Before the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes Formula 1 car needed a new engine (power unit). The team installed the new power unit, incurring a five-place grid penalty, yet that proved to be the winning call.
The new power unit took Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton to another level with a pace that left his competition in the dust. Hamilton’s Brazil victory is mainly due to his tremendous skill, but the power unit seemed to be leagues ahead of the field. His top speed on the straights was often 12 to 13 mph faster than any other car’s.
The competition, specifically Red Bull Racing, was powerless to stop a charging Hamilton. That power unit was again replaced for the Qatar Grand Prix, but now, Mercedes GP says it will go back into the car for the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix. Could this engine power Hamilton to his eighth world title?
What exactly is a ‘power unit’ and how does it work in a Formula 1 car?
A modern Formula 1 car is incredibly complex and represents the state-of-the-art in automotive engineering.
The power unit is the term that F1 and the teams use to refer to the engine. The engine itself has four components that together comprise the “power unit.” There is the internal combustion engine, a 1.6-liter V6 with a single turbocharger. The MGU-H, an energy recovery system that converts the heat of the turbo into electrical energy. The MGU-K, another energy recovery system that converts kinetic energy from the brakes back into electricity. Lastly, the battery pack and electric motor, which store the electricity and feed it back, adding power to the engine.
The entire power unit generates around 1,000 horsepower at 12,000 rpm from a small and light package.
The power-to-weight and size ratio of modern Formula 1 power units makes them the world’s most efficient internal combustion engines. The tolerances are so tight within the motor that preheating is necessary before starting. Circulating warm engine oil and coolant allows the internal parts to expand and enable the engine to start without damage.
A lot of complicated engineering is involved in a Formula 1 power unit, but the important takeaway is this: The term “power unit” refers to the engine and the energy recovery system together.
How will the Brazil power unit help Mercedes and Hamilton, and why don’t they use it all the time?
Lewis Hamilton’s power unit from Brazil is more potent than the other engines because it is new. Mercedes can run it with higher power settings because it does not need to last as long as the other engines.
Having a horsepower advantage over your competition can make it easier to pass on the straights and help you pull away from rivals during the race.
Formula 1 has a rule that the teams can only use three engines per car, per season. This rule is in place to help control the massive costs of operating an F1 car and prevent the more prominent teams from outspending the smaller teams. The teams can use more than three engines in a season but must incur a penalty for doing so in the form of a grid place demotion.
That was the reason for Hamilton’s five-place penalty in Sao Paulo; he had already used his allotted three engines for the season.
The Mercedes GP team cannot run an engine at maximum power at every race. Increased horsepower comes at the cost of reliability, and performance goes down when mileage goes up. Making the best use of your allotted engines in a racing season is part of the strategy, and teams are conscientious about choosing when and where they change power units.
The next race is in Saudi Arabia at the new Jeddah Corniche Circuit. The track is the fastest street circuit on the planet and features a very long front straight. Mercedes believe this is the perfect track to put the Brazil engine back into Hamilton’s car. The high-speed nature of the circuit will suit the high-output power unit best.
Mercedes explain the decision to race with the ‘spicy’ power unit
Andrew Shovlin, Mercedes GP trackside engineer, as quoted by Motorsport.com, had this to say: “We’ve seen pretty big swings of performance over the recent races, but if we look at the track in Saudi, I think it should suit us.”
Team principal Toto Wolff agreed with Shovlin and added, “In Saudi, it should be a good track for us, but we know this year, when we think it is a good one, it can turn the other way around.
“But it is long straights, and we will get our spicy equipment out, the engine, for Saudi Arabia.”
Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes GP know that the power unit alone won’t win them the championship. They cannot afford to get complacent in the final two races of the season. Hamilton is on the verge of winning a historic eighth world championship, and a win in Saudi Arabia would get him one step closer.
Title rival Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing will be racing hard to stop Hamilton’s recent run of form, but success for either team and driver will come down to mistake-free racing and perfect strategy.