As three of Formula 1’s four hybrid power unit manufacturers contemplate another winter spent playing desperate catchup, Mercedes-Benz continues to look down upon them all.
Formula 1’s hybrid power unit era is in danger of failing, and it’s because Mercedes-Benz did too good a job in planning for it. Sure, with a bit of help from its friends and a following wind, Ferrari can occasionally fluster the Silver Arrows. But as a general trend, Mercedes’ continued towering superiority toward the end of the second year of the formula is applying unbearable pressure upon shaky foundations elsewhere.
It has led to the Red Bull Racing/Renault partnership tearing itself apart, leaving F1 potentially minus two, possibly three, teams. It has lent terrible perspective to Honda’s disastrously uncompetitive entry into the formula, raising genuine question marks about the long-term future of McLaren – and making the whole thing look so difficult that it’s hard to imagine any other manufacturers being attracted.
The process began around 2006 for Mercedes, but way later for the others. And that’s perhaps the crucial difference: Mercedes took the challenge of placing hybrid technology in a racing environment way more seriously from a much earlier point than Renault, Ferrari or Honda.
On the road car side, Mercedes, Renault and Honda were each very early investors into hybrid R&D, Fiat less so. But in the crossover and pollination between the road and F1 projects, Mercedes was vastly more coordinated than Renault or Honda.
Daimler-Chrysler (as it then was) assigned its racing engine arm in Brixworth, England, a leading role in early hybrid concept development, working hand-in-glove with Stuttgart’s engineering teams. Out of that came the Mercedes SLS AMG Electric-Drive, a hybrid-powered, road-going sports car. Brixworth was getting to benefit from a whole load of automotive investment as the original kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS) were being devised for F1.
Starting from zero knowledge in 2006, by the time KERS was introduced in 2009, Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains at Brixworth had recruited hybrid knowledge into the organization and then built upon it with R&D. Renault Sport did not buy into it as fully, contracting in outside suppliers.
Furthermore, by 2012, as serious work began on the new hybrid formula (using heat energy recapture, as well as kinetic), Mercedes the parent company had lent hundreds of its engineers to assist the program. Renault had reportedly provided none to its racing arm. Honda, by this time, was long gone from F1, only to return later – and late. Ferrari had some assistance from Fiat, but largely contracted the necessary electrical expertise in from independent specialists.
But that was just the beginning of it…
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