Revolutionary Technology in Formula One: The Turbocharger

This week, the FIA announced their confirmation that Formula One will be adopting 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged engines with energy recovery systems from 2014 onwards, to replace the current 2.4 litre naturally-aspirated V8 engines currently being used. This, of course, will not be the first time that Formula One has adopted turbochargers, nor even the first time that turbochargers were mandatory. The last time that turbochargers were adopted in Formula One, they began as a joke and ended up as essential kit for any competitive team.

The history of forced induction in Formula One begins right at the beginning of the World Drivers’ Championship itself, where Formula One had formalised its rules allowing pre-war 1.5 litre supercharged “voiturettes” to compete with 4.5 litre naturally-aspirated engines. The equivalence formula, supposed to provide a bit of competition between the two different forms of air induction, ended up with Alfa Romeo’s 158 and 159 supercharged models dominating Formula One for the first two years, before the switch in the World Drivers’ Championship to Formula Two rules.

The Alfettas, as they were known, produced a staggering 425bhp at their peak power in 1951, which couldn’t compete with the pre-war supercharged engines of Mercedes-Benz or Auto Union, but which was still far ahead of the naturally-aspirated engines of the time. Even the higher fuel consumption of the Alfettas couldn’t keep them from taking a near clean sweep of the championships in 1950 and 1951. However, as legal engine sizes dropped drastically during 1952 and 1953, a 750cc supercharged engine proved uncompetitive against the 2 litre naturally-aspirated engines of Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari had identified that supercharging would be a dead-end in the future, as supercharged engines were held back on their ability to rev by extension of the operation of the supercharger. When the World Drivers’ Championship returned to Formula One rules in 1954, allowing 2.5 litre naturally-aspirated engines, but retaining the size of forced induction engines at 750cc, forced induction remained a formality in the rules for several years.

This opened up the stage for Renault more than twenty years later. Renault had recently begun experimenting with turbochargers on their sports car engines and were winning races by 1975. This gave them the idea to attempt to use the clause allowing forced induction engines in Formula One, which had been largely ignored since the domination of the Alfettas. Unlike superchargers, which were spun by the engine, the turbocharger was driven by exhaust gas, therefore not inhibiting the engine’s ability to rev. In 1977, Renault entered Formula One with the RS01.

It was not an instant success. The RS01, most famously driven by Jean-Pierre Jabouille, started off as a slow, overweight car with frightful turbo-lag, and notably made little use of the other revolutionary technology being demonstrated in Formula One at the same time, ground effect. The RS01 was mocked by other teams in the paddock, who had seen how difficult the car was to drive around the tight street circuit of Monaco and how unreliable the new engine was, and who referred to the car by the derisory nickname of “the yellow teapot”.

Evolution was quick, however. In 1978, Renault won the most prestigious race in sports car racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, using a turbocharged Renault-Alpine A442 with the turbocharged 2 litre sports car engine which had previously won at Mugello, but a win eluded the French team in Formula One for quite some time. Jabouille scored the team’s first points with a fourth-place finish near the end of the 1978 season with a refined RS01, and the team’s first pole position at the fast sweeping track of Kyalami in South Africa in 1979.

Renault entered 1979 with a further-refined RS01 and a team-mate for Jean-Pierre Jabouille in René Arnoux, but it was the introduction of the RS10 during the mid-season which cemented Renault’s place as a competitive team. The 1979 French Grand Prix at Dijon-Prenois brought the first victory for the new team, with Jabouille taking victory in a French car in front of a French crowd. René Arnoux almost made it a Renault 1-2 after competing with Gilles Villeneuve in perhaps the best and most famous battle for position ever captured on camera, with a wheel-banging performance that lasted almost two laps.

The turbocharger had proven its point with a storming performance which made everybody in the paddock take notice. The turbo-lag problem had been mostly solved with the introduction of twin turbochargers to force air into each cylinder bank individually, although reliability still plagued the engines. Soon, Ferrari, Brabham and Alfa Romeo were researching turbocharged engines of their own. Ferrari were the next team to introduce a turbocharger into their car, using the smaller 1.5 litre V6 in 1981 in order to best exploit ground effect, which was difficult with the large flat-12 which had stormed to victory in 1979, but had faltered in 1980 after years of success. However, Ferrari were never to win a Drivers’ Championship with the technology, with their best result being a handful of Constructors’ Championships in 1982 and 1983.

