Bernie Ecclestone is no stranger to controversial statements. The 87-year-old former Formula One executive who ran the series for decades can’t go more than a few weeks without voicing an idea about the trajectory of the series which leaves people scratching their heads. Once, he floated an idea to install sprinklers on tracks to simulate rain-affected races. More recently, he’s had several complaints about engine noise – he thinks they need to be louder.
After almost 40 years of being the CEO of Formula One Group, the commercial rights holder for F1, Bernie was removed from his position early last year as Liberty Media took over the rights for the series, though he still attends races and serves in an advisory position on the board. Along with this, he’s spent his life involved in F1 and is often credited with “saving” the series from commercial troubles in the 1970s, so his words still have some weight with the series and in motorsport.
Which makes Bernie’s statement newsworthy here. He says that he wants F1 to become a “Super Formula E,” and that “the only thing you would miss would be the noise, and I do not believe that people could not come up with something to make, more or less, the old F1 noise.”
This statement also comes on the heels of several manufacturers joining Formula E, including Audi who cancelled their highly successful gas-powered Le Mans program to focus on electric racing. Bernie seems to think that this writing is on the wall, and that F1 will need to adapt sooner rather than later lest they see less manufacturer support.
For background, F1 changes engine regulations every few years, in order to keep up with technology and continue pushing the limit. There is also some focus on “road relevance” – manufacturers like to show off what they can do at the limits of engineering, but if there aren’t any technologies which can help their road cars, then it’s hard to justify spending lots of money on R&D to improve performance in a car which you can’t sell to anyone. This is why F1 has been moving towards smaller, more efficient engines in recent years, to try to lure manufacturers who know they’ll have a hard time selling V10s and V8s with new emissions regulations for road cars.
The most recent shakeup was in 2014, where all cars were mandated to move to 1.6 liter V6 turbo hybrid systems, rather than their previous 2.4L V8s. All cars now have built-in kinetic and thermal energy recovery systems feeding electric motors to add more horsepower and the low-end torque which electric motors are so excellent at providing. This, alongside other aerodynamic and tire changes, has resulted in faster F1 cars than ever. Last year, track records were broken on 11 of the 20 tracks the series raced on.
There are small tweaks in engine regulations in the interim, but the next large shakeup is scheduled for 2021. So far, the objectives of F1 and the FIA (the governing body which regulates the sport) have focused on reducing cost, leveling the playing field between teams so big manufacturers like Mercedes and Ferrari have less of an advantage over smaller teams like Haas and Williams, and on “improving noise.”
One of the common gripes about the 2014 regulations, echoed in Bernie’s comments, is that the switch from V8s to hybrid turbo V6s made the engines quieter. Despite allowing the cars to go faster on 30% less fuel than the previous generation, some have complained that the cars aren’t loud enough.
There have been several proposed changes for the 2021 season, including changing the way the kinetic energy recovery (regenerative braking) system works, standardizing various parts of the engine, tightening fuel controls to make the cars even more efficient, and allowing them to run at higher rev limits in order to “improve sound.” These changes are not yet set in stone, and it seems like Bernie wants more electricity to be involved, and possibly even fully-electric F1 cars.
While Bernie’s words here are certainly welcome, they do need to be taken with a grain of salt. He says lots of controversial things, and sometimes can change his opinion on a topic from week to week. Most think this is an intentional tactic to keep everyone on their toes, I think it’s just because he’s old and cranky and has breathed in a few too many fumes in his day.
But being an old and cranky petrolhead is also what makes this news exceptional. Bernie has been around loud, roaring, inefficient Formula One cars for his entire life, and everyone he gets exposed to in the Formula One paddock is a petrolhead as well. Just the fact that “noise” is one of the largest complaints about the new F1 regulations underlines this – people in the F1 paddock and many longtime fans seem more interested in giving themselves tinnitus than going faster (given that noise is, by definition, wasted energy).
If Bernie has been successful at keeping F1 relevant for nearly half a century, F1 leadership should take his words into account. Technology is going in the direction of electric cars, not turbo hybrids. Turbo hybrids are a great step forward, and what F1 did with fuel efficiency in the new regulations is astounding – going faster with 30% less fuel is a great accomplishment. But, F1 has always been about pushing technology forward, using the best possible future advancements to make cars go faster, and right now they don’t seem to be on the cutting edge.
Achievements in electric racing are coming from a lot of places, and most of them aren’t F1. Le Mans had a hybrid win in 2012, before F1’s switch to hybrids in 2014, and there has been a proposed all-electric GT entrant for this year. The Pike’s Peak EV record gets shattered nearly every year, and electric motorcycles have beat even their fastest gas-powered competitors there. NIO beat every production car ever around the Nurburgring with their all-electric hypercar, even though it’s the first car that company has ever built.
So it’s clear we’re heading in that direction, and 2021 is a long time away in terms of the march of technology. A fully electric car on the absolute bleeding edge of technology could not compete in F1 today because gas still has a huge advantage in terms of weight and top speed, two realms which are vitally important for F1. Even the next-gen Roadster could not keep up, given the tremendous speed differences between top GT sportscars and F1 cars.
However, EV technology is advancing at a much faster rate than gas-powered cars are. Formula E cars get significantly more power every year, even though that series is still small and mostly a spec series, with little development happening. That’s expected to change with upcoming regulations changes allowing more flexibility and development for teams, and their next-generation car for next season.
And several countries have stated future targets for the elimination of internal combustion in road vehicles. For example, Norway wants all new cars to be zero-emissions by 2025, and the home of F1, the UK, has targeted 2040 for the same thing.
So if F1 wants to set engine regulations which will be relevant in 2021 and for the next several years after that, they need to consider going electric at the forefront of those plans. If they’re not ready for the future, the future will quickly eclipse them and make them irrelevant. If Formula E has another ten or so years worth of development before Formula 1’s next engine change (after the 2021 changes), it seems quite likely that they’ll end up beating F1 at their own game.
It’s unlikely that F1 and the FIA will let this happen, they would probably merge the sports, or turn Formula E into an F1 feeder series, or something of the sort, to maintain F1’s glamour and tradition as best of the best. Personally I’d very much like to see a race series which allows competition between electric and gas models sometime in the next few years, though at the moment it seems more likely that that will come from Le Mans than from F1. So again, we circle around back to the start: F1 needs to seriously consider going all-electric. I don’t say this often, but Bernie is right.