Rodi Basso, Motorsport Director (LinkedIn Pulse)
The standardisation of parts in Formula 1 is a dirty word. It sullen the sport’s purity, sneer the critics; it cheapens the spectacle, and lowers the technological bar.
But why do people think like this? Because snobbery about standardisation is an emotional issue – and not a practical one.
After all, people happily drive Nissans fitted with Toyota hybrid systems on the road, or Mazdas running with Ford components.
And, on the high street, does it really matter if your salad, your baked beans or your bread are the supermarket’s own-brand items or more expensive third-party brands?
In some cases, they’re one and the same. Your eyeballs might be able to spot the different packaging, but your tastebuds won’t notice the difference.
Most importantly, your pocket will always appreciate the benefit.
McLaren Applied provides telemetry software (ATLAS) to all F1 teams
The motorsport ‘taste-test’
We have that snobbery in motorsport, too, unfortunately. And it’s one laced with paranoia: ‘my IP is precious and valuable’, ‘using somebody else’s components will put me at a competitive disadvantage’.
But just like your average supermarket consumer, do motorsport’s legions of fans really care?
Are you going to the German Grand Prix because you care passionately about the differentiation in hybrid systems between Ferrari and Mercedes? Or because you think that Red Bull’s suspension parts are the best in the field?
I’d be pretty confident in answering those questions with an emphatic ‘no’.
Of course, your weekly shop needn’t all be supermarket own-brand standardised produce. There are some items you like too much, or where a particular taste really matters – and that’s where you might choose to specialise.
And that’s exactly the same in motorsport.
Our ECU was standardised by the FIA 2006
The sport seems to act as if the standardisation of parts will hugely emasculate the spectacle, turning fans away from the ‘purity’ of the competition. But, when we talk about the standardisation of parts, what we’re really talking about is the introduction of a set of standard parts in order to manage some of the hassle, process and cost out of the business.
And that’s exactly what the supermarkets, and – increasingly – the big automotive manufacturers are doing now.
So, where should motorsport start?
The FIA, Formula 1 and the teams themselves are on the verge of announcing new regulations for 2021, but let’s imagine an alternative future – which could exist – where we have a fresher take on what’s permissible for the next formula of grand prix racing.
Standard parts to reduce cost
I think we need to start looking at standardising some of the power unit’s ancillary components – most importantly, the battery and the ES pack.
Engine manufacturers should still design and build the power unit and the MGU-K, so they would have a nice chunk of branded IP with which to showcase their tech. But a couple of affordably standardised ancillary parts would simply allow them to get on with the business of going racing.
Even with those two components standardised, there’d still be room for development. You could standardise the hardware platform, not the software – so the teams could still exploit and develop each system to get the best from it.
That’s exactly what they’re able to do with the common ECU: the hardware is standard; the teams each code the software so as to best exploit and use the ECU to their best advantage.
This software/hardware dual approach is also what’s increasingly happening in the automotive world. It’s becoming a hardware-agnostic platform - it’s the software, tuned for each chassis by each manufacturer, where the differences are made.
If they can shave millions from their development budgets by taking such a simple step, shouldn’t we also be fostering this approach at the top levels of international motorsport?
Hybrid as an entertainment differentiator
We all know the social value of using a hybrid motor – but let’s not forget that Formula 1 is as much about entertainment as it is about sport and technology. So let’s turn the hybrid system into an entertainment tool.
By using different modes, we could make the hybrid more exciting. Don’t you get more excited by hearing the word ‘boost’? But I bet your pulse doesn’t quicken when you hear the word ‘hybrid’, right? Well, let’s make that more exciting.
The drivers already use the hybrid system for attack and defence, but let’s ramp up the strategic risk of the system. On each lap, the drivers could be given the choice of opting for regular hybrid power, which applies energy across the whole power range; or a top-end hybrid boost, like the original KERS system.
Then they could opt to use one or the other over each lap, forcing them to choose an attacking or defensive mode of driving. The viewers would be able to see each driver’s selection, and we’d see fortunes change as drivers looked to capitalise on the choices of their rivals.
Fan entertainment is paramount to the future success of the sport
Equally, we could equip the drivers with a finite amount of boost at the start of each race, and the challenge would be to manage that supply most effectively until the chequered flag.
We want to see unpredictability and variation in sport – so, at the very least, these ideas would help to shuffle the competitive deck a little.
Put more competition into software
We tend to think of motorsport as a hardware war. At every race, the media scrutinises and examines the new and upgraded components that each team brings to the car. They’re visible changes, so they’re easier to track – but let’s look at how we can make the efficient and effective programming of software a more important constituent part.
And before you think I’m advocating a development war involving software, I’m not; I’m simply suggesting that teams would still reduce their overall developments costs by going hardware-agnostic, and ploughing some development costs into software.
More importantly, though, by focusing on software over hardware, they’d be aligning themselves more closely with the OEMs, who are really pushing the frontiers of software in order to develop driver-assistance control systems and a raft of onboard data, information and entertainment platforms.
That’s a coherent narrative to which Formula 1 should be aligned.
Go full-electric in the pit-lane
This was one of the original proposals when the hybrid formula was first proposed many years ago, but it was slowly removed from the table as discussions progressed.
Let’s look to re-introduce it: first, it’s a very visible demonstrator of the efficiency of the hybrid system, and, second, it’s a very straightforward proposal to introduce and implement.
You don’t need a lot of battery power to run a car the length of the pit-lane, but you’d want to alter the ICE design, so you could de-clutch only the engine, so there’d be no dragging of the thermal engine.
Will we see a full-electric pit-lane in the near future?
The taste-test is what ultimately matters
Standardisation isn’t about a quest to ‘dumb down’ motorsport, but about lowering the barrier to entry so that new teams and manufacturers can participate without facing a near-vertical wall of unnecessary cost.
By taking some of that pressure off their shoulders, they can focus on the real areas of IP specialisation and differentiation, while not worrying about some of the standardised parts that are used across the whole field.
There’s always kicking and screaming in Formula 1 when something new is introduced (and I’m thinking of 2003’s introduction of the HANS device, the beginning of the standard ECU in 2008, and the arrival of the Halo this year), but very soon everything settles down and we forget about it and carry on racing.
So let’s act now to introduce more standardised parts and remove some of the hassle of participation. The sooner we can do that, the sooner we can overcome our preconceptions and just get on with the job.
And, ultimately, if that doesn’t happen, McLaren Applied would still make itself available to help new joiners access professional motorsport through the implementation and familiarisation of affordable and user-friendly hybrid technology.