Brabham, Alfa Romeo and Toleman (running a Hart turbocharged engine) were the next to experiment with the technology in the unpredictable and controversial 1982 season. These engines proved fragile, even with their outstanding power which commonly put the Renaults and Brabhams among the front rows, and it was the naturally-aspirated Cosworth DFV in Keke Rosberg’s car which would grant him the Drivers’ Championship of 1982, the last championship which a naturally-aspirated car would win until turbochargers were banned. Brabham’s BMW M12 and Renault’s EF1 engine seemed especially prone to embarrassing failure, often failing the drivers and allowing the tried-and-tested Cosworth engines to capitalise, as much as it was possible in a season which had no clear ascendant driver.

1983 would be the first dominant year of turbocharged cars, just as ground effect was banned. Twelve of the fifteen races in the season were taken by turbocharged cars, with a handful of victories for Cosworth-powered cars, usually at twisty street circuits where the additional power of the turbos was less significant. Despite their efforts in introducing and developing turbochargers, Renault would fail to take either championship that year, losing out on the Drivers’ Championship when Alain Prost’s turbocharger failed him at the last race of the season at Kyalami, handing the victory and a second World Championship to Brabham’s Nelson Piquet, and losing the Constructors’ Championship to the more reliable pair of Patrick Tambay and René Arnoux. The loss of both championships led Renault to sack Alain Prost, leaving the driver to go to a very un-French team at McLaren, running a very un-French engine from Porsche, with a Luxembourgish turbocharger.

This proved to be a fortuitous move for the Frenchman, ending up at a team which was just at the start of its dominant period where it would take all but one Drivers’ Championship between 1984 and 1991. The TAG-Porsche engine proved to be outstanding, with a mix of reliability and power which led Prost and the recently-returned World Champion, Niki Lauda, to fight for the championship in a season where few other teams were to attain victories, and none of those in naturally-aspirated cars. The Cosworth DFV family which had led so many drivers and constructors to their championships was now completely overshadowed by the far more powerful turbocharged engines which were present in all but two teams’ cars in 1984.

Niki Lauda would later take the Drivers’ Championship by the smallest margin ever, after Prost’s victory at a wet Monaco track had resulted in half-points after the race was stopped, in conditions where an unfancied Toleman driven by the rookie, Ayrton Senna, had almost taken victory for a team which had been one of the first to experiment with turbochargers. In either case, it was a resounding success for the forced induction engines. Tyrrell, the only Cosworth-running team that seemed capable of fighting for race victories, would later be disqualified from the championship for a technical infringement which swept excellently-fought podiums for both Martin Brundle and Stefan Bellof from the records.

By 1984, the gulf in power between the turbocharged engines and the Cosworths was extreme. The Cosworths produced somewhere in the order of 520 bhp; the turbos could produce in excess of 700 bhp in race trim, and more than 1,000 bhp in qualifying. In a vain attempt to produce some sort of equivalence formula for the two engines, FISA had introduced a fuel restriction of 220 litres at room temperature for the turbocharged cars, which were more fuel-hungry than the Cosworths, just as the supercharged 1.5 litre engines had been less frugal than the 4.5 litre naturally-aspirated engines in 1950 and 1951.

Nevertheless, 1985 proved just as dominant for turbochargers, if not necessarily for McLaren, who managed their Drivers’ Championship for Alain Prost through greater consistency and reliability than Ferrari, whose engines let them down at the last four races of the season. Once again, only two teams, Tyrrell and Minardi, were using naturally-aspirated engines, and both had secured turbocharged engines by the end of the year. Power outputs were creeping up to absurd values; the BMW engines in the Benettons of 1985 and 1986, derivatives of the BMW that had won the 1983 championship for Brabham, claimed 1,350 bhp in qualifying trim. Other engines were producing close to 900 bhp in race trim, an amount which wouldn’t be equalled until the early 2000s, by which time the engines were being held in check by traction control systems.

The Williams team, the privateers which had claimed the last title for a Cosworth-engined car, had begun to show striking performance with a Honda engine which was producing more power than the until-then supreme TAG-Porsche engine in the McLaren. Honda, which had previously competed in the 1960s with a factory effort, clearly saw the chances for glory in this engine formula which rewarded smaller engines, a particular strength of the manufacturer of dominant motorcycles and small cars. Even with the further-restricted fuel tanks, this time restricted to 195 litres per race, power outputs remained high.

