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Technical analysis - the big freeze

For the Formula One teams the 2006 season is now a distant memory. Instead, their focus is very much on 2007. The rules for the new season were originally intended to be little different to last year’s. However, all that changed with the agreement to bring in a freeze on engine development - originally intended for 2008 - a year early. The thinking behind the move? Why spend a year working on developments only to have to then abandon them for the following season.

Renault, Ferrari and Mercedes were reportedly among the freeze’s strongest supporters. Others, such as Honda, Toyota and BMW, had more reservations. One concern, expressed by fans and engineers alike, is that it could harm Formula One racing’s reputation as the very pinnacle of automotive technology. But, as the teams prepare to start the new season with the same engines with which they finished the old, does ‘freeze’ literally mean ‘freeze’, or will some development still take place?

“The rule for freezing engine development at the end of this season for a three-year period has to be defined in detail,” BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen told the Italian media late last year. “It is not correct to think that the engine technology will keep a status quo for three years, without any degree of development. In this case this would not be F1 anymore.”

Indeed, there will still be a certain degree of freedom for the engineers this season. Of course boundaries will be tight, limiting any development to certain components and areas of the engine, but some performance gains should still be possible. Most of the allowable modifications will be in the engine’s upper section, but even in the lower section, although key parts such as the engine block and camshaft cannot be changed, there is scope for developing some ancillaries, such as water and oil pumps. This is not insignificant, as increasing the fluids circulating for cooling and lubrication purposes allows the engine to rev more freely and helps keep component temperatures and wear under control. Combined with permitted changes to things such as valve profiles and conrods, one already has an idea of the extent of obtainable results.

With the engine freeze bringing so many limitations, the engine’s electronics will be used to adjust its working parameters accordingly. In fact, we can expect engine mapping to become even more sophisticated this season as the teams seek to optimise those parameters. This prompts the question: when universal ECUs are implemented in 2008, how will teams retain the level of efficiency and reliablity made possible by the current bespoke electronics? Well, first of all, it is important to underline that the universal ECU essentially refers to the hardware of the system - the software will still be compiled by the engine constructor. Of course there will be a far more limited number of parameters the engineers can alter and these will be closing monitored by the FIA through multiple cross checks. However, within the lines of the programs, it should still be possible to at least mimick current code, hence allowing teams to retain ‘control’ of the engine.

As mentioned earlier, Renault have been one of the main proponents of the engine freeze rule, and given their 2006 performance it is not hard to understand why. “Thanks to the points advantage accumulated at the start of the season, it was possible for us not to run flat out in most of the races,” explained engine technical director Rob White. “We were able to back off a little bit in terms of peak revs, which we reached only in a couple of events.”

That means Renault can head into 2007 in confident mood, safe in the knowledge that the basic structure of their engine is already capable of higher revs. This combined with the small developments permitted next year should mean the RS26 is capable of running well within its reliability limits, while still remaining competitive. Ferrari will be in a similar position - in other words, the top engines from 2006 should maintain their momentum of success longer thanks to the engine freeze rule.

But will the rule really cut costs? The teams will have already invested plenty in ensuring their final homologation units for this season are the best possible. That will have meant an awful lot of dyno testing and a lot of broken engines. Quality control parameters will become even more stringent, which again needs funding. Nevertheless, without the constant ongoing development, engine-specific investment requirements will be less.

The other key question is whether the freeze will make teams further down the grid more competitive. As mentioned above, those teams who already have an engine advantage are likely to retain it for the time being at least. That means their rivals must close the performance gap in other areas. No one is likely to have a significant tyre advantage, given that Bridgestone are now supplying all 11 teams. The implication of all this is that aerodynamics will once again come to the fore, with teams spending a considerably larger portion of their budgets in the windtunnel.

On this very subject, BMW’s Theissen commented: “Currently we work in our wind tunnel on two shifts, but by the end of 2006 we will work on three shifts, to increase our aero testing capacity and accelerate the car’s development. Aerodynamics and simulations are very important elements for performance gain.”

So could this season really be a case of everything changing to remain the same, or will the engine freeze allow some of the grid’s dark horses to shine in other areas? As the teams prepare to resume testing in the build-up to March’s season opener, it will be fascinating finding out.

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