a compromise solution but if it succeeds -- while also improving the noise for fans -- it should serve the purpose of achieving Brawn's wider aim of a more sustainable and entertaining sport.

Engines just one part of the equation

While much of the focus has been on getting the engine formula right, it's clear that the existing power units are not F1's only issue. A quick glance at the qualifying times at any race this year tells you that the split in performance is not based on engine performance, but chassis performance instead. The top three teams -- Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull -- all have different engines, yet they are routinely as much as a second clear of rival teams using the same power unit further down the grid. Having moved from world champions Mercedes to midfield team Williams earlier this year, Paddy Lowe has recent experience in the discrepancies between F1's haves and have-nots.

"I think when you look at F1 although there is a lot of discussions about the problems with engines -- it isn't the biggest problem in the sport," Lowe explained. "It is seen as a problem among the top three teams fighting for the top steps but the biggest problem at the moment is the disparity to the remainder of the teams. It is not a round engine choice.

"If you go look at the race in Austin and the performance split between the top six --- well top five in the end -- and then the rest, it was two different races and that isn't split on engine grounds. I think this is one of the problems in the sport where the [spending] gap is extremely large. We need to find some great wisdom to get through that."

If F1 wants to achieve a closer playing field, ultimately it must look to address the discrepancies in budgets and spending power, and it's something Brawn and his team are factoring into their plans for 2021. Finding a way to eliminate the link between spending and competitiveness will not be easy, but Brawn's plan is to attack it from all sides and create a set of regulations that don't encourage a huge spend.

"We want to have less opportunity for greater investment to bring performance differentiation with the engine," he said. "We want there to be a difference between a Ferrari engine, a Mercedes engine, a Renault engine, but that gap needs to be controlled, so that you can't pour millions of dollars in and start to widen the gap with your competitors.

"We are just in the process now of introducing the concept to the teams, working with the teams to get the regulations right, and then that will be the engine that we have in 2021. The level of budget control we are talking about will still maintain all of the DNA of F1, the advanced technology in the cars, the excitement -- but at a level that is sustainable."

There's a long way to go to achieve Brawn's goals, but possibly for the first time in its history F1 has a coherent plan of action. If Brawn and his team can pull it off, it will create a much more sustainable and entertaining sport over the next decade.