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GP Week : Issue 220
One thing of which F1 fans can be sure this year is that well before we've got half the races behind us, some of the drivers will have used up their allotted four power units and will be copping crippling grid penalties as a consequence. Although the rule to limit engine usage was introduced with the most noble of intentions, it risks making F1, and the FIA, look foolish, albeit only because Renault has run into some serious reliability problems. In Barcelona (race five of 19), Daniel Ricciardo's mechanics were expecting to install his fourth Renault unit even before number three ominously started spewing liquid on Friday morning and forced them to get the spanners out early. They later set about the leaky V6 in the hope of saving the poor old thing for another day, but it surely can't be in the best of health. One more PU hiccup will force Dan to resort to a 'forbidden' fifth unit and take a ten-places-back penalty, possibly as early as Monaco in a couple of weeks. There's undisguised smugness, though, in the Mercedes camp. When I raised the subject of this draconian rule in the Friday Barcelona press conference, Nico Rosberg couldn't resist piping up: "Of course, I'm happy to have a Mercedes Benz engine in the back because we're still on our first PU and it's looking good, so that's great." I half-expected Daniil Kvyat, whose Red Bull is almost as deep in the Renault ordure as his Aussie team mate's, to get out of his seat next to Nico in order to slap the German pretty-boy in the chops. But he didn't. The rules on dishing out the grid penalties (Article 28.4e of the FIA Sporting Regulations) are as straightforward as they are cruel. "The power unit is deemed to consist of six separate elements, of which five of each are available to a driver during the season before they are penalised.The elements are the internal combustion engine (ICE), the motor generator unit- kinetic (MGU-K), the motor generator unit-heat (MGU-H), the energy store (ES), turbocharger (TC) and control electronics (CE)." I hope you've got that clear, then. The various bits can be shuffled, but as soon as it becomes necessary to bring in a fifth new element of any of the five, it's ten-places-back for you, chum. Dan is now set for regular penalties til the end of the season. Mind you, the F1 Strategy Group (top teams plus 12 odd bods) will be looking next week at a proposal to allow a fifth PU to be used without penalty, but with unanimity required for a positive verdict, this concession looks most unlikely to get the green light. Thus it will come to pass that half a dozen drivers, mostly of the Renault persuasion but also likely to include McLaren's two Honda boys, can expect to have any chances of podium glory in 2015 suffocated by the four-engine limit. Maybe I'm missing something here, but it seems unfair to me that a competitor should suffer so grievously for the incipient shortcomings of his equipment. Thus it was that I raised the matter in the Friday press conference. "Good Question!" said Fernando Alonso, but he hummed and hah'd before coming up with the usual "it's the same for everybody" solecism. Then, reflecting further, he put the wind up the McLaren- Honda press minders by suggesting that the engine rules bring ridicule on F1. "It's the only sport [that does it]," he offered: "it's like if you play tennis and you cannot test the racquet before Wimbledon." Well, perhaps not quite like that, Nando, because you can swing a racquet anywhere, not just at Wimbledon, but we can see whose side you're on. It is equally true, as Rosberg was anxious to point out, that a mechanical failure can affect the results of any motor racing competition, even in the modern era of largely unburstable engines. Given that we are still only in the second season of a hugely complex new formula, though, how fair is it for such stringent limitations to be imposed on the permitted number of engine changes? The answer is that in this case fairness has been usurped by the eye-watering cost of the new machinery.The FIA seems to be saying to the teams, "you can't have fresh engines because we have decided that you can't afford them." But the FIA's earnest desire to protect F1 teams from their own profligacy is then punctured by conceding that in the event of a string of failures they can splash out on as many fresh PUs as they can afford, provided they bow to those penalties. Not exactly a hard line on over- spending, then. Renault has been accused of letting its customers down by failing to invest as much in its hybrid V6 as its rivals Mercedes and Ferrari have done. Given the French company's long service to F1 and its glorious record of supplying Red Bull with championship-winning engines in the V8 era, I think that is unfair. It would be different, of course, if the Renault-powered teams were able to switch suppliers at short notice. For contractual and other reasons, though, that is out of the question. This means that four or five of the sport's most promising young drivers will be stuck in a rut of mediocrity while Renault chases reliability at the expense of performance. I hesitate to suggest that the FIA should wangle the rules fundamentally in the interests of maintaining the level of competition, because I know that any such changes are likely to make things even more expensive. But there is surely some room for adjustments, if only because the penalties by themselves will soon be costing the teams tens of millions in lost income anyway. The reward for a team which perseveres with an inherently unreliable engine, it seems, is to have your drivers so badly handicapped by the penalties that they will have precious little chance of scoring championship points, let alone winning races. As Danny Ricciardo said of his wonky Renault in Barcelona, "I am not designing or building it. I just play with the cards I am dealt." Most unfortunately for him, he's going to be getting bum hands for the foreseeable future. should racing driVers Pay for dud engines? OPINION miKe doodson 14 GPWEEK.com // 14 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: OPINION