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Ka-Blam-O! If anyone has watched former driver David Hobbs commentating for the Speed Channel in the past years, or for the NBC Sports Network now, you will recognize this term. I’m not so sure it is in the F1 lexicon, but don’t tell Mr. Hobbs that because it is his favorite word to use when describing to the viewer that a driver’s engine just let go. Not that all of the white smoke and sometimes oil exiting out the rear of the car at high velocity was any hint, but I suppose Mr. Hobbs is paid to make sure we are clear on what is happening on track.

Now that I think about it, “let go” is not really an accurate way to describe what happens when a Formula 1 engine, which revs up to 15,000 and 18,000 rpms, encounters a disturbance which in turn causes a part to fail, which in turn starts a chain reaction culminating in a rather large and fatal explosion somewhere inside the motor. But let’s not forget about Hobbs’s term, we will re-visit it a little later.

It’s customary lately for Formula 1 to have regulation changes between seasons, but this upcoming revision can only be described as comprehensive. Or, a real doozy. What on a Formula 1 car has been affected, you ask? Just everything inside the entire engine bay.

Formula 1 cars will compete this year with V6 Turbos, which take the place of the normally aspirated V8s that F1 has been using since the last engine formula change back in 2006. Because modern F1 cars are seeking to exploit the coke-bottle effect (as it is referred to) in the all important air flow at the rear of the car, most everyone who is reading this already knows what a huge undertaking such a change is. Not just for the engine suppliers, but even more so for the teams. With designers wanting to pack everything in as tight as possible the issue is how cramped can it be without causing problems such as heat retention and/or overheating. Add to this challenge an engine and chassis which have not yet turned even one lap in race conditions and you can see that complete uncertainty lies on the road ahead.

Will reliability be an issue? Some think so. As reported in a January 15 news article from Autosport, Christian Horner makes the prediction that, “I think you could see a very high retirement rate, maybe even 50 per cent in the first race.” Those are pretty dramatic words from the Red Bull Team Principal. Then again, as has been stated, the changes this year are just as dramatic. Horner continues to say, “For the back of the grid it is a huge challenge with the costs that are going to be incurred with this power supply unit,” and this indeed was one of the major complaints from most of the teams when this directive came down from Jean Todt and the FIA. The cost to change over will be extremely high. Which in turn will affect development. And this could have a direct effect on reliability.

At least one driver shares Horner’s concerns. As far back as December Jenson Button told Autosport’s Jonathan Noble and Matt Beer, “Winter testing is going to be hilarious in Jerez.” The 2009 world champion suspects that the very different behavior of the all-new turbocharged V6 engines, the inevitable initial unreliability and the cold January temperatures in Jerez will make the first runs a bizarre experience. Button says further into the article, “It [transitioning to a V6 engine] is in a bad place right now, but by the first race we will have it all sorted.” To further explain Button’s comments, he is referring to several issues. In addition to engine reliability, the drivers will have to deal with power torque and the lack of downforce due to the removal of the exhaust blowing over the rear diffuser.

There was a time when all kinds of mechanical issues would sideline an F1 car from a simple hose springing a leak all the way up to an engine failing. In fact anything and everything was a candidate for coming undone, breaking or just falling off a racecar at high speed. Not all component issues but many of them will result in the failure of an engine. I once had a chance to see a Gilles Villenueve Ferrari with the top apron removed and could see how the car was put together. A la la, (as my Moroccan friend Abdi would say), common bolts, regular old rivets and the kind of clamps you find on your garden hose holding together something that operates at 180 plus miles per hour. How many of you reading have seen something similar? My guess is quite of few of you know exactly what I am talking about.

Most if not all of the problems from the 70’s, 80’s and part of the 90’s have been eliminated as a result of the shift to computers, composite materials and just plain better engineering when designing and building an F1 car. Call it progress and despite the complexity of modern day F1 machinery, unreliability has been the one sidelined for the last ten or so years. Yes, there is the occasional engine retirement, but it’s commonly other issues that are responsible for a driver not reaching the checkered flag. Hydraulics, which run a good share of any car’s system, are a common culprit. Back in 2012, it was some faulty alternators that caused Red Bull and Lotus frustration and headaches. Last year it was Pirelli’s rubber that caused its share of driver retirements as well.

