Bad news if your team is running Mercedes power in Formula One: the FIA admitted that there's no hard date in the rules to submit a final engine design by for homologation, thus allowing mid-season upgrades. Even worse if you're Honda: your date was listed as Feb. 28, so no upgrades for you.
Even if your team did well last year, you have to admit that there was a clear case of "haves" and "have nots" that made for less interesting racing. If your team had Mercedes power units, congratulations! If not, sucks to be you. No one could touch the Mercedes-powered cars this year.
The non-Mercedes-powered teams have been arguing for a while to ease the "engine freeze" restrictions that have been limiting and/or preventing development in the name of cost control. Clearly, that aim of the regulations hasn't worked, and the units are expensive regardless. All it's really accomplishing is keeping most of the field from being competitive with the Mercedes-powered cars.
Ferrari Technical Director James Allison noticed one thing missing from this 2015's rules: a deadline for when the final engine design must be submitted to the FIA.
The FIA has now admitted that this oversight does, in fact, allow teams to continue development throughout the year.
According to the note F1 race director Charlie Whiting sent to teams over the Christmas season, as quoted in Autosport:
As it is not specifically stated... when a power unit may be modified in accordance with appendix 4 [of the technical regulations], we feel that the weighted items (32 in this case) may be introduced at any time during the 2015 season.
The basic homologated power unit will remain that which was homologated for the 2014 season, including any changes made in accordance with paragraph 1 (c) of appendix 4 [of the sporting regulations].
Sorry, Mercedes. You had your chance. Perhaps the FIA ruled this way because they're tired of seeing only one engine manufacturer have a chance, too.
Under the engine freeze as it was previously understood, the original engine design had to be submitted by February 28, 2014. After that, development was forbidden unless it was for "reliability, safety or cost-saving reasons" per the rules.
In the offseason, modifications on only a certain number of items would be allowed to ease all the teams into the new turbo V6 hybrid power units. The items that are open to change are weighted based on "tokens," and only a certain number of tokens are open to change each year. As explained by Autosport:
The scope of the change would be limited by a 'token' system that related to the individual components on the engine and its hybrid systems.
The entire power unit is made up of 66 'tokens' - which are weighted individually between one and three depending on how important they are.
Ahead of 2015, five of these tokens were 'frozen' completely - but there was scope to review the 61 remaining items if a manufacturer felt improvements were needed.
However, it would not be allowed to change all the parts. The rules are clear that only 32 tokens - approximately 48 per cent of the power unit - could be used for 2015.
The issue surrounding the recent FIA clarification relates to when these tokens need to be used by.
Next year, teams can spend more "tokens" on changes.
The problem as pointed out by Allison is that the time period where teams are allowed to make modifications was never actually defined. While the FIA always assumed that teams' final engine designs would be submitted by the first race of 2015, the fact that this isn't in writing anywhere is what the teams are now allowed to exploit.
As far as new power unit supplier Honda goes, many felt as if their entry in 2015 would give them an advantage over existing teams, as they were free to develop their engine while everyone else was tied to tweaking their 2014 design under the engine freeze rules.
Honda, unfortunately, had a deadline set in the regulations for the entry of their 2015 design: February 28, 2015. Charlie Whiting's note explained:
As the existing manufacturers were obliged to homologate their power units by 28 February 2014 it would seem fair and equitable to ask a new manufacturer to homologate their power unit before February 28 2015.
We therefore consider this to be a requirement for a new power unit manufacturer.
Maybe it's not unreasonable for Mercedes to be talking about poaching two-time world champion Fernando Alonso from McLaren Honda in 2016, then. If Honda doesn't nail it with their new engine design and McLaren doesn't give Alonso a competitive car, everyone knows he won't be happy there. Honda's perceived fighting chance against the dominant Mercedes power units was a major factor in their ability to woo Alonso from an uncompetitive Ferrari team.
While the number of items that are changeable are still limited by the regulations, we expect that this will help quite a bit in getting a more competitive field next year. Mercedes will be able to make upgrades throughout the season, too, but so will everyone else. Well, unless you're running Honda power. In that case, congratulations, you just got completely screwed.
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