It is fair to say Formula One's new era has not exactly enjoyed the smoothest of arrivals to the sport. The fledgling season has been punctuated by public complaints from high-profile F1 officials on issues ranging from the noise of the engines to the impact fuel-saving could have on the quality of racing. The latter reached fever pitch before Bahrain, with Luca di Montezemolo stating his belief that F1 drivers are now little more than glorified cab drivers.
Along with the noise of the engines, fuel has been one of the primary concerns for this season. So far the early races suggest the threats of "endurance racing" during the winter were slightly overblown. But with fuel still something of an unknown quantity in 2014, ESPNF1 caught up with McLaren's chief operating officer Jonathan Neale and Bruce Crawley, the global motorsport technology manager of ExxonMobil, whose fuel brands Esso and Mobil have had a 20-year association with the team in F1, to take us through why the new era of F1 is just as exciting as any which preceded it.
Just how big has the change been for F1 this season?
Crawley: "In terms of the challenge from our side, we started really with a clean sheet of paper as far as developing the fuel and as far as the composition of fuel was concerned. At the very beginning of last year we started looking at really determining what the appetite of the new engine was going to be with respect to fuel. That was where we started and we had to learn quite a lot about the response of the engine to the fuel and fuel compounds and molecules we were using.
"That was the initial phase, understanding and building up a mathematical model using the hard data we got from actually running the data with different kinds of fuel, then it was getting down to a fuel we liked the performance of.
"We then moved on to the prove-out stage. As you know the engine life is getting pushed out further and further, so durability and longevity and making sure you retain the performance that you have in a fresh engine throughout the life of engine is also critical. That all had to get proven out in the latter end of last season from scratch."
Neale: "My perspective on some of this is coloured somewhat by the fact we are right in the middle of this process of transition in F1 at the moment. There's an awful lot of commentary and buzz around what F1 is, what it was, what about noise what about efficiency and so on. If we just step back and look at what F1 has undertaken it is a very exciting technical challenge.
"We've moved from really quite mature technology in normally-aspirated V8 engine to 1.6 litre turbocharged engines with a lot of hybrid technology on it, and are trying to transition the sport into an energy-constrained series. Energy efficiency is a part of everyday life for lots of businesses, lots of families and lots of fans of this sport. I think there was a perception perhaps that hybrid technology would provide racing that was like fast milk floats or something. You just have to look at what we have already achieved to see that isn't the case."
What is so remarkable, in your eyes, about F1 this season from a fuel perspective?
Neale: "We were consuming 150kg of fuel per race last year. We now have 100kg. We've had dramatic change in the aerodynamic technology or regulation on the car which are designed to take downforce off and perhaps slow the cars down. We are recovering kinetic energy from the braking system and the heat and gas energy from the exhaust through the turbocharger.
"As a consequence of all of that the total package is maybe 2-3% slower than it was last year. But then you look at all the other factors that also account for that, the weight increase, the reduction in aerodynamic regulations, the change of tyre compound and technology, and suddenly the fact it is such a small reduction really is an extraordinary performance story.
"I think that only with the benefit of time and stepping back at the end of the season will we fully embrace the enormity of what has been taken on, and just how exciting a technological challenge that is and how relevant it is for the engine manufactures who are also facing the same challenges outside of the sport in areas such as their road cars."
Every time there is a new change in F1, there is a big development curve which comes with it. In terms of fuel consumption this year, how much improvement can we expect to see in 2014?
Neale: "We are seeing it already. I'm sure we will continue to see it this season. I remember Bruce telling me about turbocharged engines when we were talking about this last year and how difficult and dangerous "engine knock" would be for us, I didn't quite appreciate that until we got later into the season and saw how damaging it would be.
"We have to remember, we are developing the engines of an integrated system. The fuel and the lube together are all part of keeping the engine high-performance and reliable, but without degradation of performance between the races. We are just at the foothills of this at the moment; it's very early days, so there will be big improvements as this era grows into life."
Can you describe "engine knock" in layman's terms, and explain why it is such a key issue?
Neale: "I used to work in the defence industry and I remember talking to colleagues about what the difference between a burn and a bang was, when you are talking in milliseconds. I'm sure Bruce would agree, when things go bang in engines you make an awful lot of mess quickly. Yet to get high performance we need a flame front and a burn that is very smooth and very consistent through this maximum combustion efficiency.
"You are only ever, depending on temperature and pressure, a fraction of a percentage away from some terrible bang which is going to create such gas pressures in that piston which would blow the engine to pieces. That's about the size of what knock is, I think."
Crawley: "That's a good way of describing it. We look for a consistent progression of the combustion and you don't want any combustion occurring sporadically, basically. The key challenge for us was going from the V8 environment into the new V6, turbocharged, direct-injection environment. We weren't previously really challenged or limited from a fuel performance point of view, but the new engines clearly are.
"It is the same as what you find in a road car. If you have a turbocharged road car you will have a knock sensor in there which is retarding the ignition timing in order to ensure you don't get into knock. As you retard the timing you get into a loss of power. So basically anything you can do to improve the knock performance will give you more power."
Will drivers, and especially young ones or those new to F1 this season, struggle to race and save fuel in 2014 as some have suggested?
Neale: "No, not particularly! The challenge for us here is that the engineers and the mechanics and scientists together are working to give the driver a car you can't defeat from a reliability point of view, and one that is controlled and balance from a performance point of view. The drivers are smart and for a number of years, although we weren't forced into fuel efficiency it was good racing practice not to carry more kilos of fuel from the beginning of the race.
"For example, ten kilos at the start of the race is an expensive lap time deficit. Even prior to coming to this year most drivers in premium racing series would have undertaken some form of fuel conservation and have experience of doing that. While there is an underlying efficiency need in the sport, it's just become much more overt, so I don't see it becoming any more of an issue for drivers than it has been in previous years."
Neale and Crawley were talking to ESPN to mark the 20th anniversary of the technology partnership between ExxonMobil and McLaren. The ExxonMobil technology partnership covers the supply of high-technology race formulation fuel, Mobil 1 lubricants and full-time track side engineering support.