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F1 2022

It's time for F1 to give the VW Group an ultimatum: Put up or shut up

The potential arrival of two Volkswagen brands, Audi and Porsche, is being met with apathy by fans, due to the German brands dragging their heels over an entry for more than a decade.

Audi Concept
Column
To news overview © Sean Bull Design

Once again, the VW Group has stopped short of committing itself to Formula 1, instead shrouding its failure to take a binding decision with phrases such as "confirmed plans for a potential (note) Formula 1 entry of the two [Porsche and Audi] Group brands" and of "providing details at a later stage" as "we are currently in the final evaluation phase".

Indeed, the statement pointed out that "the new regulations for 2026 and subsequent years are not yet available", thus effectively blaming the delay on the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, with which it said it was in discussions. This overlooks that both brands have actively participated in all recent meetings of FIA engine working groups - convened specifically to attract new brands to F1 - since July last year.

Intriguingly, while Audi later issued a statement in which it sang the synergies of F1 and its "Vorsprung durch Technik" strapline - as an aside, first introduced by the brand's British advertising agency during the early eighties and subject to numerous proprietary court cases since - Porsche's PR department did not even bother to comment about the (non-)decision. What do they have to hide?

Porsche dragging its heels

Formula 1 has been here before: back in 2010, when the current engine formula was debated, Porsche attended various working group sessions but withdrew when it became clear F1 was intent on standardising engine architecture – inline-4 was initially agreed, later changed to V6. Porsche had punted a V4 layout; when this was refused, the company took its V4 to Le Mans. Sure, it won against Audi, but WEC is not F1.

Eight years on - after first Audi, then Porsche withdrew from WEC - the latter again expressed interest in F1, even building a V6 concept engine, but insisted that the costly and complex MGU-H heat energy recovery systems be dropped as pre-condition of entry.

Existing F1 engine suppliers agreed to accommodate Porsche's demands subject to the brand committing unequivocally to F1's 'new era' from 2021 – later delayed a year due to the pandemic. Once again Porsche was long on promises but short on action, and MGU-H stayed…

When Stefano Domenicali took the wheel of F1 in 2021 - having been recruited from Audi subsidiary Lamborghini - one of the former Ferrari F1 boss' tasked objectives was to attract Germany's biggest car maker to the sport: preferably both Porsche and Audi, but either would do. Prior to his Lambo gig, Stefano led a project (aborted due to Dieselgate) aimed at bringing Audi into F1, so understood VW Group politics.

			© Red Bull Content Pool / Getty Images
	© Red Bull Content Pool / Getty Images

Dissent in the engine ranks

A number of manufacturers were invited to join the engine working group; only Porsche and Audi turned up, crucially, tabling a corporate wish list: drop MGU-H, delay the engine formula by a year to 2026, introduce cost-saving measures including restrictions on bench-testing and budget caps, and develop sustainable, zero carbon fuels. On the face of it these made perfect sense, and broadly chimed with the future direction of F1.

Then, though, the bickering started: bio or synthetic fuels, all-wheel or two-wheel drive energy recovery systems, bench-testing exemptions for newcomers to enable them to get up to speed - the argument being Honda's embarrassingly slow and unreliable start to its F1 return - and the level of (engine) budget caps, which would force existing engine suppliers to retrench or redeploy loyal staff.

Mercedes and Renault reluctantly agreed to drop the MGU-H and embrace all or some of the above if it helped attract the newcomers, Ferrari sat between two stools playing a wait-and-see game, while Red Bull, in attendance through its nascent RB Powertrains division, backed the VW contingent, clearly hopeful of cutting a deal with one or other of the two brands. Although consensus was absent, all spoke of a "positive meeting".

In the interim, the little-known Formula One Fuels Advisory Panel, which comprises all major oil companies regardless of whether they are active in F1 and advises the sport on such matters, met to discuss the future. No surprise: there was considerable dissension in FOFAP's ranks, with sources telling RacingNews365.com the members failed to agree on the way forward, with one brand dead set against bio or synthetic fuels.

Still, the FIA, F1 and engine working group ploughed on, setting a deadline of mid-December, the plan being to table a regulatory framework at the final World Motor Sport Council meeting convened by outgoing President Jean Todt.

Audi respond as FIA outline future engine framework

However, as revealed by RacingNews365.com, rather than pledging its commitment to F1, Audi addressed a letter to Todt stating: "Audi remains committed to this process and we look forward to be working with you and your team to complete this important process, and to confirm our Formula 1 entry early next year."

After the WMSC meeting in Paris, the following statement was issued by the governing body:

The World Council validated the framework for the 2026 Power Unit Regulation and identified the following key objectives:

  • A Powerful Environmental Message: 100% sustainable fuel, overall efficiency, and shift of focus to electrical power
  • Significant Cost Reduction: technical, operational, and financial regulations
  • Newcomers: make it possible for them to join the sport at a competitive level
  • Protect the Show: powerful and high-revving power unit, car performance, sound, drivers' ability to race, avoiding excessive differentiation

The 2026 Power Unit Regulations will be based on 4 pillars:

  • Retain the 1.6-litre V6 engine
  • Increase electrical power to 350kW
  • Eliminate the MGU-H
  • Introduction of a Power Unit cost cap

The statement ended with: "A detailed document of the 2026 Power Unit Regulations will be developed and submitted to the World Motor Sport Council in early 2022."

			© XPB
	© XPB

It's time for the FIA to mark a line in the sand

Note that the full VW Group corporate demands were (more than) covered, yet these were still not enough to entice Porsche and Audi to F1 in December 2021 or even April 2022… what, then, do the brands actually want? Instead of much-mooted commitment - as per Audi's "early next [2022] year" - at Easter time both brands still find themselves in the "final evaluation phase".

Ask F1 honchos about VW Group's plans and the standard comment since July 2021 has been: "It's coming, be patient."

Exactly what is meant by "it's" was and is not specified. It could mean none, one brand or both, but, in the interim, F1 - and, crucially, F1's existing coterie of engine suppliers - are unable to move forward. Possibly that is VW Group's endgame: if they don't enter, disrupt the timeline for others? After all, F1 found itself in that position in 2010 and 2019, and, only after an ultimatum was issued, did Porsche jump – away from F1…

Since July 2021, the automotive landscape has changed dramatically: fuel prices have shot up, electrification has forced car makers to invest heavily in new tech while retrenching staff - VW envisages spending $100 billion dollars on the transition and retrenching 30,000 staff - while the global microchip shortage cost the company 350,000 units to date this year. 'Dieselgate' was small beer by comparison, yet scuppered Audi's F1 plans in 2015.

I, for one, would dearly love to report on Audi and Porsche successes - the keys to a model from each brand hang in my home, and I have the T-shirts and caps, too - but this game of charades has prevailed long enough.

It is time the FIA and F1 issued an ultimatum of 30 June to VW Group: put up or shut up. If they don't commit by then - 12 months after the first meeting - there never was any serious intent.

Image: Sean Bull Design

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