OCTOBER 17, 2008
What is a standard engine?
The FIA announcement today that there will be a tender for standard engines was designed to make a big splash. It was also timed to appear at the same time as team bosses Gerhard Berger and Vijay Mallya were facing the F1 media. This guaranteed that the quotes produced would be in favour of the idea, when in reality most of the teams are not keen. However, the key point is for everyone to establish where the PR stunt ends and where the standardisation of engines begins. Announcing a tender for a standard engine produced by a third party engine company suggests that everyone would get exactly the same engine, but apparently this is not the case as the winning bidder in the tender would define a detailed design for the engine, but there would nonetheless be an opportunity for competitors to build their own standardised engine. It would have perhaps been wiser for the federation to have announced that the intention was to 'homologate' engines, which would have a given a rather different impression than the words chosen. This was not an accident as the FIA obviously wants the story to be widely reported. The key question, of course, is what level of standardisation is enforced and what the manufacturers will be allowed to do. This will no doubt be discussed when Mosley and the teams get together for a meeting. The term homologation means the granting of approval by an official body.
The level of standardisation will be the deciding factor as to whether or not the manufacturers will decide to stay in the sport or whether they will decide that orther forms of motorsport (or no motorsport at all) better serves their policy goals. There are some companies which like to run engineers through the F1 programme to teach them about the F1 mindset and others that want the world to see that they are building engines that are appreciably different to those of their rivals. It may be that the American Indy Racing League would provide a better differentiation for some of those involved.
Creating standardisation is not the best way to show the public that F1 is the pinnacle of technology, unless there are other systems which obviously make a difference. KERS may be one such system but all the teams are saying that KERS development is incredibly expensive. That will probably change in a year or two when everyone has developed the technology. This may give the impression that F1 is contributing to the environmental cause but it is unlikely that it will a differentiator between the cars. The thing that will almost certainly remain the difference between a good car and a bad car is the aerodynamics and - perhaps - the drivers.
It would be best if the FIA did not indulge in the kind of PR stunt seen on Friday and had made it clear in the initial release exactly what was meant by "sole supply contract" which is obviously not going to end up with a sole supplier if teams will be allowed to supply their own parts.