MON­STERS: F1 TURBO CARS BLOW­ING IN THE WIND

F1 went through a rev­o­lu­tion in the 1980s with tur­bocharg­ing en­gines. By Matt James

Motor Sport News - - World Rallycross -

G

et blown or get lost. That was the mes­sage that F1 woke up to in the early 1980s. Re­nault opened the flood­gates and pretty soon, the rest fol­lowed. First Alfa Romeo then Fer­rari, then ev­ery­one else.

Honda, Porsche, Hart and BMW fol­lowed. And the cars re­main some of the most pow­er­ful ever seen in the top flight of the sport.

But it took a long time for For­mula One to wake up to the con­cept, which had been around since the early 1960s on pro­duc­tion road cars.

Tur­bocharg­ing had been the favoured choice of in­creas­ing power from the truck in­dus­try. The in­tri­ca­cies of do­ing this with less volatile diesel, with its lower tem­per­a­tures – and the lazy na­ture of the big­ger en­gines mean­ing that lag was not so im­por­tant – was the rea­son that it was a while be­fore mo­tor rac­ing boffins took the idea se­ri­ously.

The ori­gins of tur­bocharg­ing in mo­tor rac­ing were suc­cess­fully planted in the USA. The for­mat was first seen at Indy in 1952, when the Cum­mings En­gine com­pany – renowned for its jug­ger­naut pow­er­plants – fit­ted one to a 6.6-litre en­gine. Indy suited the cars be­cause there was no stren­u­ous de­mand on ac­cel­er­a­tion. The smooth flow of the four-cor­nered cir­cuit meant that power delivery was lin­ear, which was an en­gi­neer’s dream. It would be a long time be­fore the turbo pow­er­plant was re­fined enough to be a chal­lenger at Indy, but it was a sig­nal to the fu­ture.

In 1966, For­mula One cars with ‘com­pressed’ in­duc­tion were al­lowed. A belt-driven su­per­charger was the most com­mon way of pres­suris­ing the air­flow through the en­gine – a belt, gears or chain driven straight off the crank­shaft. How­ever, with a turbo, there were less in­de­pen­dent parts to per­fect (or break) so this was the nat­u­ral choice of en­gi­neers work­ing with lim­ited tech­nol­ogy.

But still the for­mat re­mained un­tried in top level mo­tor­sport. Un­til Re­nault took the jump.

It had ex­pe­ri­ence of op­er­at­ing tur­bocharged mo­tors in sportscars by run­ning a two-litre tur­bocharged Gor­dini-de­rived en­gine at Le Mans (and it won the race in 1978 af­ter three years of try­ing).

The French firm de­cided to jump in to the top flight in 1977. Tur­bocharg­ing was cho­sen to in­spire the en­gi­neers, and help the firm learn about the tech­nol­ogy and cre­ate pub­lic­ity around it.

It cer­tainly got pub­lic­ity: not all of it kind, as the vast tech­ni­cal chal­lenge was a moun­tain to climb. In the first two and a half sea­sons, there was only one fourth place fin­ish to show for the ef­forts. The speed was there but the re­li­a­bil­ity was woe­ful.

In the 19 races Re­nault en­tered in 1977 and 1978, the sin­gle-car en­try of Jean-pierre Jabouille only saw the che­quered flag five times, and on one of those oc­ca­sions it wasn’t a clas­si­fied fin­isher.

But when the first win came, at Di­jon in 1979, the flood­gates had al­ready opened. Other en­gi­neers saw the po­ten­tial, and the heavy hit­ters got in­volved. The shape of the sport was about to change for­ever.

By 1981, the ubiq­ui­tous Cos­worth at­mo­spheric three-litre en­gine was un­der se­ri­ous threat. There were six turbo cars – two Re­naults, two Fer­raris and the plucky Bri­tish Tole­man team with its Hart mo­tor.

Re­nault went on to be­come a sup­plier as well as a fac­tory team. In 1984, it sup­plied Lo­tus as well as run­ning the fac­tory team, and the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of the tur­bocharged ma­chine from Nor­folk, with its French pow­er­plant, came out in 1986: the Lo­tus-re­nault 97T.

The two driv­ers for the sea­son were Scots­man Johnny Dum­fries and a young up-and-comer called Ayr­ton Senna. It was the first time that Senna had been given a car to demon­strate his abil­ity ef­fec­tively. Very few driv­ers have been be­hind the wheel of the 97T but one who has is Martin Donnelly, who would go on to be­come a works Lo­tus F1 driver in 1990.

“It is an awe­some car,” Donnelly ex­plains. “When you think about what the driver had to do to tame those cars, it is in­cred­i­ble. There is a dif­fer­ent mind­set to driv­ing them, be­cause you are chas­ing the car the whole time as a driver.

“There is a tech­nique to keep­ing the boost pres­sure up. A driver has to use heel-and-toe, but in­stead of the clutch, you are blip­ping the throt­tle while you are on the brakes. You have to keep the turbo spool­ing while you slow down so that when you hit the throt­tle, the power is there. If you don’t, you will be half­way to­wards the next cor­ner be­fore you get any re­sponse from it.

“It is a knack, a skill that the driv­ers would have had to teach them­selves, be­cause it was some­thing that wasn’t there in the cat­e­gories be­fore you got to F1. It is a dif­fer­ent way of op­er­at­ing.

“I was lucky: I went to Hethel [the Lo­tus test track] and they let me off the leash. I had in ex­cess of four bar of boost on the en­gine, and it lit­er­ally took my breath away on the straight. The kick in the guts when the turbo came in was so strong. Those were real man’s cars.”

But F1’s time with tur­bos was only go­ing to end one way. Im­pos­si­ble lev­els of power – with more grunt than the cir­cuits or the tyres could cope with – and the heady mix of fu­els and flammable ma­te­ri­als was go­ing to be short-lived.

Firstly, the tur­bos were lim­ited to four bar of boost in 1987 and then 2.5 bar in 1988 – reg­u­lated with the use of a pop-off valve to re­lease the pres­sure. Then, in 1989, they were gone com­pletely. They have re­turned with the new breed of power units, but the vi­o­lence and the bru­tal­ity of the delivery has been so re­fined that they are al­most un­no­ticed.

F1 had cre­ated ar­guably some of its most iconic cars, and then they were out­lawed. But for those who drove them, or even those who watched them race, they were things of real brute force and beauty in equal mea­sure. ■

A grid of tur­bocharged F1 mon­sters was a sight

Win­ner Fer­rari’s 1985 156/85 was a race

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