11
Apr
10

Interesting times ahead

So Greece is being offered thirty billion Euros worth of loans, most of the Polish government has died in a plane crash, and the Catholic Church seems to be imploding.  There’s plenty for me to write about under that post title.

But today I’m going to write about motorsports: in particular, a 1.6-litre inline-four specification called the Global Racing Engine.  Or rather, I’m going to direct you to what Gordon Kirby and Ulrich Baretzky have to say about it:

Here’s Kirby:

Audi Sport’s engine boss Dr. Ulrich Baretzky is one of the racing industry’s leading proponents of pursuing efficiency as the keystone of the sport’s raison d’être in the 21st century. In company with the pursuit of the great God of efficiency Baretzky is also a leading supporter of the ‘Global Racing Engine’–a 1.6 liter in-line four-cylinder turbo.

Let me digress for just a minute.  Wandering around downtown Vancouver yesterday I came across an Aston Martin DB9 motoring away from a stoplight.  It’s a beautiful car, but more than that its 5.9l vee-twelve makes a heart-achingly glorious sound.  Based on that experience, I might be forgiven for lamenting a move towards small-displacement engines in motorsport.  But I make no such lamentations, and this is why:

(Skip ahead to about 1:50 to hear the thing on song.)

The McLaren MP4/4 was perhaps the most dominant Formula One car ever raced, and it did just fine with a 1.5-litre turbocharged vee-six.  That engine — a Honda RA168E — sounds fucking fantastic at damn near every point of the powerband.  (Why did Formula One teams move to the 1.5l turbo formula over the competing 3.0l naturally-aspirated engines they’d been running previously?  Because the half-displacement turbos were overwhelmingly faster once they’d been properly developed.)

The idea behind the the Global Racing Engine is pretty simple: a basic 1.6-litre inline-four design outline that could be used, in various configurations, at nearly all levels of motorsport.  800hp with stupid-high amounts of boost in Formula One trim?  Clearly possible, as 1988 showed us.  300hp with spec fuel restrictors in a Flying Dildo?  Why not?  200-250hp with a spec turbo in Formula Three (I’m speculating wildly and irresponsibly here)?  Sure.  1.6l I4 TDI engines in touring cars and rally cars?  It’s already happening.

The exciting thing about the GRE concept is that it’s not a spec engine.  (Spec engines, as a cursory look at Indy Car will show you, are evil and must be destroyed.  Even Formula Ford is introducing Honda Fit engines as well as a new configuration from Ford.)  Quite the opposite: it’s a competitive engine platform, and it’s specifically intended to make engine-development wars financially feasible again by amortizing the costs involved across a wide range of classes.  Kirby/Baretzky continue:

The FIA’s World Council has approved a 1.6 liter, in-line four cylinder engine for next year’s World Touring Car and the World Rally Championships. It’s not exactly the ‘World Racing Engine’, but is very close and Baretzky believes the move is the beginning of the FIA adopting the concept on a much broader basis.

“They’ve approved a 1.6 liter turbo direct injection four cylinder engine for the WTCC and WRC and that’s the basis of the rules we’ve been discussing with the FIA as the ‘Global Racing Engine’,” Baretzky comments. “BMW, Citroen and Ford are working on developing an engine like that since July last year because they were so sure that the idea of the ‘Global Racing Engine’ would come. So they started before the rules were even agreed to. That shows their level of confidence in the concept. I think they will start testing their cars in the next few weeks or months.”

