It’s difficult to believe, but we’re in the ninth year of the current turbocharged hybrid power unit.
Yet even today, after all this time, reviews of the modern motor are mixed.
Some have never truly forgiven the sport for abandoning the sheer volume of decibels that came with the old high-revving V8s — or V10s and V12s, for that matter — and others begrudge the complexity of the power unit and their propensity to attract penalties to their unsuspecting drivers.
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But technology has always been part of F1’s history, and so the sophisticated motors have their share of admirers too. Not only are parts of the power unit even today genuinely cutting-edge, but the power plant as a whole is probably the most efficient on the planet — a fact the sport has only recently and very belatedly started promoting.
But the compromise between being a racing motor and a technological masterpiece has meant the modern power unit has always been a bit unloved, and what legacy it leaves for the sport is yet to be determined.
Part of what’s prevented the power unit from being fully embraced is that despite being designed to be more relevant to the road, the automotive world has moved far more nimbly and unpredictably over the last decade. Sales of plug-in electric vehicles are accelerating faster than plug-in hybrids, with both on course to overtake the traditional Prius-style hybrid before long.
Suddenly the expensive, complicated and compromised F1 power unit doesn’t look all that modern.
With F1 set to agree to a new set of power unit rules for 2026 in the coming months, it’s an important and even emotive question to ask: what sort of engine should power Formula 1? What should fuel it? How many kilowatts should it generate? What should it sound like?
WHAT’S CHANGING IN 2026?
The new rules are being written to satisfy five key pillars:
(1) environmental sustainability and social and automotive relevance;
(2) fully sustainable fuel;
(3) creating a powerful and emotional power unit;
(4) significant cost reduction; and
(5) attractiveness to new power unit manufacturers.
The FIA wants the new rules confirmed by the mid-season break, but based on what we know so far, the new power units won’t be far from the current ones bar two architectural changes.
The first major difference will be the beefing up of electrical power. An approximate 50-50 split between combustion and electricity was envisaged; the sport is expected to land on 350kW electrical power, with engines currently turning out an estimated 740kW.
Formula 1 was never going to decide to become an all-electric racing series — Formula E is already all over that, and the technology isn’t mature enough yet to simply swamp in — so this is as close as the sport will get to point (1), even if the ongoing relevance of hybrid technology to automotive research and development is debatable.
The second substantial change will be the removal of the MGU-H, which turned excess heat into electrical energy. It was the one genuinely cutting-edge part of the power unit, meaning it was also the most complicated and expensive.
That satisfies points (4) and (5). Indeed the MGU-H was the biggest barrier to new manufacturers joining, and its removal is understood to be key to Volkswagen joining the sport with its Porsche and Audi brands.
VW is yet to formally confirm its entry to F1 with either brand, but there’s significant speculation that the rule-confirming process is being drawn out by some of the current manufacturers as a political game to try to stifle Porsche and Audi’s preparations, particularly given both will likely also receive some development concessions as new manufacturers. That’d signal it’s as good as a done deal.
Both Porsche and Audi are expected to build engines under the new rules, but while the former will partner with Red Bull Racing as a power unit supplier, the latter is expected to buy a current team, likely the Sauber-run Alfa Romeo squad, to become a fully fledged constructor.
THE SECRET SAUCE OF THE NEW RULES
But what about points (2) and (3) of the above list?
Fully sustainable fuel is an understatedly important point, and it’s more interesting than you may think.
From 2026 Formula 1 will move away from traditional petroleum fuels and instead switch to sustainable fuels. A sustainable fuel not only emits no carbon when burned, but the BBC has reported the F1 and Aramco-developed synthetic fuel will be carbon neutral through its development too.
It’s a key part of F1’s goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2030, even if emissions from the cars themselves contribute around 1 per cent of the sport’s overall carbon footprint.
But the bulk of the sport’s emissions come from logistics, in particular the hundreds of thousands of kilometers of air travel undertaken annually.
Interesting and tangentially related here is that Mercedes is investing in the development of a sustainable aviation fuel to ensure it reaches its own net-zero goal by the same year.
“If we must fly, then we need to find a better way to do so and [sustainable aviation fuel] is the best solution available to the aviation industry right now,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. “Sustainable aviation fuel has the potential to transform the way we travel and the impact that we have on the environment.”
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And the same applies to motor racing: if we must race — and we do; that’s the whole point of Formula 1 — then we need to find a better way to do it.
And here F1 has a chance to be relevant to the road too, because this new fuel is being designed to ‘drop in’ to any existing combustion engine and work. Similar to the way E10 ethanol-blended fuels will work in most combustion engines, so too will this fully synthetic, sustainable fuel work in your combustion-powered road car.
Given there’s something like 1.4 billion cars already on the road — not to mention mass forms of transport and other vehicles — the scalable production of a net-zero fuel could be a real game changer in the race to reduce the world’s carbon emissions.
BUT WILL THE RESULT BE EMOTIVE?
That just leaves point (3): “a powerful and emotive power unit”, and while the proposed power unit architecture is unlikely to offer a reduced spectacle, it’s also unlikely to be any better improvement either.
And so we come back to that same principal tension that compromised the 2014 engine: the battle between road relevance and sporting purpose, with neither end of that equation really fully satisfied.
The new rules are cheap enough to attract new manufacturers and sufficiently green enough to pay for F1’s social licence, but they’re neither especially road relevant given the march towards full electrification nor particularly spectacular from the sporting point of view.
But there may be a third way.
At the British Grand Prix Sebastian Vettel took Nigel Mansell’s 1992 championship-winning Williams FW14B for a spin on Sunday morning. He owns the car, and he was running it with a sustainable fuel.
The engine was the same Renault naturally aspirated V10, and it made the same noise that V10s make — loud and brash and aggressive.
“Motorsport is our passion,” he said at the time. “It is, I think, important to find a way that we can do it responsibly in the future as well, to keep these cars and the history alive.
“You can express culture in many ways — music, arts — but our sort of culture, our way of expressing ourselves, is driving cars, racing cars, and it would be a shame if that was all to disappear.
“I think it’s a way to keep it alive. And looking forward, obviously Formula 1 is headed in that direction with 2026. It could be sooner, but it is what it is for many reasons.
“I think that’s it’s a great way to put it all together and have some fun.”
Could Formula 1’s future to be to go back to the past?
“I think they need to because I think for me, listening to that engine, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Christian Horner said, per The Race. “I think the noise of Formula 1 is something that is part of its DNA, it’s part of its appeal, and it shouldn’t be ignored.”
A combustion engine, never mind a V10, has absolutely no relevance to the automotive sector. But it would be cheap, and running on sustainable fuels it would be environmentally responsible too.
Most of all, it would be a powerful and emotive engine, which might in itself be attractive to manufacturers given the sport’s current popularity.
It’s too late for Formula 1 to rip up the progress it’s made on its 2026 rules, which will last part the sport’s 2030 carbon-neutral goal. But once that cycle’s complete and the automotive world is further down the road of electrification, maybe the time will be right for Formula 1 to abandon its connection to the road and go back to the future.