To many, tur­bocharged F1 en­gines con­jure images of out­ra­geous 1980s ex­cess. But the new-for-2014 units are an al­to­gether more so­phis­ti­cated breed


Four years ago, just after Se­bas­tian Vet­tel won his rst ti­tle, F1 an­nounced that en­gine reg­u­la­tions were chang­ing – not with a tweak, but with a whole­sale trash­ing of the es­tab­lished or­der. There was talk of di­rect in­jec­tion and big­ger, bet­ter KERS. But what stood out was a blast from F1’s past. F1 was go­ing turbo.

The dead­line slipped back a year and the en­gine sprouted two ex­tra cylin­ders, but the new power units nally ar­rived for 2014. New words and phrases en­tered pad­dock par­lance: en­ergy store, power elec­tron­ics, MGUs H and K. Oddly, there’s been lit­tle dis­cus­sion of the turbo. It has slipped out of pub­lic per­cep­tion – never an al­le­ga­tion lev­elled at its 1980s pre­de­ces­sor.

“If they had the turbo car with the blown ex­haust, noth­ing would have changed,” reects Lo­tus’s Ro­main Grosjean. “You don’t re­ally feel it’s a turbo car un­less, when you make your start, you hear the turbo go­ing up in rpm. The torque de­liv­ery is nice – but there are no real changes.”

Red Bull driver Daniel Ric­cia­rdo adds: “The way the power comes in is dif­fer­ent to 2013. Ob­vi­ously the car has lost down­force, but the big­gest dif­fer­ence is what it does on the throt­tle. It’s got more torque and you’re able to have wheel­spin later on. With the V8s it was power from the get-go. You could have wheel­spin very early in the cor­ner, whereas it seems you can have wheel­spin with the turbo half­way through fourth gear and longer through the gear ra­tios.

“Whether that’s the turbo en­gine or ERS, I have no idea. It’s a bit con­fus­ing – I just drive it!”

That last com­ment alone is enough to de­lin­eate the re­spec­tive eras: no driver from the 1980s ever ex­pressed doubt about what their turbo was – or was not – do­ing. Tur­bocharg­ers dom­i­nated the land­scape. They were all­con­sum­ing monsters sup­ply­ing bru­tal amounts of barely con­trol­lable power that pushed driv­ers and cars to their lim­its. The mem­ory of that turbo era is what red en­thu­si­asm for the se­quel.

“You got put into this mis­sile that had 1,350bhp, and you just couldn’t change gear fast enough,” re­calls Derek War­wick of his ad­ven­tures with a BMW qual­i­fy­ing-spec M12 turbo en­gine in the back of his 1986 Brab­ham BT55. “Any­thing you’d learnt in prac­tice, you

threw out the win­dow. It wasn’t about han­dling, it was about power. I re­call watch­ing Ric­cardo Pa­trese, my team-mate, with clouds of black soot com­ing out of the back of his car be­cause we were feed­ing so much fuel into the turbo.”

The mod­ern turbo ex­ists on a diet rather more Spar­tan than that of its red-meat pre­de­ces­sor. Th­ese pow­er­plants don’t have the pop-off valves of yore – they’re con­strained by the 100kg max­i­mum race fuel limit and, more per­ti­nently, the 100kg/h max­i­mum fuel-flow rate. The tar­get of the mod­ern turbo is to im­prove ef­fi­ciency rather than in­crease power. “We’ll never run at 5bar be­cause, at 12,000rpm, it’s go­ing to bring far too much air into the en­gine for the max­i­mum fuel flow,” ex­plains Re­nault Sport F1’s head of track op­er­a­tions, Rémi Taf­fin.

The other big dif­fer­ence be­tween then and now is the is­sue of lag – the mod­ern cars have the MGU-H de­vice to side­step the is­sue by spin­ning up the tur­bocharger on de­mand.

