Written By Gabriel Tsui, Edited by Sharifah Zaqreeztrina
In the F1 Commission meeting held during the 2023 Belgian Grand Prix race weekend, there was a discussion on multiple changes that could be happening to the sport, and one of them is the engine equalization. According to Motorsport.com, FIA launched an analysis on the four different engines at some point during the season, and found out that Alpine is at a huge disadvantage. The source that leaked the news also claimed that the Renault engine is behind by approximately 20-33 hp (15-25 kW)..
In a championship battle where teams - not named Red Bull - are very close in performance, an engine deficit of 20-33 hp could be the deciding factor in whether a team performs well in a race. But how bad is the situation actually for Alpine? Could an upgrade to the engine save them this season? How should the FIA deal with this?
How poor was it?
To understand how poor the Renault engine has been performing, we have to find comparable data to their close rivals, where they have similar setup due to the nature of the track, which brings us to the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Here shown below is a telemetry graph from the qualifying session in Baku, where it compares the fastest qualifying lap between Alex Albon and Esteban Ocon.
Alpine is a great team on the corners. Throughout the graph, it is seen that every time they approach the braking zone, Ocon gains a couple of tenths on Albon. Especially through the castle section, where it’s full of quick turns, Ocon leads on the delta by around half a second coming out of that section.
However, when the Alpine goes into a drag race, it loses, and loses terribly. In the first highlighted box, Ocon heads into the first turn with around 0.15-0.20 seconds of advantage, then loses it in the short run into turn two, where the French team gains an even larger lead, roughly 0.35 seconds, and loses most of it on the long run towards turn three.
In the second highlighted box, after the downhill corner exit, they go into the long straight to the finish. Ocon nearly lost the 0.38 lead immediately and crossed the finish line by a narrow lead of 0.02 seconds over his Williams rival.
There are multiple ways to interpret this information. First hypothesis would be that Renault’s engine is actually unreliable and might be much worse than the other three. Another hypothesis would be that Ocon is actively braking later into every single corner and getting on the gas seconds later than Albon. The downforce setup would be the third hypothesis, which could be possible but wouldn’t be sensible due to the high speed nature of the circuit as mentioned above.
To find an answer for the second hypothesis, right under the delta box is the throttle percentage box. (Do note that this photo below only includes the downhill turn to the finish line).
Looking at the throttle percentage box and the brake box, it’s quite obvious that Ocon holds onto the brake for a tad longer than Albon does, which then leads to the Frenchmen not being able to get on the throttle as quickly as Albon. Does that mean it’s solely on the driver?
On the other hand, looking at the RPM (revolutions per minute) and gear shifting, it is extremely obvious that the Alpine was slower in terms of going up the gears. In a different telemetry, when comparing George Russell to Ocon, they put the foot on the gas at almost the same time, but Ocon could not go up the gears as quickly as Russell did. The Mercedes driver got up to eighth before the high-speed chicane, while Ocon got there after.
Looking at both pieces of information, you may ask: “Then which one is it? Is it the driver or the engine?” In this case, these two statements can be true at once as they do not contradict each other.
To obtain further proof of that, here’s another telemetry comparing Ocon and Nico Hülkenberg’s fastest Q2 qualifying laps in this year’s round of Canada, another high-speed circuit where downforce set-up are assumed to be similar and DRS is available in the lap.
As we observe in the third graph, when the two drivers are approaching the heavy braking corners, Hülkenberg has an extra 10-16 km/h advantage over Ocon. This includes getting in the long straight after the hairpin, where DRS is available. Ocon was 12 km/h behind the Haas driver.
On the other hand, Alpine was unable to break 11000 rpm on eighth gear with DRS, which is a huge drawback considering every team on the grid was able to break 11500 rpm on the said gear.
Would the FIA grant an upgrade for Alpine?
Would the FIA provide an exception for Alpine to bring an upgrade that improves the engine? That remains to be seen, but currently the paddock are in favor of doing so. When the engine freeze was implemented, it was agreed between teams and manufacturers that if a team falls behind in engine performance, the teams will sit down and hold talks as to how the FIA should resolve the issue.
However, the FIA is stuck between a rock and a hard place, giving rise to these questions. Are they going to make the choice of allowing an upgrade, giving a team the “get out of jail” card, and nullifying the hard work of the engineers from other manufacturers that gave their teams an advantage all while setting a bad example? Or are they going to reject the proposal, allow a young and promising team to stray further and further away from the top, leading to even more boring, uncompetitive racing?
It’s time to make the choice.