F1 / Power Unit 2026: sustainability without organic matter – Carlo Platella

In a constantly evolving sport like Formula 1, attention is rarely focused on the present, instead it is constantly projected towards the future. If it can be seen in the circus’ everyday life, it becomes even clearer in the weeks when the action on the pitch fades away and the discussions gather elsewhere. The delay in the publication of the final guidelines for the power units arriving in 2026 is therefore at the center of the last weekend of June, resulting in anger from Porsche and Audi. In such a context, it is understandable that the manufacturers at the door are willing to look clearly at a regulation which, although stimulating, leaves a lot of confusion, so they call for further consideration.

Without going into the benefits of all the technical implications of the new engines, it is appropriate to understand what the basic structure will be. The total power of the power unit will remain around a thousand horsepower, supplying the heat engine with a mixture of biocomponents and synthetic gasoline. All this will cause the combustion unit to lose power, offset by an increase in electric traction, which will increase from the current 120 to 350 kW, equivalent to 480 horsepower. The electric power will thus go from 20 to about 50% of the total power, but one thing is the proportion in relation to the maximum power, while another thing is how long it will be possible to harness the power from the electric motor.

To simplify wanting to use the language of road mobility, the Formula 1 hybrid is not and will not be a plug-in, ie. the battery is not recharged from an external electrical outlet, but must charge itself while driving. The utilization of electric current will therefore not only depend on how big, or rather, the battery will be, but on how efficiently the energy in motion will be recovered. Precisely in this, the engineering challenge becomes more complicated, as in the power units in 2026 there will be less of an important charging source, MGU-H, the generator connected to the turbine, which regenerated electricity by utilizing the exhaust gases. On the new engines, regeneration will instead be entrusted exclusively to MGU-K, which can mainly recharge the battery during braking, which opens up an important problem.

It will be forgiven if concepts already known by most people are expressed, but according to the principle of conservation, energy is not created by nothing, but can only be transformed from one form to another. When the thermal engine accelerates the car, which gains speed, it happens that the chemical energy inside the fuel is converted into kinetic energy. What can be done by braking is to prevent the car’s same kinetic energy from being scattered by the brakesrather, convert it to electrical form through the MGU-K, also called the motor generator, and recharge the battery. In a theoretical and ideal world, where every conversion takes place perfectly, the battery could be recharged during braking with all the energy used to accelerate the vehicle. The energy balance would be zero and the car could move by using only the fuel needed for the initial acceleration.

However, the ideal world collides with the many boundaries of reality. Firstly, the efficiency of the electric machines and the heat engine is such that in the conversion processes there are not always insignificant energy losses, which limits the possibility of recharging. Not only the energy needed to accelerate the vehicle must be taken into account, but also the non-renewable energy used to maintain its constant speed by overcoming the resistance to movement, above all the aerodynamics that are essential for energy balances. Finally, the current technological frontiers are emerging above all else the “low” regeneration power of 350 kW discussed for the electric motor generator. Even if one assumes that the battery allowed to reach a regeneration in braking of 600 kW, as will happen in Formula E from next season, much of the braking work would remain the responsibility of the disc system, and effectively dissipate energy in the form of heat. If you look trivially at the simulations performed by Brembo on the eve of the Canadian Grand Prix, it can be seen that in six of the seven braking sections of the Montreal track, the maximum braking power was greater than 2000 kW. These are reference data, as the rider gradually modulates the brake and braking force in relation to the braking, but in any case indicates how much it is unlikely that the power units thus defined from 2026 could achieve a regeneration during braking of more than 20%.

The picture is that there are scarce opportunities for energy recovery, difficulties exacerbated by the disappearance in 2026 of an important charging source such as MGU-H. As already reported on these pages from Alberto Antoninithe risk is that without a radical overhaul of the other components there will be extensive use of clipping, having to turn off the power well in advance as there is not enough energy available. This would result in power units that in short moments can supply the now known thousand horses, half of which are electric, but actually run most of the time with 50 or 75% of maximum power. One possible solution would be to make the engine unit function more like a series hybrid, that is, to use some of the power from the thermal engine to recharge the battery during operation and not just in braking mode using the MGU-K. However, such a scenario would increase fuel consumption without considering how there would be no electric motor power at the moment of recharging as the MGU-K is used as a generator unless another electrical unit is added.

In this context, Porsche and Audi are waiting to understand not only the architecture of the power units in 2026, but also with what logics they will work. At present, the FIA ​​and Formula 1 pursue the development of engines with greater economic and environmental sustainability, but lack an organic approach as well as an overall vision. In fact, the clear intention is to first define the new power unit and then move on to the rest of the car. It therefore arises spontaneously to ask how it is possible to devise a hybrid engine for a race car while ignoring its weight and aerodynamic resistance., basic aspects to allow the essential energy balance and efficiency calculations. We discussed the desire to lighten the individual seats and reduce their overall dimensions in order to more efficient load generation and reduce movement resistance using active aerodynamics. All of this needs to be quantified and discussed simultaneously with the engine, but at the moment we are trying to define a power unit without knowing which platform it will operate on. The engines of 2026 thus arise both from the will and the need to adapt to the times, which promotes the search for an increasingly electrified mobility, but despite sustainability, the design of the new rules still lacks an organic vision.

FP | Carlo Platella

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