Personally I don’t share this general feeling of doom by either the experts or the drivers. I concede there will be some cars retiring due to engine failure. And I also concede the smaller teams might get the all-important packaging wrong and until they fix that issue their engines will continue to expire. Will it be as dramatic as we are led to believe? I don’t see it. I don’t see a return to the day when engine failures were a common occurrence.

Many things have changed considerably since the old days when you never knew if a driver would finish a race or not. I have already mentioned one of these changes, which is build quality. The milling, machining and fabrication at present are light years from anything available during the time when F1 cars were put together in rickety old garages. Also, the smallest or most underfunded team has resources and engine/design knowledge so far advanced from previous eras that a comparison is not just apples to oranges, its more like apples to wood blocks.

And if indeed reliability becomes a problem again I think that with all the modern tools and techniques available to both engine suppliers and the teams’ engineers a solution will surely be found quickly. In this advanced day of F1 the turnaround time is the shortest it has ever been. And unlike the aero parts which need track time to correlate and determine if they are performing as intended, an engine and its ancillary parts can be tested and re-tested, broken down and examined at any time. In fact a part or parts, or the entire engine, can be stressed until it fails which can lead to the exact solution to remedy whatever the problems are. Any gearheads reading this? Feel free to chime in if I’m wrong.

This might sound a bit odd, but I would welcome an uncertainty in the engine department this coming season in F1. I like it when you just don’t know what is going to happen. It spices up the racing and helps build tension. It will make for some dramatic finishes. Of course it can never be fun for us fans to watch the drivers or teams we favor falling victim to a malfunction of some sort be it small or catastrophic. I imagine it will be considerably less fun for the drivers or the teams, but in this era of near 100% reliability the increased possibility of the Ka-Blam-O would be a nice palate cleanser now and then.

  • This gearhead agrees. If auto manufacturers such as Ford and Honda and Subaru test their new engines until they explode, or don’t explode, then surely F1 teams will do so. The stress on the engines, excuse me, power units, is so tremendous, and the reward at the end of the event and season is so important, they do several tests to see how the engine fails under what conditions.

    Bench testing is one thing, and can reproduce failures when the vehicle is stationary (think at idle in the pits and heat soak effect), but how do they replicate forward, rearward, and lateral g-forces? The amount of force on the engine under these conditions have an affect on the tolerances and fluids (and everything affected by those such as cooling and lubrication).

  • JTW

    If an F1 ‘normal’, aspirated, V8 can be considered complex, then the new turbo V6 power units have to be considered mega-complex. The internal combustion engine itself may not the source of angst for driver and crew, but throw in the MGU-H and MGU-K (Motor Generator Unit – kinetic, and Heat, respectively), the battery, the converters, the processors involved in getting the MGU-H to spin the turbo to speed (to reduce turbo lag), and how much the MGU-K is supplying, and when, plus the increased low end torque from the MGU-K, and I think Horner is not being pessimistic in his predictions. His sentiments are echoed by Ferrari’s James Allison. I, for one, will enjoy an F1 year of unpredictably, and pray to various, and sundry, deities that Vettel and Red Bull don’t repeat. (Not that I dislike him, or the team, but it has been as boring – okay, not quite – as Jimmy Johnson in Nascar)

    • Tuna

      Weird, I would have thought “H” was for “Heat” and “K” was for “Kinetic”, not the other way around. (You said respectively, but said them in the wrong order…just giving you crap) :)

      Personally, I enjoy this engineering challenge far more than the useless “figure out the tires” challenge we had the last couple of years. It’s been interesting so far to see the different ways the teams have gone, especially with the new regulation for the nose of the car. I think we’re all waiting to see what Red Bull has gone with now that McLaren and Ferrari have shown their car. Ultimately, we won’t truly know what direction the teams have gone until they turn up in Australia, as there’s still time left to change it.

      As for the engines, I’m excited for the new engines and hope they don’t sound as awful as the V8’s did once they’re in the cars and running. Preliminary results seem positive.

  • Jack Flash (Aust)

    Just to be clear for readers: The shaping of the rear cowling of F1 cars has been described as the “coke bottle” to give a visual description to the way in which the aerodynamicists have achieved a streamlined bodywork SHAPE around the airbox/engine/exhaust/cooling circuits, to best minimise disruption to ‘ideal’ laminar air-flow passing to the rear wing and cross members [thus, minimise turbulence added, hence aero (gaseous fluid) energy sapped or drag induced].

