F1 Features: The Formula 1 Turbo Era – Part 1

Brought to you by TJ13 Courtroom Reporter & Crime Analyst: James Parker

Ayrton Senna 1988 Canada ©Ayrton Senna 1988 Canada ©McLaren2014 will mark a brand-new era in Formula 1. For 24 years the sport has enjoyed a tenure of naturally aspirated engines, which produce some of the most iconic sounds in Motorsport history. But from next season onward, Formula 1 will once again flirt with turbocharger technology. Introduced in 1977 and banned at the end of 1988, the iconic Renault “yellow teapots” evolved to its “ultimate” incarnation – The infamous, all-conquering McLaren MP4/4 from 1988.

So from today onwards, I will be publishing a three-part miniseries exploring key aspects of the turbocharged era of the 80’s, and compare them to the new dawn of forced-induction engines, due to begin 2014.

In this first episode, I will explore the drivers, the famous lion tamers of the 80’s, and what today’s pilots have in store. Who can adapt the best? Who will be best suited?

Part two will cover the tyres and engineers, whilst part three will cover the cars themselves, which will help us answer the question of whether there is anything to learn from the past turbocharer era – or can they simply not be compared?

The Drivers

The 1980’s was a highly glorified period of Formula 1. It was an era where cars became icons and drivers became legends – turbocharging was king. But it was the decade that elevated drivers to a godlike status, where on a Sunday afternoon they would go about taming vicious fire spitting beasts:

“Forget anything after, the 1986 Turbo cars really were rockets, and to handle them I really think you had to be a man” – Gerhard Berger

So, who was best at it?

Well, there were two very distinctive styles during the era, that defined particular drivers. We had the aggressive, no-nonsense characters of Mansell, Villeneuve, and Senna, whilst the more calculative Prost, Lauda, and De Angelis went about their business in a far smoother way.

These are two very different approaches to driving these beasts. Yet, perhaps the greatest rivalry in Formula 1 during that very era epitomized that both could breed success in Formula 1 – when it came to Prost and Senna it was like mixing chalk with cheese.

Nigel Mansell ©WilliamsNigel Mansell, like Senna was a warrior-esque character. He didn’t drive cars but bullied them into submission with flashes of extreme car control, and there was simply no car he was not quick in – whichever of the three teams he drove for – Lotus, Williams or Ferrari – it was. It was a never-say-die attitude that earned him one of the biggest fan bases in the sport. He simply did not know what the word “give up” means.

Alain will do everything in his power to win, he doesn’t like getting beaten by anyone and least of all [by] me”. – Nigel Mansell

This aggressive style allowed Senna, and to a certain extent Mansell (when in a competitive car), to enjoy incredible successes in qualifying (you can’t argue with 97 pole positions between them both). They simply adapted to their cars’ demands, driving around any flaws, to deliver qualifying laps that were simply astounding, Mansell at the 1987 German GP and Senna in Monaco in 1988 being notable examples.

“And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high”. – Ayrton Senna

Prost on the other hand relied far less on adapting his driving style to the needs of the car, instead focusing on getting the car to suit him – perfectly. Instead of relying on pure speed (which he had in abundance) he looked to employ a calculative intelligence to his driving. His inputs were smooth, hitting apexes with unrivaled precision.

Whereas the likes of Senna and Villeneuve employed this bullish driving style behind the wheel, Prost looked to caress cars into doing what he wanted, and at the time this type of driving style was considered somewhat pioneering but also brutally successful.

 “I don’t like to go over curbs, because I don’t want to be hard on the car”. – Alain Prost.

Formula 1 in the 80’s employed regulations that allowed so many contrasting characters to achieve success in the sport. There was no right or wrong way to drive the turbo monsters. The best men in F1 at the time all rose to the top, each with his own, very unique driving style. I think this is why it went down as one of the best eras in Formula 1 history.

During the turbo era, the best men in the sport all had flaws, but they did not let that affect their driving behind the wheel. They looked to eradicate those weaknesses by maximising their strengths, something Piquet, Mansell, Senna, and Prost all did with incredible success.

Below is Alain Prost, in 1983, taming his Renault RE40 around the old Kyalami circuit in South Africa.

What does 2014 hold?

With all of the above in mind, is 2014 set to follow the same trend? Can the current generation of drivers be considered just as strong as those 30 years ago? Is there anyone set to struggle? Or will the cream always rise to the top – as we saw during the 80’s period?