“The tur­bine wheel has been de­signed to be ex­cep­tion­ally ef­fi­cient at re­cov­er­ing en­ergy out of the ex­haust stream, whereas pre­vi­ously it was just spin­ning up the com­pres­sor,” says Andy Cow­ell, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Mercedes AMG High Per­for­mance Pow­er­trains. “To­day we’re driv­ing the com­pres­sor but we’re also driv­ing the MGU-H and the more en­ergy there is from the tur­bine to drive that, the bet­ter your elec­tri­cal com­pound load is, and there­fore the bet­ter the to­tal ther­mal ef­fi­ciency of the power unit is and the faster your race car will be. There’s a huge amount of ef­fort in the ef­fi­ciency of that wheel and not so much ef­fort gone into the in­er­tia of the assem­bly. Large in­er­tia turbo as­sem­blies mean high lag, but we’ve got an elec­tric ma­chine and that just means speed con­trol is not a prob­lem with F1 tur­bocharg­ers to­day.” This makes War­wick laugh. “When mod­ern driv­ers dis­cuss their cars, it’s amaz­ing how much the tech­nol­ogy has ad­vanced – they don’t talk about throt­tle-lag. We used to de­fine lag with the minute hand, not with the sec­ond hand. They were all-or-noth­ing, no pro­gres­sion what­so­ever. There were tracks where you’d have to be at on the throt­tle as you turned into a chi­cane. You’d go right, then a bit left and – bang! – the power would kick in. It was hor­ren­dous. You could judge it, but with one foot on the clutch pedal and the other on the brake you couldn’t get back on the throt­tle un­til your brak­ing was com­pleted. It would have been dead easy with three feet…”

Over the course of eight sea­sons, War­wick’s turbo ed­u­ca­tion took him from the Tole­man-Hart I4 turbo to the Re­nault V6 twin turbo and, nally, the daddy of them all, the BMW M12/13 in both its fac­tory and Me­ga­tron spec. All tur­bos, he says, were not the same.

“With Brian Hart, we had one great mas­sive Gar­rett turbo stuck almost on the gear­box. Re­nault had more money: it was almost a plea­sure to drive. We had good horse­power and qual­i­fy­ing en­gines – but it wasn’t un­til 1986, that I re­ally ex­pe­ri­enced the power of the tur­bocharger, driv­ing the four-cylin­der sin­gle turbo BMW,” he says. “We had 1,350hp for qual­i­fy­ing, one-lap qual­i­fy­ing tyres and an en­gine that was good for maybe 24 miles. BMW would strip off the waste-gate and re­place it with a blank­ing plate. You had masses of power. After qual­i­fy­ing, you’d throw the en­gine in the bin.”

“It was a trial and er­ror,” re­calls Jean--

With the sin­gle-turbo BMW, we had 1,350bhp for qual­i­fy­ing, one-lap qual­i­fy­ing tyres and an en­gine that was good for maybe 24 miles… You had masses of power. After qual­i­fy­ing, you’d throw the en­gine in the bin”

Derek War­wick, For­mer F1 driver

We used to de­fine lag with the minute hand. There were tracks where you’d have to be flat on the throt­tle as you turned into a chi­cane. You’d go right, then a bit left and – bang! – the power would kick in.

Derek War­wick, For­mer F1 driver

Pierre Men­rath, Re­nault Sport F1 di­rec­tor of test­ing and de­vel­op­ment, for­merly a mem­ber of the Re­nault track­side team in the pi­o­neer­ing days of turbo. “For a nor­mally as­pi­rated en­gine, the lines and pipes must be neat, the ow of liq­uids must be op­ti­mum. With a turbo, it just has to work!

“You have to bear in mind that we went from 520-530bhp in 1979 to more than 1,000bhp in the space of ve years. At the end of 1986, we even had a test en­gine that was ca­pa­ble of de­vel­op­ing up to 1,200bhp thanks to the use of new tur­bocharg­ers, with a new de­sign. They pro­duced ex­cep­tional per­for­mances – un­for­tu­nately, the en­gine lasted only three laps.”

While mod­ern F1 takes a reg­u­lar kick­ing for its ex­trav­a­gances, it’s worth not­ing the above. Over­spend­ing is noth­ing new; in­deed, part of F1’s allure has al­ways been an ob­sti­nate in­sis­tence on tech­no­log­i­cal ex­cess. The throw­away at­ti­tude of the turbo era is a prime ex­am­ple. In con­trast, the fo­cus now is on ex­tend­ing en­gine life and squeez­ing de­vel­op­ment.

Those qual­i­fy­ing-spec tur­bos re­quired an ex­clu­sive set of skills from the driv­ers. Hav­ing prac­tised in race spec they would, in ef­fect, go into qual­i­fy­ing cold, learn­ing new brak­ing points, cop­ing with new gear ra­tios and han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics on the y. It was a fe­ro­ciously phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.

