The consequences of untested power unit parts

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Last weekend, it came to light that Renault-powered teams have big issues with their power units. At Albert Park, they had to run the power unit in a detuned state in order to not have it break down and to make it somewhat reliable.

Before we continue, it should be noted that at the bottom of the article, there's a small glossary with an explanation of some of the specific words used in this article. This is to avoid confusion.

Both Red Bull and Renault are pointing fingers at each other, with team Principal Christian Horner stating that "Renault is a bit in a mess" and Renault's Manager Director Cyril Abiteboul claiming "we were very aggressive because Red Bull has taken us on a ferocious race in development."

The latter's comment points on last minute developments on tokens they already intended to use in Melbourne. The issue here is that once a power unit is used during a race weekend, the changes, being tokens or reliability updates, are locked in. Until the car got fired up in the garage, the team actually did not spend tokens at all and could theoretically have kept updating its tokens until the point the car is fired up. By introducing updates on the tokens they intent to use from the start of the season, there would be no extra costs concerning tokens.

The downside however is quite massive. Each power unit is separated into 6 components, and only 4 allocations of each component may be used during the season, before acquiring penalties.

This means an unreliable power unit, like the Renault one, is very heavily punished. Ricciardo and assumingly Verstappen already lost 1 of the 4 ICE's during the weekend. In Verstappen's case this crucially happened during the race, while in Ricciardo's case during free practice. This is a very important difference to make, since Verstappen did not need to put in a new ICE just yet, while Ricciardo had to. The latter's ICE will be the exact same spec as the one that broke down, meaning it will have the very same issues and risks to break down, unless ran in a detuned state.

The answer to this would be simply: 'well, fix the damn thing!' Only it is not so simple. As explained, a particular power unit will be locked in its spec when it is used, meaning that from that point forward, you are not allowed to replace its core parts whatsoever, no matter if the changes are tokens or reliability updates. The only way to introduce them is injecting another allocation of power unit parts on which the changes apply. So going back the problems Verstappen and Ricciardo are facing: Verstappen will be using a second ICE allocation in Malaysia, very probably with the reliability upgrades in order to make it work. Ricciardo however will be faced with the choice to run an unreliable ICE in a detuned state, or inject a third allocation (of the grand total of 4 for a complete season!) in what is only the second race. Both, if not all the Renault drivers, are very likely going to end up with having to go beyond 4 allocations and pick up the penalties along the way. However, Ricciardo looks to be even more on the receiving end, with a high chance of having to use 1 more unregulatory allocation, then the other would need to.

However, that's not the end of the story. Since these reliability issues are urgent and need to be fixed very quickly, all the Renault drivers will probably be using new allocations in order to have things fixed for them, even if their power unit did not break down. They can reuse their old, detuned part latter on in the season, but that will mean they'll be probably running against competition with all their unused tokens introduced. The alternative is using a 5th allocation and again picking up the penalty along the way.

Furthermore, this also means that due the urgency and due the unused tokens probably not sufficiently developed yet to introduce in Malaysia, they'll be using those tokens on a later date. Since everybody driving a Renault PU will be 1 allocation down and will need to stretch out their remaining allocations if they wish to limit the penalty burden, the updates through tokens will be further postponed, until they are ready again to use another allocation.

Rushing updates to save out tokens, a strategy which sounds nice in theory, but a potential huge disaster if things are too rushed.

*Glossary

  • Updating/Upgrading: term used to enhance the power unit, with either its reliability or its performance being enhanced.
  • Tokens: a regulatory point system for updating the power unit. Teams are only allowed to spend a certain amount of these points throughout the year. Usually utilised only for performance since teams are allowed to update reliability outside this system.
  • Component: A power unit consists out of 6 parts or components: The Internal Combustion Engine (ICE), the Electronics Control (EC), the Motor Generator Unit-Kinetic (MGU-K), the Motor Generator Unit-Heat (MGU-H), The Turbo Charger (TC) and The Battery.
  • Spec: Short for specification. The term is used on the architecture and performance of a component. When a component receives upgrades, either being reliability updates or token updates, the component changes to a different spec.
  • Allocation: a PU component or components currently in use or to be used in the season. A car can use 4 allocations of each component throughout the season, with further allocations delivering a penalty. Current allocations in use cannot be changed through either tokens or reliability upgrades, but future allocations which have not been used yet can still be changed. When no changes are made from one allocation to the other, the 2 allocation are the same spec.