The new rules governing the aerodynamic elements of the new generation of Formula One cars, together with fascinating developments in sidepod shapes and sizes, have overshadowed another major F1 regulation change that has been implemented without too much fanfare.

By Graham Duxbury

It’s a regulation that will significantly impact F1 for some years to come.

I’m talking about the F1 engine freeze. This regulation, implemented on 1 March this year, prohibits any further power unit developments by the four current manufacturers – Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Red Bull Powertrains (formerly Honda) – until the end of the 2025 season.

Last year, the FIA’s Formula One Commission confirmed that the freeze had not only been approved, but had been so with unanimous agreement between all the teams.

The F1 Commission is responsible for approving any changes to F1’s sporting and technical regulations proposed by the Sporting and Technical Working Groups, both of which include senior team members.

The engine freeze came into effect at the 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix when the detailed specifications of every power unit had to be lodged with the FIA, the sport’s governing body. No changes in the design or manufacturing processes are permitted to the now-homologated units for four years, until new rules come into effect for 2026.

This is what the regulations say: “The only power unit that may be used at an event during the 2022-2025 championship seasons is a power unit which is constituted only of elements that were in conformity, at the date they were introduced in the race pool, with the latest submitted and approved homologation dossier as defined in the technical regulations.”

Importantly, no mechanism to balance performance between power units was agreed or seriously considered by the F1 Commission.

Could this confirm Christian Horner’s belief that “to lock in performance for four years would be quite damaging” for any team that underestimated the rate of engine development over the 2021/22 winter?

In this light, has the unthinkable happened at Mercedes? After running with arguably the best engine in F1 for the past eight years, has the team dropped down the rankings just as the freeze has been implemented?

At the Bahrain and Saudi Arabian Grands Prix, the first two races in 2022, the Mercedes team struggled with the now-familiar porpoising phenomenon but its cars also appeared to be down on power. The other Mercedes-powered customer teams seemed similarly afflicted.

Obviously, it’s early days in the 2022 season and definitive conclusions cannot be drawn just yet. But there is a trend developing as no Mercedes customer cars reached the top 10 in qualifying (Q3) for either race.

There are, in fact, two homologation deadlines imposed by the FIA. The first (on 1 March) covered the V6 internal combustion engine, the turbocharger, the MGU-H (the energy generator unit associated with the turbo), the exhaust system, the fuel specification (which now includes 10% ethanol) and the engine oil specification.

The second homologation deadline is 1 September 2022 and forbids any further changes to the control electronics, the energy store (battery) and the MGU-K (the generator unit associated with kinetic energy recovery) until the end of 2025.

F1 insiders say the freeze was introduced to permit manufacturers to focus their efforts on the new 2026 regulations (which have yet to be finalised) at a time when costs linked to F1 developments are under the spotlight.

Whatever the case, the freeze, complemented by an agreed cost-cap reining in all spending by F1 teams, has been widely welcomed.

For example, word is that the Volkswagen Group is set to join F1 with power units carrying Porsche or Audi branding. And, in America, Michael Andretti is ready to enter F1 in 2024, heading a new team running under the “stars and stripes” banner.

And now, as the 2022 season gathers pace, just two questions remain: How strictly will the new rules be implemented? Are there any loopholes to be exploited?

The rules state that “a manufacturer may apply to the FIA to conduct modifications to the homologated power unit elements for the sole purposes of reliability, safety, cost-saving or minimal incidental changes”.

Let’s wait for F1’s clever people to come up with a reason to make an approved change for “reliability” or “safety” reasons that might deliver a performance advantage – completely unintended of course …