Last week saw 10 of Formula One’s eleven teams commence testing amidst cries of derision from some observers over the lack of mileage the new cars completed, blamed primarily on the new powertrains.  It was an insight into two aspects of Formula One; the extraordinary ability of the teams and engine manufacturers to rise to the extreme technical challenges involved, and the inability of many of the sport’s closest observers to fully appreciate the complexity of what we are witnessing.

Considering that the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council only confirmed the configuration of the hybrid 2014 powertrain in June 2011, switching from a planned In Line 4 cylinder to a tiny V6, it is nothing less than a marvel of design engineering, development, manufacturing and supply chain management that the three powertain suppliers we able to deliver fully functioning systems on time, and to specification, in January of this year.  There are not many industries that could achieve such a feat.

In a little over two and a half years Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Renault have created their complex power units comprising a 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged internal combustion engine, two energy recovery systems, an energy store and electronic control systems.  The result is around 760bhp, similar to what the 2.4 litre V8’s were producing up until last season, but requiring 37.5% less fuel to cover the same race distance.  It’s a remarkable achievement.

In industries such as automotive and aerospace, step-changes in technology such as this would still be measured in terms of half a decade or more.  What is more, the research, development and testing would be carried out behind closed doors and under the strictest of security.

In F1 the powertrain manufacturers have enjoyed no such luxury.  Aside from testing the power units on static and transient dynos, enabling their function and performance to be proven in a very controlled environment, the first time any of them will have gained an insight into their product’s real-world operation was when the light turned green at the end of the Jerez pit lane last Tuesday.  In the full glare of the public eye and the world’s media.

The new powertrains are highly complex, each of the six major systems seamlessly integrated, and their operation relying heavily on the suitability of the vehicle installation, especially its transmission, fuel, oil and cooling systems.  Considering that all 10 F1 cars tested last week will not have been fully assembled until a matter of days before, a lot of fingers will have been crossed.

Except that, in F1, it’s never a question of crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.  It comes to down to project planning, hard work and a unerring focus on delivery.  For the designers, engineers, manufacturing staff, mechanics and myrid other technicians, not to mention suppliers, the pressure built over the last two years will have reached a crescendo  in recent weeks.

Looking at the statistics, the same numbers which drew criticism from some observers are worth reviewing.  In 2013 the first F1 test of the year saw teams complete a cumulative total of 3531 laps which represented 15634kms; this was achieved using V8 engines which had been in existence since 2006 but which owed their fundamental technology to V12, V10 and previous V8 designs running all the way back to the mid-1960s.  This was ancient, well proven technology. They were indeed bolted to a kinetic energy recovery system, but this was merely an independent electric booster.

Last week the teams achieved 1470 laps, or 6509kms, which is just under 42% of the mileage achieved a year before.  This is a massive achievement considering the complexity of the technology involved and its integration into entirely new cars.

That the Mercedes-Benz power units completed 875 laps with Mercedes, McLaren, Williams and Force India was a tremendous achievement for Mercedes Benz High Performance Engines in Northampton, UK.  Four installations, four ‘customers’, yet four good outcomes.  Ferrari can be equally proud of the 444 laps its unit managed in the back of the Ferraris, Sauber and Marussia.

Only Renault stumbled, and that has drawn significant comment, mainly because it limited 4-times World Champions Red Bull Racing to a miserly 21 laps; the least of any team.

Far from this being a failure, as such, I would argue that it only brought into perspective the massive over achievement we saw at Mercedes and Ferrari.  Renault’s Rob White admitted that they had suffered a number of problems, perhaps best summed up by his comment that they ‘…now know that the differences between the dyno and car are bigger than expected.’*

Once Renault’s Energy F1-2014 power unit met the Red Bull RB10, the outcome was certainly embarrassing in F1 terms, but nothing that both companies cannot recover from in the weeks ahead.  After all, finding out what the problems are, as much as unlocking performance, is one of the reasons for testing.

The achievement of all three powertrain companies should be applauded.  Once again, along with their teams, they have demonstrated one of the most appealing qualities of Formula One; its ability to innovate, rise to complex challenges, and meet its deadlines.  Last week was no embarrassment, it was a triumph for F1’s engineering community.

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