Formula 1 is moving towards a deal from 2026 for a new engine design – and it is increasingly seen that its introduction will tempt at least one brand from the Volkswagen Group to join the grid.
These are a simplification of hybrid engines, a promise to level the playing field for competitors to compete with others who have been in the sport for decades, and to adopt sustainable fuels.
The VW Group has been discussing new engine formulas in recent months, and F1 senior insiders say they are increasingly confident that at least one VW brand – mostly Audi or Porsche – will enter in 2026.
From F1’s point of view, it would be a vote of confidence in terms of travel from the world’s second largest car company on the grounds that electric power is not the only answer to the sustainable future of motive transport.
Negotiations have not been finalized, but a broad agreement has been reached on how the future will look, with small details still to be resolved.
What is changing in the engines?
The main difference between the F1 engines will be used from 2026 and the current one will be replaced by a device called MGU-H.
It is part of a hybrid system that restores energy from a turbo-charger. It is at the center of the revolutionary level of efficiency of F1 engines, but it has some major downsides – it is incredibly complex and perfectly expensive, and it has been proven that it is not relevant for use in standard road-car engines.
VW has made it clear that engines will not enter the F1 if they maintain the MGU-H, as it will be impossible for the current supplier of the F1, Ferrari, to maintain levels of efficiency over the past seven years. , Honda, Mercedes and Renault.
It was not easy to sell the MGU-H to a group of big car companies that had invested millions to perfect it, and not specifically to Mercedes, which has dominated the F1 since the introduction of these hybrid engines in 2014. . But now everyone has agreed to do it – with caution.
The first is that the engines are hybrids. They will maintain a level of performance similar to the existing engine by a large scaling of the energy produced by other parts of the hybrid system, the bit that restores power from the rear axle, the MGU-K.
This helps secure the main goals of the new engine formula – engines that are both simpler and much less expensive.
Are there any other points of contention?
Since the MGU-H is central to the operation of existing F1 power-units, effectively all manufacturers need to design new engines to get rid of it.
But the prerequisite for entering F1 is to accept a change of VW, the existing manufacturers are only ready to go this far.
Part of the new rules governing engines from 2026 will be budget caps and other limitations on development. It was suggested that any new manufacturer – such as a VW brand – be prepared for their entry with their high level of cost and / or development permission, or when they first start in F1.
But existing manufacturers – especially Ferrari – have refused to accept it. Negotiations are under way, but Ferrari is unlikely to agree with what he said.
Another area of disagreement is over the Red Bull. Following the decision of partner Honda to leave the F1 at the end of this season, they are establishing themselves as an independent engine manufacturer. From next year, Red Bull will run their existing Honda engine designs, but will be operated by their own, brand new factory.
Other manufacturers have clear concerns about the possible link between Red Bull and VW, and there are arguments over whether Red Bull should be considered an existing manufacturer under the new rules – which have both financial and sports benefits. Being controversial.
An agreement on these and other details has not yet been finalized. And compromise will be needed to get there. But the sport is said to be “in a good place” and the words are moving in the right direction.
Another indicator of VW’s involvement in F1 can be seen to come from an unusual direction – the latest race added to the calendar.
Qatar’s new deal with the F1, for a race this November and then a 10-year deal from 2023, is the biggest of the game with a race promoter. In other words, the Gulf state’s commitment to F1 is reflected in the fact that it is paying more for its nation than anyone else.
Qatar, as it happens, holds on 14.6% shareholding in VW Group.
What is this sustainable fuel?
The introduction of sustainable energy is an important part of the strategy to net-zero the entire F1 by 20 F0.
The game has taken a small step this year with the introduction of the so-called E10 fuel, like the new fuel launched in the UK garage forecourt this summer, of which 10% is made from biofuels.
But the 20226 plan is much more ambitious. They demand F1 demands to turn to fully sustainable fuels that will be net-zero carbon.
There are two main approaches: biofuels and so-called synthetic e-fuels.
Both are ‘drop-in’ replacements for standard fossil fuels in an internal combustion engine. But at a time when the world is trying to reduce its carbon emissions, they both have the same problem – like standard gasoline, they emit CO2 into the atmosphere.
The main claim to their sustainability, however, is that they create significantly lower carbon emissions over the life cycle of the fuel.
What is the difference between them?
Is made from an organic mass – for example feedstock, waste oil from animals or plants and other organic waste from home or business. It is considered carbon neutral because the product gives the same amount of carbon when burned which increases when its source is absorbed.
Synthetic e-fuel is made using an industrial process that takes CO2 from the atmosphere and combines it with hydrogen to make fuel. In this case, the CO2 produced by burning the fuel is the same gas that was produced directly from the atmosphere.
The big downside of synthetic fuels is that they require a lot of energy to make. And if that energy is not supplied by a sustainable source, the fuel is no longer too ‘green’.
The F1’s current position is that it is agnostic about what kind of sustainable fuel it will use from 2026, partly because its fuel suppliers themselves are considered favorable in any way.
Hopefully the competition for the most environmentally friendly petrol replacement among fuel suppliers will determine which way the F1 will go.
Meanwhile, in southern Chile, just north of the port of Panta Arenas, a new plant is being built to produce synthetic e-fuel. In the investing company? Porsche owned by VW.
Why the pressure for sustainable energy?
At a time when the road-car market is increasingly moving towards electrification, you might ask why the F1 is not just electric, and why are all these car companies still interested in replacing gasoline that still produces CO2?
The answer is that it is not currently possible to keep a car with F1 level performance powered by electricity – the technology is simply not advanced enough. And the same goes for other transports.
The main problem is the concentration of energy. There is not enough battery power compared to fossil fuels. In Australia a battery powered aircraft of sufficient capacity, for example, would be many times heavier to fly.
So batteries can assemble passenger planes, or ocean-going ships, or harvesters, and if they ever did, many years ago.
At the same time, while some Western governments have banned the sale of petrol- and diesel-powered cars in phases over the years, millions of cars with internal-combustion engines will be on the world’s roads for decades to come.
The hope is that sustainable fuels can provide a way to dramatically reduce carbon emissions from them.
What about the long term?
F1’s move towards sustainable energy is perceived on several levels – it reduces emissions and as a symbol it also goes to protect the future of sports in a world where reducing carbon emissions is essential. .
It provides a way to maintain the level of performance required to create the ‘wow’ factor while taking environmental issues seriously.
But this is not a long-term solution. It’s a step towards a more sustainable, indeed zero-carbon future, when the car industry and the wider world come closer to working to see what that future looks like.
Is it a solid-state battery? What’s more, some senior sports personalities have already hinted, Using hydrogen fuel cells, Which just emits water? Or any other technology that has not yet appeared on the horizon?
No one knows yet, but there are already rumors that the next engine formula for launch in the early 2030s could be based on hydrogen.