Synthetic-fuelled hybrid powertrain set to revolutionise F1 in 2026
The 2026 engine regulations are finally in. They make for interesting reading, both for what they do and do not include.
Gone is the innovative, complex and hugely expensive MGU-H spinning at 125,000rpm, a piece of technology which added little to the show but got some of those sitting around the table in Place de la Concorde terribly excited. Road-irrelevant as it turned out.
Of far greater significance was the ability of the engine manufacturers to take the combustion efficiency of the fuel-flow limited ICE to an entirely new level, Mercedes reaching 50% thermal efficiency five years ago.
It’s not the first time in the sport’s history that a regulatory wrong turn has occurred, but I don’t suppose anyone will add up all the time, effort and money spent on MGU-H technology over the past decade only for the whole lot to be binned.
Also gone are variable trumpets. Instead, the MGU-K is where all the hybrid action is to be had, the energy store having been almost tripled to 350kw, or 470bhp in old money.
The 2014 regulations were designed by technocrats with little concern for the wider business of F1 never mind its fans. Here were a set of rules about which the FIA was deeply passionate, yet its fervour was not shared across F1. The sport failed to refine and communicate the new rules to sponsors, media and fans.
Instead the new engines caused confusion and disappointment thanks to their muted sound. Indeed, it was only at the end of last year that F1 launched a marketing campaign promoting the efficiency of the current engines.
‘The world’s most efficient engine, powered by Hybrid’ declared the new logo, before adding ‘since 2014’, just to remind us.
The 2026 engine rules have undoubtedly benefitted from lessons learned. As is typical of the new collegiate style of management, all stakeholders were involved - the FIA, F1, the teams and manufacturers old and new, VW Group included.
They considered not only the road-relevancy of the hybrid technology but also the way in which it could best be communicated. Keeping 1000bhp is good news for race fans, producing it from a synthetic drop-in fuel which adds nothing to the stock of Co2 in the upper atmosphere is great for everyone. Sponsors will love it, even the oil companies.
While environmental sustainability is highlighted in the new rules, the case for commercial sustainability shows that F1 is firmly wedded to the way in which car manufacturers spend money. It’s not cheap.
There is an engine cost cap, fixed at USD$95m for 2022-2025, rising to USD$130m per year from 2026 onwards. You read that right, the engine budget cap is not far off the budget cap for designing and operating the cars and race team.
With around USD$260m of total ‘cost cap’ to play with each season, plus all the excluded costs including driver salaries, it’s not difficult to see USD$4-500m being run through the books by the largest manufacturer outfits.
Perhaps the biggest concern is whether anything can prevent from the most painful lesson from 2014 being repeated.
The intent of those rules was that no one manufacturer should gain a significant competitive advantage. The opposite happened, Mercedes’ talented team winning the next eight World Championships for Constructors on the trot.
With at least 6 manufacturers entering the fray this time, they must hope that a repeat performance is unthinkable. Fingers crossed?
This article by Mark Gallagher was originally published in GP Racing Magazine