Ever since Formula 1 introduced its new power units at the start of 2014, the dos and don'ts of permitted development have generate debate and contention.

First, some background. From the outset, the idea was that the power unit specification would be frozen in specification for its existence, as was the case with the V8's - unlike the V8's, however, the power units could be upgraded and re-homologated annually. The scope of those updates was limited by a system of tokens, the whole power unit was broken down into sub system and each subsystem was given a value in tokens (a bit like some kind of F1 computer game).

The whole power unit was worth 66 tokens, but in the first year manufacturers were only allowed to spend 32 tokens and this number would decrease each year until the whole power unit was a frozen specification (in about 2019 or 2020). Additionally each year some parts of the power unit would be fixed restricting the scope of what could be updated. In 2016, for example, manufacturers could not change the design of the crankcase, valve drive, cam covers, crankshaft, air valve system, and ancillaries drive. Beyond that, the only thing that could be changed in theory were for reasons of cost reliability or safety.

Primarily, this was intended to prevent the costs from escalating and Formula 1 becoming a manufacturer spending war, but the system fell apart from the moment it was first implemented. The crucial deadline for re-homologation for the 2015 season had been left out of the technical regulations, and, for want a better phrase, a 'balls up' by FIA appeared responsible

That said, I have also heard a conspiracy that the deadline was left out give a helping hand to Ferrari which itself had made a 'balls up' by not ordering a crucial turbocharger component in time.

Either way, this resulted in token spend being allowed through the year, something which was never intended and forced Mercedes to accelerate the development of some 2016 components to be ready in 2015. It was a messy situation but in reality it had little impact on the racing action on track nor did it have much impact on power unit development year on year.

"The tokens did not matter, we had a completely new power unit in 2015" Andy Cowell of Mercedes admitted at the launch of the W06. "We could change everything we wanted to for reasons of reliability as the power unit had to last longer than it did in 2014, but we did not use all the tokens even then we did not leave anything on the table in terms of performance."

Renault power unit boss Rob White has espoused a similar line in the past, saying "the allowed token spend is very generous, there is nothing we want to do which is limited by the token spend at all" he told the press in mid-2015. Indeed through the 2015 season only one manufacturer, Honda, used all of the tokens available to it.

Now, ahead of the 2016 season, it has been announced that the restrictions on what areas of the power unit would be lifted and for the 2017 season the token structure would be abandoned altogether. A bid to even up the field in terms of power unit performance has been given as the reason.

"One of the reasons we have all agreed to do this is that we all need the performance of the engine to converge Cyril Abiteboul revealed to the press at the launch of the 2016 Renault team in Paris. "An F1 that is dictated by the performance of the engine is not good for anyone. We have decided, also for the public, to stop the public being confused between the penalty system, the token system we have decided to simply remove the token system for 2017."

In essence this is a method of allowing Renault and Honda to catch up to Ferrari and Mercedes, however it is entirely reliant on the law of diminishing returns.

I don't think the development curve on the current power units have yet met the point where that law applies. Losing the token system now means that a manufacturer could conceivably run four entirely different power-units during the season without any penalty (the limit on number of power units per driver sensibly remains). It is now entirely possible to build a short lived power unit optimised for a single race, perhaps Monza for Ferrari or Suzuka for Honda, or a single type of race (perhaps one for Monaco, Hungaroring, Singapore and Baku?).

As Red Bull's Adrian Newey pointed out in the last few days, Formula 1 has opened itself to the one thing it wanted to avoid - an out and out spending war between the manufacturers. Engineers in the sport have the job of pushing every regulation to the maximum and already they will be looking at the wide range of options available.

This will all cost money, and that could deter new manufacturers from joining the sport - off the top of my head, Toyota, Peugeot, Audi and Ford are unlikely to be attracted by a series with escalating costs and complexity.

But with none of them seriously looking at F1 until at least 2020 when new rules will be introduced, perhaps that does not matter. However, will this dropping of tokens achieve the objective of levelling the playing field a little bit? I think the answer is yes and no.

More than likely, it will come down to how much a manufacturer is willing to spend, and the two who are willing to spend the most are Honda and Mercedes. The Japanese brand is willing to do anything to win in Formula 1, and it will spend its way to doing that, while Mercedes seems to have vast resource behind its F1 project and I hear it may actually make a small profit from F1 (you should ignore the badly researched stories about losses in 2014).
So those two manufacturers can develop hard - which is possibly why he has been warning teams not to write them off.

"The rate of development of the Honda in 2015 was really, really good. While it may not have seemed that way from outside our data showed the improvements clearly. Give them time and they will be really good. Because of that we are making sure we are not over confident in 2016, we definitely don't expect to have the big advantage we had in '14 and 15. Both Renault and Ferrari are catching us up but Honda is the one that worries us."

But what about Renault and Ferrari? Each is restricted on spending by their shareholders to an extent. A substantial stake in Renault is owned by the French state so it simply cannot throw endless cash after a racing programme which not all approve of, though Bob Bell did suggest it has a chequebook to rival that of Mercedes' if necessary.

Ferrari too is floated on the stock market so it cannot just spend as it wants, though as it currently makes a profit from F1 there are fairly deep pockets there for now.

So while Renault may view the loosening of the engine regulations as a primary opportunity to close the gap, has it compromised its long-term plan for a short-term goal? Time will tell, but either way, F1 is threatening to take itself down a path of, what one Englishman called it, 'chequebook racing' - and for me that is not what Formula 1 should be.

Max Yamabiko

Max Yamabiko will bring you a closer look at the technical side of F1 and motorsport in 2016, from the latest developments and solutions employed to keep you ahead of the game

 

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