Formula 1 is heading towards an agreement on a new engine design for use from 2026 – and it looks increasingly likely that its introduction will tempt at least one of the Volkswagen Group brands to join the grid.
They are a simplification of hybrid engines, leveling the playing field for a newcomer competing with others who have been in the sport for decades, and a commitment to adopt sustainable fuels.
The VW Group has been involved in discussions about the new engine formula in recent months, and senior F1 insiders say they are increasingly certain that at least one VW brand – likely Audi or Porsche – will enter in 2026.
From an F1 perspective, that would be a vote of confidence from the world’s second-largest automaker in a direction of travel based on the premise that electric power is not the only answer to a sustainable future for mobile transportation.
Talks are not finalized, but broad agreement on the future has been reached, with smaller details still to be worked out.
What is changing on the engines?
The main difference between the engines that F1 will use from 2026 and the current ones will be the removal of a device called MGU-H.
This is the part of the hybrid system that recovers energy from the turbocharger. It is central to the revolutionary levels of efficiency that F1 engines are capable of achieving, but it has some key drawbacks – it is incredibly complex and expensive to perfect, and it has proven to be of little relevance for application in cars. standard road car engines.
VW has made it clear that it will not enter F1 if the engines retain the MGU-H, as it would have been nearly impossible for them to catch up with the levels of expertise accumulated over the past seven years by current F1 suppliers, Ferrari. , Honda, Mercedes and Renault.
Giving up the MGU-H was not an easy sale to a group of major automakers who had invested several million in perfecting it, and especially not to Mercedes, which has dominated F1 since the introduction of these hybrid engines in 2014. But all are now in agreement. to do so – with caveats.
The first is that the engines remain hybrid. They will maintain performance levels similar to existing engines through a major boost in power produced by the other part of the hybrid system, the bit that recovers energy from the rear axle, the MGU-K.
This helps ensure the key goals of the new engine formula – that the engines are both simpler and much cheaper.
What are the other points of debate?
With the MGU-H being central to the operation of current F1 powertrains, its effective elimination requires all manufacturers to design completely new engines.
But by agreeing to a change which is a prerequisite for VW’s entry into F1, existing manufacturers are only ready to go so far.
Part of the new rules governing engines from 2026 will be a budget cap and other development limitations. It had been proposed that any new manufacturer – for example a VW brand – would receive a boost by allowing them higher levels of spending and / or development, either during their preparation for entry or during their debut. in F1.
But existing manufacturers – especially Ferrari – refused to accept it. Negotiations are ongoing, but as Ferrari has said no, it is unlikely to be agreed.
Another area of disagreement concerns Red Bull. They set themselves up as an independent engine manufacturer following the decision of his partner Honda to leave F1 at the end of this season. From next year, Red Bull will use its existing Honda engine design, but maintained by its own brand new factory.
Other manufacturers are clearly worried about a possible tie-up between Red Bull and VW, and there are arguments over whether Red Bull should be considered under the new rules as an existing manufacturer or a new one – for which the benefits financial and athletic are being debated.
Agreement on these and other details is not yet finalized. And getting there will require compromises. But sport would be “in the right place” and the discussions are going in the right direction.
Another pointer to VW’s involvement in F1 could come from unusual direction – the last race to be added to the calendar.
Qatar’s new deal with F1, for a race in November and then a 10-year contract from 2023, is the biggest the sport has ever made with a race promoter. In other words, the Gulf State’s commitment to F1 is reflected in the fact that it pays more money for its race than anyone else.
Qatar, in this case, also holds a 14.6% stake in the VW group.
What are these sustainable fuels?
Introducing sustainable fuels is a key part of a strategy to bring all of F1 to net zero carbon by 2030.
Sport has taken a small step in that direction this year, with the introduction of so-called E10 fuels, 10% of which are made from biofuels, just like the new fuel introduced in UK car parks this summer.
But the plans for 2026 are much more ambitious. They have to introduce what F1 claims to be a fully sustainable, net zero carbon fuel.
There are two main approaches: fuels derived from biomass and so-called synthetic e-fuels.
Both are “direct” replacements for standard fossil fuels in an internal combustion engine. But at a time when the world is trying to reduce its carbon emissions, the two have a similar problem – just like standard gasoline, they release CO2 into the atmosphere.
The main claim of their durability, however, is that they create dramatically reduced carbon emissions over the life cycle of the fuel.
What is the difference between them?
One is made from biomass – for example raw materials, waste oil from animals or plants and other bio-waste from homes or businesses. This is considered carbon neutral because the product gives off the same amount of carbon when burned as its source absorbed while growing.
Synthetic e-fuels are made using an industrial process that captures CO2 from the atmosphere and combines it with hydrogen to make fuel. In this case, the CO2 generated by the combustion of the fuel is the same gas that was directly extracted from the atmosphere to manufacture it.
The big downside to synthetic fuels is that they require a lot of energy to make. And if this energy is not supplied from sustainable sources, then the fuel is no longer very “green”.
F1’s current position is that it doesn’t know what kind of sustainable fuel it will use from 2026, in part because its fuel suppliers themselves are divided on which route they consider optimal.
The hope is that competition between fuel suppliers to produce the most environmentally friendly gasoline replacement will decide where F1 is headed.
Meanwhile, in southern Chile, just north of the port of Punta Arenas, a new plant is under construction to manufacture synthetic electric fuel. Among the companies that invest in it? Porsche owned by VW.
Why the push for sustainable fuel?
In an age when the road car market is moving more and more towards electrification, you might wonder why F1 isn’t just going electric, and why all of these automakers are interested in pushing for a replacement. for gasoline which still produces CO2?
The answer is that it is currently not possible to have a car with F1 performance levels powered by electricity – the technology is just not advanced enough. And the same goes for other modes of transport.
The key question is energy density. Batteries just don’t have enough compared to fossil fuels. An airliner powered by a battery of sufficient capacity to Australia, for example, would be far too heavy to take off.
So it will be many years before batteries can power passenger planes, ocean going ships, or combine harvesters, and so on, if ever they could.
At the same time, as some Western governments move towards phasing out gasoline and diesel cars by banning their sale within a few years, millions of cars with internal combustion engines are likely to be on the market. roads around the world for decades. to come.
The hope is that sustainable fuels could provide a way to significantly reduce the resulting carbon emissions.
What about the longer term?
F1’s evolution towards sustainable fuels makes sense on many levels – it cuts emissions and, as a symbol, it also helps to preserve the future of sport in a world in which reducing carbon emissions is essential. of critical necessity as humanity seeks to address the climate crisis. .
It offers F1 a way to maintain the performance levels required to generate the “wow” factor that is so essential to its appeal, while taking environmental issues seriously.
But this is not a long term solution. It is a stepping stone towards a more sustainable and truly zero carbon future, as the automotive industry and the world at large move closer to defining that future.
Are these solid-state batteries? Is it, as some senior sports officials have already suggested, using hydrogen fuel cells, that emit only water? Or some other technology that has not yet appeared on the horizon?
No one knows yet, but there are already rumors that the next engine formula, slated for introduction in the early 2030s, could be hydrogen-based.