MONSTERS: F1 TURBO CARS BLOWING IN THE WIND
F1 went through a revolution in the 1980s with turbocharging engines. By Matt James
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. ■