“They were tough cars to drive, very phys­i­cal,” re­calls War­wick. “You had the down­force and needed to make a lot of gear changes, but it was re­ally tough be­cause the power you had in the car was enor­mous. I liked that as­pect of it – but I was al­ways one of the stronger guys out there.

“I re­mem­ber qual­i­fy­ing at Monza. It was just phe­nom­e­nal. We had a seven-speed gear­box. We went up 1,500 revs on ev­ery gear ra­tio and we still ran out of revs at the end of the pit­lane. I re­mem­ber do­ing that qual­i­fy­ing lap with the most

silly grin on my face the whole time.

“The dif­fer­ence be­tween the cars I drove and the cars of to­day is that phys­i­cal as­pect: the steer­ing was more phys­i­cal be­cause you were driv­ing one-handed and us­ing the gearshift all the time. There was much more down­force than they have to­day. I’m not say­ing driv­ing the mod­ern cars isn’t dif­fi­cult but it is dif­fer­ent. Mod­ern driv­ers would have coped be­cause great driv­ers are great driv­ers in any era and they adapt – though I don’t know that a Max Ver­stap­pen-type driver would have jumped into our cars and gone quick straight away.”

While the new tur­bos are much more driv­able than the ’80 tur­bos, opin­ion is di­vided as to whether they’re as driv­able as the nor­mally as­pi­rated V8 en­gines used from 2006 to 2013. Un­sur­pris­ingly, given their suc­cess, Mercedes are con­vinced there is an im­prove­ment.

“Our job as a group of en­gi­neers is to de­liver torque to the rear wheels pre­cisely and in a timely man­ner,” says Cow­ell. “The elec­tri­cal ma­chine that re­cov­ers en­ergy also en­ables us to con­trol the speed of that assem­bly and thus con­trol the boost pres­sure. Be­fore the start of 2014, there were all those fears of turbo lag and ‘what’s it go­ing to be like to drive?’ but the driv­abil­ity is bet­ter than the as­pi­rated en­gine be­cause we’ve put a lot of ef­fort into boost con­trol, into fuel sys­tem man­age­ment and there­fore the cre­ation of torque on de­mand.”

Taf­fin, in con­trast, is not so con­vinced by the cur­rent per­for­mance of the Re­nault pow­er­plant. “We haven’t yet reached the level of driv­abil­ity we had be­fore. It’s a newer en­gine and it’s more com­plex. It wasn’t easy be­fore, but we worked for 25 years on the at­mo­spheric en­gine, so were more on the case. I don’t think there is a long way to go be­cause driv­ers aren’t com­plain­ing about lag. It’s more the con­sis­tency of the torque de­liv­ery and the dif­fer­ent ways of pro­duc­ing that torque that we con­tinue to work on.”

It’s a ques­tion of de­gree, quite dif­fer­ent to the bru­tal­ity of the 1980s equiv­a­lent. War­wick pre­ferred the nor­mally as­pi­rated cars he drove once tur­bos were phased out. “To be hon­est, I wasn’t dis­ap­pointed to see the back of them. After Ar­rows with the Me­ga­tron we had the lovely lit­tle Ar­rows V8. It was pre­dictable and a plea­sure to drive. All of a sud­den you knew when you pressed the throt­tle, you had the punch.”

For the mod­ern driver, old-school tur­bos are the stuff of legend, at best ex­pe­ri­enced by try­ing a re­stored clas­sic. “I haven’t driven a turbo race car,” con­fesses Ric­cia­rdo. “The near­est I got is a Fer­rari F40 and when I drove it, the amount of lag was the sort of thing you re­mem­ber read­ing about as a kid: it winds up and up and then it kicks in. What we have is much more pro­gres­sive – but I’d love to try an ’80s F1 turbo. Although I’d bring a few spare pairs of un­der­wear…”

So much work has gone into boost con­trol and fuel sys­tem man­age­ment, that lag is not a prob­lem in mod­ern turbo-pow­ered F1 cars

The qual­i­fy­ing BMW en­gine of Derek War­wick’s Brab­ham blows due to an ex­cess of power be­fore the 1986 Aus­tralian Grand Prix

Re­nault EF4B (1984)

Re­nault En­ergy F1-2104

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