Mercedes reluctance leaves door open for Honda surprise

Mercedes find themselves at odds with their rivals engine suppliers (©GettyImages)

Mercedes' refusal to back calls for a relaxation on engine development regulations may come back to bite them.

There is no doubt the German manufacturer has been the dominant force in the first year of the new V6 turbo hybrid era, their works team has won 13 of the 16 races so far and, such is there advantage over current rivals Ferrari and Renault, little could change in the short term.

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However, in the past few weeks calls have been growing, mostly from Ferrari, to relax the restrictions on the development of the new power units.

Mercedes roadblock

Indeed the two suppliers most in need of freedom in relation to engine development, had largely agreed that the so-called 'freeze' could be eased.

But for such a unfreezing to take place it would need unanimous support and Mercedes are the fly in the Ferrari and Renault ointment.

Their commercial chief Toto Wolff has already claimed his team would block any such move to relax restrictions and speaking to Reuters said their stance would not be altered.

"I don't think we will change our mind in the next month, whenever the commission meeting is going to take place," he said.

"You are spending considerably more and every other argument is just because they (rival manufacturers) don't think they are where they should be." - Toto Wolff

"We were asked to guarantee supply of engines at the same specification, at the same time for all the customers at the same price. And we can't supply them at the same time if we are having in-season development.

"It's different for Honda, which has one customer only, it's different to Ferrari and different for Renault again.

"You are spending considerably more and every other argument is just because they (rival manufacturers) don't think they are where they should be."

Why so scared?

While Wolff points to cost, which is a very valid reason and one I'll come onto, as to why unfreezing engine development would be risky, in reality the only people who have the most to risk by agreeing to such a move is Mercedes themselves.

They put in the time and a helluva lot of money into the development of their V6 power unit, indeed it was their prime focus really ever since they returned as a works team in 2010, and they sure don't want to risk losing the advantage they built by allowing Ferrari and Renault the chance to catch up.

But at the same time you also have to query why Mercedes wouldn't welcome the opportunity to potentially expand their advantage even further?

Teams already spend millions on aerodynamic development during a season with updates brought to almost every Grand Prix, so why shouldn't the engine suppliers, still very early in the developmental phase of a new kind of racing engine, be allowed to do the same?

Are Mercedes at a stage where their engine in its current form is close to its optimum potential? Their unit already has several unique features which most point to as the reason for their dominance, are they concerned that their rivals may look to copy some of those features much like some have done in a time of rapid aerodynamic development?

Wider concerns

All of these reasons could be why Mercedes are so reluctant to open up the engine regulations but there are wider issues.

Wolff mentioned cost and maintaining equal status of all Mercedes engines for all customer teams and yes, if there was constant development of the power units, ensuring each engine has the same updated parts for each team would be very difficult.

Given Williams, Mercedes newest customer having swapped at the start of this year, are their closest competition at the moment any thought that Mercedes were disadvantaging them by giving them older specification parts would be harmful to their image.

Spending to success

There is also the consideration as to how, in a time when costs continue to rise and teams struggle to survive, you can stop those who have the financial resources to spend their way to the top.

In the engine battle it is less of an issue given you only have three, soon-to-be four, suppliers and the only one seen as limited financially is Renault.

But if Mercedes, Ferrari, Honda and Renault are forced by each other to keep spending more and more how do you keep those power units affordable for the likes of Marussia, Sauber and Lotus?

Honda effect

There is one thing, however, that could come to backfire on Mercedes' protective approach to this topic, the arrival of Honda.

While Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari are locked to the current restrictions on development, Honda are not.

Once they start pre-season testing then they come under the same limits, but for now, spending and development is unlimited and while Ferrari and Renault can't look to Mercedes for ways to improve their V6 hybrids, Honda can and therefore could pose a very realistic threat to Mercedes potentially not from the start but once the initial teething issues are solved.

Mercedes helping Alonso?

This all links to the current speculation surrounding Fernando Alonso and whether he will take the risk by rejoining Honda's sole customer McLaren for next year.

Certainly the uncertainty over just where Honda will be makes it a tough call for the Spaniard, but with Mercedes allowing the Japanese car maker room to make an instant impact, that risk could be one worth taking.

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