Something Christian Horner said last week really struck a chord: "We do have a major concern that the engine freeze has effectively frozen-in a disadvantage for some engines and we are relying on the governing body to deal with that accordingly." The arms race that decimated manufacturer support of F1, the self-inflicted damage done then, is still going on - even with most of the manufacturers gone.
Back at end of 2006/early '07, when the original engine freeze homologation was brought in, Mercedes effectively produced a brand new engine, specially for the freeze regs. It took its inspiration from what had begun '06 as the most powerful - the Cosworth. The similarlity wasn't too surprising given that a lot of the Cosworth guys had been recruited by Mercedes.
Even within the freeze regulations, there was clearly a lot of development potential within the Merc motor. The game since '07 for most of the engine producers has been to find ways of getting through changes of spec under the guise of reliability improvements that in reality also release more performance. It's a fine line to tread, of course, because any improvement in efficiency can be used to either make something more reliable - or keep the reliability the same but increase the performance. Wonder which one the teams tend to go for...
Some have devoted more resources to this process than others. Renault, for example, desperately trying to kerb its expenditure, initially took the engine freeze literally and through '07 and '08 watched as it fell further behind on performance. Last year Renault was allowed some spec changes, but even so, by the end of the season it was reckoned to be in the region of 30-50 horsepower adrift.
The engine freeze regulations have undoubtedly saved the sport a lot of money - but some more than others. Those determined to spend have still been able to do so. As ever, F1 behaves like a virus, forever adapting to restrictions put upon it. As ever, it will spend whatever it can get its hand on, no matter how the regs are framed.
But how to deal with the current imbalance? That's quite a challenge for the governing body. It seems crass to ask the producer of the best engine to decrease its performance back to the level of the others - and to spend money doing so. But you could argue it should never have been developed beyond the level of the others in the first place. It also seems crass to have an F1 where you aren't supposed to compete on engine technology and where tyre competition has been outlawed.
Perhaps in the short term there needs to be a refreezing, an attempt at getting a more even spread and then not accepting any changes. But longer term, beyond the expiry of the current formula to 2013, technical competition needs to be opened out because otherwise F1 is in danger of becoming fossilised, a sort of single-seat NASCAR.
But that takes us back to the idea of the divisive budget caps. If there is still an arms race now, when we have highly restrictive technical regs and only one true manufacturer team, surely it would be worse if you opened out the regs? But there are club racing categories with vastly more scope for technical competition than exist in F1 - but the money isn't there to fully exploit that freedom so it isn't a problem. We already have a 'resource restriction' coming into play next year and that's perhaps another short-term solution.
But you know what? There will be ways around it. Very clever ways, discovered by the cleverest people. Just as there have been ways around the engine freeze. As a veteran F1 engineer said last year, F1 has always been - and should always be - about clever people beating less clever people. Every time you try to squeeze an F1 problem away, it simply reappears as a bubble somewhere else. F1 is just too damn clever for its own good.
The person that works out the solution to that basic conundrum will be more than merely clever.
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