Benzing the rules: Will F1's clampdown on qualifying modes clip Mercedes’ wings?

Lewis Hamilton (Albert Gea / Getty Images)
Lewis Hamilton (Albert Gea / Getty Images)
Albert Gea

• The FIA is imposing a proposed ban on "party mode".

• The blanket ban being imposed under the premise of fairness means Mercedes will be hit hardest.

•  It will also impact on drivers trying to build or close a gap around an upcoming pitstop.

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The soul-crushingly dull Spanish Grand Prix was quite possibly the last straw to break the camel's back. Last weekend, Formula One's governing body, the FIA, published its intent to mandate a uniform internal combustion engine mode setting for all competitors from the upcoming Belgian Grand Prix onwards.

Overly simplified, "party mode", so christened for its giddying and temporary ban of on-demand pole position-promising power during qualifying laps - which has been devastatingly effectively exhibited by Ferrari in the latter part of 2019 and Mercedes for the whole of this year.  The official reason given for the proposed ban is that the policing of such modes has become overly complicated; and that a single mode to be run in both qualifying and the race would be far simpler to keep tabs on.

If the ban pf party mode could bring the demise of Mercedes' dominance, do you think Formula One could be exciting again? Please email us your thoughts here.

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Image: GettyImages/Mark Thimpson

Of course, a lot more is not being said than what is being said. Because, let's be honest, this is everything but an outright attempt to reign in the all-conquering Mercedes team, hiding behind some officialdom. On the other hand, as the prospect of a seventh consecutive Mercedes whitewash is now turning into a nightmarish reality for a sport desperate to retain its paying TV viewership, one can't really blame the FIA (or F1's owners, Liberty Media) for their desire to shake up the competitive order: the pole position time of the black-painted Silver Arrows this year has been on average nearly 0.9 seconds quicker than its closest competitor. A lifetime.

Method to the madness?

A more cynical reasoning would be that, following the post-Ferrari fuel-flow incident that came to a head at the end of March, the FIA has begun to suspect that Mercedes is running a similarly sneaky system. But having previously burnt its fingers through its inability to adequately prove Ferrari's guilt, the FIA has no appetite to walk the same path with Mercedes – hence the blanket ban being imposed under the premise of fairness, knowing all too well that Mercedes will be hit hardest. And from which Ferrari, now rendered powerless after the updated fuel-flow directive that reduced them to a midfield also-ran, stand to gain from the most; and who will most certainly want to impress at their upcoming 1000th race at Mugello where face-saving will be a top-priority for F1's most storied team.

Somewhere in between lies the truth, and somehow there is a method to the FIA's madness. Whether F1 is sold as a sport, entertainment or a technological showcase – or a combination of all three – the prospect of a driver suddenly gaining a second over a lap by merely turning a dial on his steering wheel is not a great spectacle: audiences tune in to see gladiators fighting for every tenth, not unseen wizardry.

A locked-in engine mode would be much easier to police as well – all cars to run in the same pre-selected mode from lights to flag. Any deviations and the FIA gets medieval.

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Image: GettyImages/Clive Mason

What is party mode?

How does party mode work? By balancing performance with endurance, which exist as diametric opposites. If an F1 internal combustion engine has a life cycle of say, 5 000km, that can be broken down into race weekends where 750km of running will take place – 310km for the race and the rest split between practice and qualifying. 

If a theoretical five-stage engine map is broken down, setting five allows maximum power, but the engine will only last 50km. Setting four steps down the power, but doubles the engine life to 100km, with each preceding level multiplying longevity at the cost of power over a sliding scale; and the duration of their usage carefully logged.

Marry these settings to tailored ways how the hybrid system deploys power, and the variance between the steps becomes staggering. If level five equals F1's much-loved quote of 1 000 horsepower (750kW) and level 1 on the opposite side of the speed scale a tamer, but more durable 600kW; and a 7.5kW power increase equates to approximately one-tenth of a second per lap, a driver will gain 150kW – or two seconds –  in lap time by simply twiddling a dial from one to five.

Obviously, Honda, Ferrari, and Renault will not emerge from this skirmish unaffected. Still, it stands to reason that the team that has enjoyed the most aggressive qualifying mode stands to lose the most. Yet so great is the Mercedes pole position advantage in 2020, that even if halved, they'd still have a few tenths in hand over the competition in a pole position shootout. Equally ominously, being forced to run more conservative qualifying modes allows to them to trade more engine life for power during the race, especially as there is no risk in pegging back the former because everybody else has to do the same.

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Image: Alejandro Garcia / Getty Images

There are other drawbacks, too. In the heat of battle, drivers will have fewer tools in their arsenal, or when trying to build or close a gap around an upcoming pitstop. 

And what remains of the other modes? Would fuel mixture or engine saving modes be discounted by default because they are a deviation from the prescribed uniform qualifying/race mode setting?

F1 never sleeps. Such are their resources and the ceaseless drive that should Mercedes be knocked off their perch; you can be sure that they'll rediscover the performance somewhere else in their development programme. It's their party mode, but they won't cry if they lose it. 

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