    There is no aerodynamics ‘effect’ named “coke bottle”. It is a shape reference, not an aerodynamic effect reference.
    In comparison, “Henri Coanda effect” is an aerodynamics phenomenon (flow bend), hence effect description. Good ol’ ‘Daniel Bernoulli equation of thermo-fluid dynamics’ can generate circumstances where you might term a “Bernoulli effect” taking place in aero terms [diffuser operations for example accelerating gas flow to produce a low pressure zone for down-force generation] amongst many others.

    Sorry, but I am a stickler for terminology accuracy for F1B. No dig intended. JF.

  • dude

    I’d read a fair deal about the new ERS system. How come no one talk about the 8 speed gearbox, wonder if it affect the driving style, seems a handful.

    • Tuna

      I doubt they notice the difference much with 1 more gear compared to all the other things they have to deal with.

  • Deeyavid

    I remember several years ago that Mr. Hobbs gave a formal definition of a Ka-blammo (sp?). As near as I can remember the exact quote it was something like: “when parts like pistons, broken con rods, valve heads fly around inside of the engine block for a very short period of time, after which the fly around *outside* the engine block”.

    • MIE

      It’s what Ferrari used to call an “electrical failure”. They would never admit to an engine failure, and I suppose that it is just possible that one of the electrical connections could have been disturbed by the internals becoming externals.

    • Deeyavid

      I have heard that one as well LOL…
      -jp-

  • gsprings

    sad to say it, but we will never see v10’s v12’s and maybe v8’s in f1 again,I guess it’s just common sense that engineers would learn how to squeeze more power out of these smaller engines, while getting better fuel efficiency,you see the car companies doing it, common sense that f1 would have to do the same,I guess that old thing about people not liking change,I think f1 will be fine with these engines, as far as these v6’s being more complex,hey, f1 and complex go together,the f1 geeks love complex

  • Deeyavid

    I am actually looking forward to the 2014 season and the turbo engines. I wonder if we are going to see a lot more power than the 700-ish BHP people are forecasting given the fact that engines have become much more efficient and reliable in the last 25 years. The last era of 1.5 liter turbos seemed to top out at about 15K RPM, the same as today’s limit, admittedly with unlimited fuel consumption. No more 5-lap qualifying grenades of course, but much more advanced materials, construction, engine control systems, direct fuel injection, and a better understanding of how and why an engine can fail…and on top of that, ~130 BHP worth of “free” energy recovery that for most tracks will effectively be available full time. It will be fun to see how this all works out – I hope the authorities don’t put a lid on innovation and engine development too soon.

  • Joc_the_man

    Well, it is very strange. We have heard from FIA heads (no names because then you are censured) for many years that cost is an issue. Then, this environmental cr-p … as F1 should be the place for eco-drive and electiric motor racing. Come on! Now all teams spend huge amounts …. obviously now there are funds. I do not get it. For sure, I am worried about the sport but the FIA heads seems to believe that we F1 fans will continue to spend loads to watch and see irl our drivers in low rev cars with electric crap systems performing tyre mgmt and eco drive. . I will for sure not. Many with me. People that enjoys the environmental profile drive Prius and do not watch and spend money on motor racing. I read a comment by Fernando – very political (of course…do not mess with the FIA heads) that the V10 era with up to 1000hp and lighter cars was the peak time and when they really raced. Well see, change is normally good if you see development but F1 is going down down and the magic will be lost. I am really sad but the FIA heads seems to sit in their ivory tower and do not care abt us fans that pay for the spectacle. Without fans, no F1. RIP F1.

  • Joc_the_man

    you bring up some valid points for sure, personally i feel there is something to be said for both sides. the V-10 era was magical, as was the v-12 era, but i also like the idea that my 1.8 turbo A4 quattro is a distant relative of F1 technology. the jury is still out as the saying goes and let’s wait and see what happens. if the drivers, the teams and the fans are really turned off it will be interesting to see how the FIA react. If on the other hand the drivers like the new engines, the new challenge, the fans forget about what is powering the car because we have a great racing season, Red bull not running away with it. Lewis and Nico regular winners, and hard but fair racing between Alonso and Raikkonen, then this displeasure with all the changes will be forgotten. lets hope for the latter.
    -jp-

  • paul

    Bring back the mighty V8′.Good for racing >Good for spectacle viewing and value for money to see. Just love that sound comparing to the whimper it makes now. My cat’s meow is louder than those engines

    Paul