Why Mercedes isn’t concerned by qualifying mode ban

Mercedes believes the upcoming ban on qualifying engine modes may actually help its overall competitiveness in races this season.

Ahead of the next race in Belgium, the FIA is expected to inform the teams via a technical directive that high-power engine modes for qualifying will effectively be banned.

Technical directives are issued by the FIA to offer guidance on regulations, allowing the governing body to inform the teams about how they expect the rules to be followed. The upcoming technical directive on engine modes is expected to require teams to run their power unit with the same settings in both qualifying and the race.

Since the introduction of the current turbo-hybrid engines in 2014, teams have sought to develop settings that allow for maximum performance over a single qualifying lap. To extract maximum performance from the power unit, these modes include full deployment of the electrical energy stored in the hybrid system, a richer fuel mixture to the engine and more aggressive ignition timings.

Such modes are not suitable for much more than a lap as they completely drain the power unit’s battery — requiring a slow lap next time round to harvest power — see the valves and piston crowns run at dangerously high temperatures and increase fuel consumption to unsustainable levels for a race distance.

Typically, engine manufacturers limit their teams to a set amount of mileage running at the highest settings per power unit to ensure reliability. The limit on fuel consumption also rules out the use of the highest settings for long periods of the race.

When the FIA wrote to the teams saying it was planning to outlaw qualifying engine modes, many saw it as an attempt to peg back Mercedes. The world champions have enjoyed a significant performance advantage in qualifying this year and have regularly held a gap of nearly a second over their nearest rival.

But for that very reason, team principal Toto Wolff believes Mercedes has performance to spare in qualifying and the ban across all teams will actually see his drivers benefit from having access to more performance in races.

“I think we don’t lack performance on Saturdays,” Wolff said. “We had until now quite a margin.

“We struggled in some of the races where we were quite limited in powerful engine modes, and if Formula One were to ban in-season, certain power unit modes, then I think it will actually help us in the race.

“If you can avoid to damage your power unit in those few qualifying laps that you have available, in Q3 and then the odd lap in the race, the damage metrics goes down dramatically. So five laps of quali mode not being done gives us 25 laps of more performance in the race, and that is something we believe will give us more performance.

“You must take into effect even if it may hurt us more in qualifying, which I’m not sure, and it’s a couple of tenths, then it will hurt all the others in the same way. But for us, we are always very marginal on what we can extract from the power unit, and if we were to be limited in qualifying modes, then well, we will be stronger in the race.”

While the technical directive should help level the playing field in qualifying at a time when teams are not allowed to bring major performance updates to their engines for cost-saving reasons, it could also have come with some downsides.

High-power engine modes are often used in races to aid overtaking, and the use of harvesting modes to recover spent electrical power on the following lap can also leave a driver vulnerable to attack. As a result, there’s a chance that the ban will remove a performance variable that has often led to exciting racing between drivers.