A little less than two years remain before Formula 1 weans itself off archaic 2400cc V8 power units - which have their roots in the 3.0-litre V10s mandated back in the last millennium, at a time when such as Toyota, BMW, Ford and Renault sought ways (back, in the case of the last three) into the sport.
In place of the eight-bangers come 'green' V6 units of two-thirds the capacity (1600cc), whose output is pumped up by exhaust-driven turbochargers providing direct and indirect boost, with substantially beefier energy recovery systems (note: 'kinetic' has been dropped as harvesting will no longer be restricted to recovery under braking) producing an up to 400 per cent increase in 'push' per lap over present systems.
F1's current engine rules have their roots in the era in major manufacturer participation © LAT
Having originally been announced at the end of 2010 for introduction after the mandatory two-year notice in 2013, typical F1 politicking saw the original inline four-cylinder concept kicked out after various engine suppliers dug in their heels over the layout's 'bargain-basement' image, with V6s being the compromise solution. The problem, though, was that it was by then June 2011, leaving precious little time for design, tooling-up, production and testing by January 1 2013. Thus introduction was delayed a year.
However, while all this was brewing, revised chassis regulations - prescribing twin-tunnel underbody venturis - to suit the inline fours had been framed and approved for 2013 introduction, with a three-year contract (2013-15) for the supply of more powerful electronic control units being awarded to the successful tenderer, namely McLaren Electronic Systems, supplier of F1's current black box (and NASCAR's ECU).
Thus F1 again finds itself betwixt and between, with ECUs designed for V8s being used for a year, then adapted for V6 units, with an extension (or new tender) being called just two years into the life of the new engines!
"What's happening is that the master control unit is changing. In 2013 it will run the V8 engine, so we'll be migrating the same code that's running this year, [then] we, in parallel with the engine builders and teams, will develop new software for 2014 which will switch across to the new V6 engines. The software will have changed, evolved into that, but the hardware platform would have had a year of racing. So it gives you quite a seamless migration from one system to the next," Peter van Manen, MES managing director, told this column in Melbourne.
The new units will have more processing power "as well as flexibility for the teams and engine makers to develop their new control systems", he says, adding, "There is also a different architecture in terms of the management of the memory within the processing.
Peter van Manen of MES
"The reason for that is quite simple: with the new powertrain the engine makers and the teams will have areas of the software that they're allowed to develop themselves as part of the development of the new ECU, but there will still be the control against things such as driver aids, etc. So it's, if you like, partitioning the system to free up the development of the engines, but not release, not to make it a sort of an open field. So it's still a standard ECU, but with some flexibility for the teams and engine makers to develop their new control systems."
At the moment the teams have absolutely zero scope to develop own control systems, being forced to use standard ECUs running a single version of software, which is identical for all teams - thus hard- and software is currently standard across the grid. "The only flexibility they have is they can tune the software to suit their own car, within limits which are set by the FIA," says van Manen.
However, with the new ECUs the FIA will still have overall control despite this flexibility. "There are elements of the software which the FIA will continue to control, and also any of the sensitive information which is used in control systems that teams and engine makers have access to, is regulated from the FIA. So it's not an open development."
The reason for such leeway in an increasingly rigid sport is simple: the new engine formula demands vastly improved management of various components - basic engine, ERS harvesting and release, a multitude of turbochargers and high pressure (500-bar) direct injection fuel systems - for reasons of maximum efficiency.
"If you don't allow engine builders and teams some level of software control you're basically tying their hands and not allowing them to do that," explains Adelaide-born (and University of Adelaide alumnus) van Manen, who at the time had just returned from the Daytona 500 - the maiden (highly successful) test of MES's fuel-injection ECUs.
However, if the current ECUs are 100 per cent controlled, what level of direct control will the governing body exercise over the new black boxes and associated software?
