Formula One may only be 10 races through its (now) 22-race calendar, but the sport’s eyes are already set on 2026’s looming engine regulations change – one that’s already provoking discussion within the sport.
The FIA World Motor Sport Council approved the engine regulations in Aug. 2022, and it’s the most significant overhaul since the 1.6-liter V6 turbocharged engines entered the sport in 2014. The new power unit marks another step in F1’s push to be carbon neutral by 2030 as the next engine emphasizes sustainable practices like more electrical power and sustainable fuel.
That move appealed to different manufacturers like Audi and Honda. Now six engine manufacturers will make up the grid in 2026 — Alpine, Audi, Ferrari, Honda, Mercedes and Red Bull (who will partner with Ford).
These engine regulations are essentially F1 moving in tandem with where the road car industry is as automakers look towards electrification.
But criticism and suggestions for changes surfaced recently about the 50-50 split between internal combustion engines and electrical power, specifically losing wheel-to-wheel racing and “drivers downshifting on the straights to regenerate batteries,” according to Red Bull team boss Christian Horner. He thinks a small tweak could have a “significant effect.” But Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff feels there’s a “zero chance” of the regulations changing now that manufacturers are onboard.
“Is it challenging? Our chassis designers are saying, ‘Well, how are we going to do this?’ Yeah, super (challenging),” Wolff said. “But zero, these regulations are not going to change anymore, they’re not going to be postponed anymore, because the world needs to show innovation around sustainability, we need to reduce emissions, and we are super excited.”
The 2026 engine regulations explained
The regulation changes constitute a significant step toward F1’s stated pursuit of sustainability.
- Fuel change: One of the most widely discussed elements is the ‘drop-in’ 100% sustainable fuels that’ll be introduced and used, which means no new fossil fuel carbon will be released.
- More electrical power: Cars should run with a more robust electrical element and harvest more braking energy, with the MGU-K producing nearly three times the electrical power. The current power unit produces 120 kilowatts of energy with the MGU-K and MGU-H (two components of the energy recovery system); the new ones will reach up to 350 kilowatts.
- Less fuel, more horsepower: F1 expects the engines will provide over 1,000 horsepower even though it’s using more energy and less fuel. Fuel loads have gradually decreased over the last decade-plus – from 160 kilograms (about 353 pounds) in 2013 to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) in 2020, and an aim for 70 kilograms (154 pounds) in 2026.
- Increased innovation, decreased cost: Friendly reminder that F1 is in its cost cap era. There will be an engine-specific cost cap, which is expected to encourage creative solutions. Some systems were removed, like the MGU-H, which lacks road relevance.
Despite being several years away, the regulations had a positive impact with new engine manufacturers signing on for 2026. But the increased electrical power may challenge drivers and strategists as they weigh when to recharge and attack.
‘What is Formula One?’
Manufacturers are already testing their engines on dynos, but as they’re gathering data, Horner said, per Reuters, the simulations are showing a few “limitations.”
As Horner and Max Verstappen have publicly commented, there’s a concern that drivers will need to downshift on the straights to recharge the battery — and that it will be the quickest lap. This essentially limits top speed and is an unnatural action to get more battery power.
“If you go flat-out on the straight at Monza, I don’t know what it is, like 400 or 500 (meters) before the end of the straight, you have to downshift flat-out because that’s faster,” Verstappen said in Austria. “I think that’s not the way forward.”
Horner feels it would be best to reduce the reliance on electrical power marginally. He said in Austria, “I think that perhaps where we need to pay urgent attention before it’s too late is to look at the ratio between combustion power and electrical power to ensure that we’re not creating a technical Frankenstein.”
Horner said this will force the chassis to “compensate to such a degree with movable aero and to reduce the drag to such a level that the racing will be affected.” This could lead to having “no tow effect; there will be no DRS because, effectively, you’re running at that at all points in time. And that the combustion engine just doesn’t become a generator to recharge a battery.”
With two-and-a-half years to go before the 2026 season begins, Horner thinks a 5-10 percent tweak is possible. The chassis regulations haven’t been decided on yet.
“You’ve got to look at the thing holistically from both a technical point of view,” Horner said, “but the most important thing is, what is Formula One? And Formula One needs to be wheel-to-wheel racing.”
After winning the Austrian Grand Prix, reporters asked Verstappen for his opinion on the 2026 regulations in the wake of Horner’s comments earlier in the weekend. The Dutchman pointed towards a few potential issues, such as “an [Internal Combustion Engine] competition, like whoever has the strongest engine will have a big benefit.” Verstappen also cited the cars possibly having less drag, making overtaking on the straights more difficult, and the active aerodynamics, which drivers won’t control.
Both Horner and Verstappen believe Red Bull knows about the potential problems because it is further ahead in its power unit development, per Reuters.
How do the other teams feel?
Wolff made his view on Horner’s concern over drivers downshifting on the straights very clear: “doom-mongers.”
“Do you think that in all reality we are not innovative [enough] in this sport to come up with chassis/engine regulations that can avoid drivers shifting down on the straight?” the Mercedes team principal asked in Austria, a day after Horner’s comments. “It just isn’t a real [risk]. When you take today’s chassis and put the future power unit in there, there’s a few tracks with very long straights where we would have massive de-rates in the power unit.
“That’s (based on) today’s situation. But we are not bolting (it) on today’s chassis, which are heavy like a prototype and big like an elephant. That’s what we need to reinvent for 2026.”
Though Wolff felt there’s no chance of the regulations changing, Ferrari’s Fred Vasseur said at Silverstone that there’s “time to fine-tune them,” pointing out that “the main complaint from the paddock” is the car’s weight. He pointed towards Formula E’s cars, noting that “if you start to have an e-engine on the front axle with driveshaft…you are adding 30 kilos on the car, minimum. And then you have a cable like this going from the front to the battery.”
Vasseur added, though, that teams need to look for solutions rather than focus on the negatives. “It’s always easy to say okay, it would be much better to do this. But if you don’t have a look on the negative effect, for sure, it’s much better. I think the main issue for me today is the weight of the car — for the show, to damage the tires, for the speed.”
Aston Martin’s Mike Krack said, “I think we need to be careful. Some of the regulations that we have in ‘26 were instrumental for people to come back, Honda in this case, or for others to join. So we cannot dilute them now just because we have another look at it a bit later.” There needs to be a collaborative effort between the FIA, F1 and the teams — to collaborate in finding to find the right balance between the combustion engines and electrical power.
But it’s tricky. To Wolff and Krack’s point, the change in engine regulations and the sustainable, electrical aspect appealed to the manufacturers and attracted new brands, like Audi. Late changes could rub them the wrong way. However, to lose the essence of F1 — the wheel-to-wheel racing — would sacrifice the show.
Williams’ James Vowles added that where F1 is going is clear: “Moving to sustainable fuels, moving to an engine formula that is prescribed.” But what’s needed next is “to put a package around it that is good for the show, but the direction of movement is one where we’re working together.”
(Photo of Max Verstappen and George Russell at Monza 2022: Eric Alonso/Getty Images)
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