Muted turbos raise whispers

The turbos are back in Formula One after two and a half decades. In a hybrid form (harvesting heat and kinetic energy) now, it’s anybody’s guess as to how they will fare in the new season, which begins in Melbourne, Australia, in the third week-end of March. An overview by G. Raghunath.

For a little over a decade (from 1977 to 1988) when the turbos were in play, Formula One had witnessed what according to many motorsport buffs was one of the best phases in the history of the sport. Cars propelled by high-powered turbines and with the additional benefit of advanced aerodynamics put on view highly competitive and compelling races. However, the ‘turbo era’, was not without its downsides. Front-running teams such as McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus and Williams, ever eager to unleash their horses on the track, revved up speeds, especially on the bends, to such irrational — sometimes even illegal — levels that the lives of drivers handling these machines were in great peril.

Adding another dimension to the turbo issue were the backmarkers, running on normally aspirated power plants. Strapped for cash to go turbo and realising the futility of matching the leaders with their sluggish power units, these teams, moved out of Formula One in search of an alternative series where they could seek success. The FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) in order to forestall a potential meltdown of Formula One outlawed the turbocharged engine at the end of the 1988 season.

The return of the normally aspirated engine in 1989 came in for derisive attacks from teams; the bone of contention being: shouldn’t the FIA tighten the sporting and technical rules to make Formula One more secure instead of knocking out the turbocharged engine with one mighty swipe? The show, however, went on.

Two and a half decades later, the turbos are back in Formula One in a hybrid form (harvesting heat and kinetic energy). The change, though significant, hasn’t been without criticism. The 1997 world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, for one, has come down heavily on the FIA for taking the joy out of Formula One.

“I think it was wrong to take the decision to slow F1 down. It was much better in my day, when it was already a lot safer than it had been in the 70s and 80s but you could still drive crazy fast. With the engine regulations, everything is so restrictive that it’s not Formula One any more, there’s nothing special about it,” The Guardian quoted the former F1 driver, who is set to compete in the World Rallycross Championship, as saying.

Ahead of the 2014 season, which opens in Melbourne in the third weekend of March, the teams experienced the 1.6-litre V6 turbo engines, over three staggered sessions of winter testing. The drop in nearly 150bhp of power when compared with the now superannuated 2.4-litre normally aspirated V8s is not much of a problem for the teams. But integrating the new engine, kinetic energy and heat energy storing units, aerodynamics and the works to make a winning package has been one mighty challenge for even the best of the engineers on the circuit. And throwing a spanner into their works is the mandated 100 kg per race fuel load limit, which until last season was unlimited.

With the exception of Mercedes, the other teams have had to grapple with serious problems such as engine and Energy Recovery System failures, malfunctioning electrical units and so on over three sessions of testing. For instance, Red Bull’s winter testing started (in Jerez) and ended (in Bahrain) in the same way — disastrously.

In the first week, the Milton Keynes-based team had to spend much of its crucial testing time parked in the garage while its principal rivals such as Mercedes, McLaren, Ferrari and Williams were clocking enviable miles and procuring important data from their cars. While the second week of testing in Bahrain was none-too-remarkable for Red Bull, in the final week (also in Bahrain) Sebastian Vettel, the reigning world champion, twice took his RB10 out for a spin; the first time he had barely got past four corners at Sakhir when his car developed a mechanical problem and ground to a halt and the second time the RB10 broke down at the end of the pit lane.

The multiple world champion sounded philosophical, but hopeful. “Well, right now it is not an easy situation, but there is no reason to hang the head. In the end nothing has happened so far. Of course, we are missing the test mileage, but we are looking ahead and in Melbourne we will know how far away we are and how our situation really is, as it is then and there that we can measure ourselves with others,” Vettel told formula1.com, the official Formula One website, at the end of the final session of testing.

Lewis Hamilton, whose team Mercedes has performed very well in the winter testing in terms of both mileage and speed, thinks Red Bull still has the best car. “They seem to have a stunning car. Once they sort out their problems, they will definitely be a frontrunner,” said the 2008 world champion, who posted the best time (1:33.278s) on the final day of testing in Bahrain.

So, is Vettel & Co. sandbagging? We would have to wait until March 14, when the car gets on to the track at Albert Park in Melbourne for the first free practice, to know.

Somehow, one just can’t cancel out the chances of a team that has the services of some of the top-class engineers in the business. Then Red Bull has Adrian Newey, a genius who can always be replied upon to come up with technical solutions for its pesky problems. On top of them all is Vettel, one of the greatest drivers of the modern era.

Meanwhile, like Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren too underlined their status as top contenders this season following good runs in testing.

Fernando Alonso sounded very optimistic at the end of the winter testing. “When I see the number I have done in five days, that is probably more than any other driver. So in that way being the same for everybody I think I am in a good position in terms of experience and laps as the Ferrari car has been quite strong throughout the winter,” said the two-time world champion, who is certainly good for another title.

It was rather unfortunate that Alonso couldn’t make much headway in the last few years steering mediocre Ferraris. The Spaniard, who ran Vettel close in 2012 and almost pulled the rug in the final race of the season in Brazil, could perhaps be the one to halt Red Bull in its tracks this year. But with the 2007 world champion, Kimi Raikkonen, occupying the other half of the Ferrari garage, Alonso’s battle, for sure, begins at home. It remains to be seen how well Stefano Domenicali, the Ferrari principal, handles the two heavyweights. In a pre-emptive move, Domenicali has already made it clear to Alonso and Raikkonen that the two drivers have to adhere to the rules of the team.

Vettel, meanwhile, is at the doorstep of at least a couple of world records. Should he win the first race of the season, the Australian Grand Prix, the German would move past Alberto Ascari (Italy) as the only driver to win 10 consecutive races. Last season, by winning nine races on the trot, the Red Bull driver equalled Ascari’s record set over two seasons (1952 and 1953). Vettel, who has won four successive world titles, is also in line to equal Michael Schumacher’s run of five world championships on the bounce.