"I think it will work out to probably about 75 per cent control. I think if you used the old 80/20 rule, the bits the engine makers and the teams need to control [is] 'how do you optimise engine management between the different elements of the powertrain?' So it's that aspect, but a lot of the sort of bread and butter things of controlling the engine will be standard, a lot of the chassis controls will be standard. So it's flexibility around the development parts of the engine itself."
MES is also involved in NASCAR © LAT
And the remaining 20-25 per cent will still be controlled by boffins in Paris? "Yes. The FIA have done a very thorough job of ensuring the flexibility provided for development doesn't in any way compromise the essential things we want to protect. It is developed in such a way that we can still prevent things like traction control, we'd still prevent automatic launch, etc. So all of the things we've now got used to not talking about we can continue not talking about [as they remain banned, being controlled by the ECU].
In July last year there was an uproar in the paddock when it was revealed that Gilles Simon, until then head of the FIA's engine group after joining from Ferrari, had upped sticks to join PURE, the independent engine company set up by ex-BAR man Craig Pollock. Has the Frenchman's departure meant a change in MES's liaisons with the FIA? (This interview was conducted before it became known that Fabrice Lom had moved to the FIA from Renault as Simon's replacement.)
"No, within the FIA there is an electrical/electronic group, and our day-to-day contact is with them," says van Manen. "They also deal directly with their colleagues within the engine group, with people like Charlie [Whiting, head of the FIA's F1 technical department], etc. It's the same people we deal with on a day-to-day basis with the current system, and it's just a natural evolution to the next..."
Given the additional technology prescribed for 2014, it is clear the new ECU's will be substantially more powerful (and faster) than the current version, and van Manen estimates that processing power will be up by a factor of about five.
"Some of that will be used," he says, "some of it is protecting for the future, and part of the element of this is going to direct injection, going to recovery from the exhaust, using the turbochargers. There are a lot of new elements coming in, and so you basically just need to give yourself headroom to be able to deal with whatever people think, or want to do with that."
As every smartphone user knows, hardware is nothing without software, and with engine suppliers already bench testing single- and multi-cylinder engines built to the new regulations (more next week), surely the time is nigh for MES to release its basic software packages.
"The software [for both engines] is developed for releasing to the teams. In the first instance, we manage all of the migration from one system to the next [current engine/current ECU to current engine/new ECU to new engine/new ECU], so it's a very seamless operation for a team.
"Once they start using the new ECU with existing engines they will just run the same applications," he reveals, adding that ECUs are concurrently being shipped to enable engineers to start work in their own time.
Craig Pollock's PURE firm can focus on the next generation rules © LAT
PURE, which does have a V8 engine programme, can thus concentrate all its energies on the V6? "Yes, and the [other] engine builders can concentrate whatever attention they like in terms of their V6. There's a lot of developments to be done on the engine as well as on the electronics."
Which in turn leads to the thorny question of testing, for all forms of in-season testing are banned and teams are thus unable to bolt engines into the back of butchered chassis to thrash around circuits as had been the case during the last wholesale engine formula change at the end of the '80s. Yet, some form of track testing, if only for validation purposes, is surely crucial to the success of the formula.
Obviously, van Manen cannot speak on behalf of the FIA (or teams/engine suppliers), but considers it inevitable that the rules will be relaxed, even if the bulk of testing is undertaken on benches/dynos - the reason PURE decamped from Paris to Toyota Motorsport's headquarters in Cologne, where Pollock believes the best test equipment is clustered.)
"From an electronics perspective it doesn't really make a huge amount of difference - the lack of track testing is more of a 'how do you tune an engine and a car without track testing?' question. I think the teams and FIA are still in discussions about exactly what level of testing comes up for the new powertrain. I suspect they will need some special tests, but that's just me talking personally."
Thus, after five years of off-the-shelf electronic systems, over the next 12 months F1's engine companies face two completely different races against time: one to interface their V8s with the new ECUs; the other to fully integrate the black box's myriad systems into their 'green' machines. With soft- and hardware for both configurations being shipped as this is written, the task is on.