I’m well aware of the impracticalities involved in trying to create a competitive environment by regulatory fiat — I’d have to be pretty fucking dim not to draw a few connections between economics and motorsports.  The first “loophole” I can see is that engine designers might focus on one particular configuration — Ferrari optimizing their “GRE” for high-boost Formula One applications, say.  Baretzky is aware of this (he’s the head of engine development for Audi Sport, fer fuck’s sake), and has a few ideas on how to prevent it.  In the August 2009 edition of Racecar Engineering, he wrote (on the GRE):

[T]his is not a one-make engine, but a set of dimensions within which you can work to make your own engine.  Then the engine is homologated and you cannot make any more changes. […]

There is freedom within certain aspects of the engine, but there would be minimum weights for specific components, such as connecting rods, for example, to avoid extreme expense.  Once the engine is homologated, development is frozen, except within the areas specified for development. If such an area was the injection system, for instance, then this system could be developed without restriction and, after three years, we could sit down and decide on the next area to be developed – say, internal friction.

(Emphasis added.)

More centralized control doesn’t strike me as the optimal way forward, but this sort of idea — where the fundamentals are regulated but the details are up for development — seems like the best option for motorsport in general.  In an open (non-spec) series, development always happens in the less-restricted parts of the regulations.  Consider Formula One — engine development was essentially frozen into 2006, and the teams responded with wildly increased aero development.  Compare, say, the 2004 Ferrari:

to the 2008 car:

All cars were developed to the same aero complexity (if not the same levels of effectiveness).  The teams didn’t reduce money or motivation when engine development was frozen: they simply put the same resources into different areas (allowing for some dead-weight startup costs).  Reintroducing engine development — under the Global Racing Engine framework — won’t suddenly magnify costs that weren’t there to begin with — front-row teams like Ferrari and McLaren have been spending all the money they possibly could to get an incremental advantage.  (The McLaren MP4-23’s development at the end of 2008 was considered the most expensive per time increments achieved in the sport’s history.  All this after the “cost-saving” engine-dev freeze.)

What loosening the rules will do is differentiate the cars.  Probably there will be a period of intense engine development, as all the teams that can afford to wring whatever they can get out of the new engine.  Then some teams, perhaps backed by factory engine development programmes that can amortize their costs over a number of GRE series, will try to find further time in engine development.  Others will look for time in the wind tunnel, and still others in chassis development.  Maybe with engine development reintroduced to the sport, other aspects like active suspension will follow.

The alternative to unrestricted development is stupid chickenshit gimmicks, which depressingly enough seems to be vastly more popular.  Indy Car, for example, is now a spec series with a Dallara chassis and a Honda engine.  Spec series work well in the lower ranks of motorsports, where driver skill levels are different enough to allow plenty of passing.  At a high level (such as Indy Car), all drivers are skilled enough that with nothing else to differentiate them there’s either no passing (road courses) or formulaic passing (the setup-draft-pass this lap, get setup-drafted-and-passed on the next lap game on ovals).  High-level spec cars are differentiated by team strategy (car setup and pit strategy) or by gimmicks.  In particular, Indy Cars have an “overtake” button (for an extra 5 horsepower or so), which drivers are permitted to use twenty times per race.  Some drivers adapt better to the new options than others — and you have a small difference between cars, but a large enough one to permit more passing.  For a while.

This is, if you’ve been keeping score from home, the sort of thing that Formula One promised in 2009 with six-point-eight seconds of KERS power per lap and two front-wing flap angle changes per lap.  This is also what killed KERS as an interesting technology in Formula One: the detail-oriented, artificially- and heavily-restricted implementation of KERS made it a poor investment, drivers used their limited KERS boost to protect position rather than to pass, and one after another the KERS-using teams abandoned its development.  Flap angle changes, intended to get more downforce on the front wing to facilitate passing, turned out to be better-used as a way to trim the cars as their tires degraded.

Now The Bernie is advocating even more gimmicks to “revitalize” Formula One — most egregiously the idea of shortcuts in the track that drivers can take a specified number of times per race.  Why these gimmicks would work any better than those previously employed remains somewhat obscure.

Most people with any sense have long derided the socialist “solution” to the economic calculation problem.  I suspect that motorsport has the same fundamental issue — call it the “competitive advantage problem” — which is likely to admit the same sorts of solutions.

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