With no way to enforce a reasonable equivalence formula, FISA, for the first and so far only time in the history of Formula One, banned the use of naturally-aspirated engines for 1986. This had left the privateer teams scrambling to find suitable engines. Some of them were lucky enough to get proven Renault designs, such as Lotus and Tyrrell. Others were left with unreliable Alfa Romeo and Motori Moderni designs which did not have the backing of a powerful manufacturer, and which broke down far more often than not. The class of the field was clearly the Honda engine in the back of the Williams FW11, and Alain Prost only won the second of his four Drivers’ Championships by capitalising on the squabbling between Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. The sport had become a competition between the haves and the have-nots, and the power outputs of the turbocharged engines had become too high for comfort.

Naturally-aspirated engines were reintroduced in 1987, with a larger 3.5 litre capacity in order to increase power. FISA’s plans were to allow turbocharged engines for a further two years before forbidding them entirely, but with the knowledge that pitting the turbos against the naturally-aspirated engines directly was a lesson in futility, Formula One gained an additional two championships for 1987, the Jim Clark Trophy and the Colin Chapman Trophy, for drivers and constructors of naturally-aspirated cars respectively.

Again, Honda power proved dominant, with McLaren no longer able to compete effectively with the TAG-Porsche engine, and Williams and Lotus competing for the Drivers’ Championship. However, greater consistency with Alain Prost and Stefan Johansson at least gave McLaren second place in the Constructors’ Championship, with the team of Nelson Piquet, now a three-time champion, and Nigel Mansell easily taking first place. Tyrrell’s use of the Cosworth DFZ gave them both the Jim Clark and Colin Chapman Trophies, with Jonathan Palmer’s performance being strong enough to earn the team seven of the eleven points they earned in the normal Constructor’s Championship, with Philippe Streiff earning a further four points and sixth place for the team among the rest of the constructors.

1988 was the final year allowing forced induction engines. Some constructors, including Williams, who had lost Honda power to McLaren, used naturally-aspirated engines in their cars in preparation for 1989, and with a more stringent 155 litre fuel tank restriction and turbocharger pressure limited to 2.5 bar, it was hoped that there would finally be some sort of equivalence between the turbocharged cars and the naturally-aspirated engines. It wasn’t even close to being a fair competition. Despite all of these restrictions, the McLaren MP4/4 would go on to dominate the season in a fashion that no car had managed since the 1952 season.

With two of the best drivers in the sport, the most powerful engine, an extraordinary chassis from Gordon Murray and Steve Nichols and a team which had a lot of recent championship experience, the McLaren team won 15 of 16 races during the season, and perhaps only lost the Italian Grand Prix because of Ayrton Senna’s overambitious overtake on Jean-Louis Schlesser at the Rettifilo chicane. Gerhard Berger’s win at Ferrari’s home track at the first Italian Grand Prix since Enzo Ferrari’s death was highly popular, yet it did little to overshadow the fact that McLaren had been so dominant that if there hadn’t been an interesting battle between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the season would have little to commend itself by. For many teams, the return to naturally-aspirated engines would have been all too welcome at this stage.

In the preceding years, as constructors had to become accustomed to their new engines, McLaren was still strong, but never as dominant as they were in 1988. Competition came from Ferrari, returning to the V12 engine design that had become their trademark and using a semi-automatic gearbox which was unreliable but which would eventually itself become a revolutionary technology in Formula One, along with Williams with their new Renault V10. While engine power increased as manufacturers figured out how to make their engines rev faster, and the early 2000s brought 900 bhp, 3 litre V10s which matched the race output of the turbocharged engines, nothing would ever compete with the ferocious qualifying engines of the 1985 and 1986 seasons.

Amusingly, considering that FISA tried to restrict turbocharged engines by limiting their fuel, turbocharger technology has improved to the point where turbo engines are being introduced again to save fuel over the high-revving V8 engines currently being used. Power from the 1.6 litre V6 turbos could easily match the engine power of today, although it remains to be seen how the engines will be restricted. It will be interesting to see if the turbocharger will once again become revolutionary in Formula One in a new generation, this time for a very different purpose than its original intention.

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