One could argue that contrasting driving styles in modern day Formula 1 are just as prevalent as to those legends of yesteryear.  We have the likes of Vettel and Hamilton who look to Senna and Mansell as sources of inspiration, whereas the veterans Raikkonen, Alonso, and Button look to employ a more calculating style in how about they go their business.

Mercedes Benz 2014 F1 Turbo ©MercedesFrom 2014 onwards, the new “power units” will contain a lot more torque than their naturally aspirated counterparts of 2013, and this will in turn lead to cars being a lot more unpredictable on corner exit.

Tyre management and setup optimization will be key. We have not seen torque figures of this degree since the 80’s, and all without traction control to help drivers.

During the past two seasons, the likes of Raikkonen and Alonso have shown magnificent examples of maximizing tyre management and if Pirelli once again decide to go aggressive with compound structure next season, we could well see drivers who can look after their fragile rear boots being the most competitive ones.

This could obviously be extremely detrimental to the more aggressive drivers on the grid. Hamilton and Vettel are considered the two qualifying benchmarks in the sport. Both drivers like the rear of the car to be loose however, so I think only the constraints of the Pirelli rubber may hamper their efforts of being competitive from the start of 2014 – especially if the tyre compounds become susceptible to the increased energy going through the rear of the car.

Like the 80’s, where fuel constraints and brake conservation became key, in 2014 the sport will most likely become a thinking man’s game once again. With the Energy Recovery System generating 161 bhp for 33 seconds per lap, and the fuel limit dropping from 150kgs to 100kgs on race day, drivers will have to be intelligent, devious, and must be strategically aware of what is going on around them, in order to optimise their position.

Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso © Kimi Raikkonen SpaceOut of the current crop of Formula 1 drivers, it is clear that the likes of Raikkonen and Alonso understand the current regulations best and utilize all of their experience to maximize the machinery underneath – in 2013, they are not the fastest packages on raw pace.

However, with the current generation cars dominated by one aspect in particular (aerodynamics) it has negated the opportunity for more aggressive drivers to be as successful as they potentially could be. This is evident in 2013, where a car’s characteristics in terms of tyre performance and aero performance are just as important as a driver’s style.


During the first turbocharged era in Formula 1, the regulations allowed numerous drivers of contrasting styles to dominate. There was no “perfect formula” in order to be successful, as it were.

In 2014 however, there are going to be so many more factors at play to determine how successful certain drivers are – most predominately the tyres.

For the drivers, 2014 will be a season of adaptation. They will experience totally new engine characteristics that have not been witnessed in Formula 1 for quite some time. The cars will rely much more on mechanical grip than in years past, and the driver who optimizes his set-up to best accommodate that fact will have a great advantage.

The season will be dominated by one word – management, whether it is rear tyre wear, fuel load, or Energy Recovery System usage and for that reason, like what we have experienced during the past couple of seasons, I can’t see past those drivers that possess the most experience continuing to dominate.

Episode two will continue the journey, looking at tyre compounds from earlier decades, as well as the engineers and personnel that may potentially have an advantage, going into next year.

Which driver do you think will capitalize in 2014?

32 responses to “F1 Features: The Formula 1 Turbo Era – Part 1

  1. Alonso, Kimi, Lewis, Vettel will rise to the top. However, I’d be more interested to know who from the other younger drivers might feature highly. Button, Webber, Alonso, Kimi may retire in the next 3-4 years. So who will join Lewis and Vettel after that? Perez, Hulk, Bianchi? And let’s not forget Rosberg

    • From reading through the radio transmissions I think we should not count Perez out. I’m like a stuck record on Perez but yes, I’d like to see who else would be good.

    • I think Perez is going to be one of the next big ones, Rosberg may end up being similar to Button, finally getting recognition a little too late in his career. Perez is a cut from another cloth though, every single corner seems like an overtaking opportunity to him. If he lands in a good car a year or two from now he’ll have a great shot at the championship.

      • I would agree entirely with that. Perez is made of tough stuff. He has only just turned 23 years old yet already had 2 years experience in Formula 1. He is hailed as a tyre conservationist, yet this season is also proving he has a fire, a desire to fight for his part of the race track very fiercely.

        I really do think he has JB in his back pocket already at Mclaren (or certainly got him rattled) and this compromise between looking after fragile rubber, yet showing an aggressive fierce will to overtake might put him in good stead for the 2014 season reg changes.

      • I agree that Perez is going places, as is Bianchi, another one could be Hulkenberg. I used to rate Ricciardo when watching his F3 championship season, but not so sure now. That could just be a case of being limited by the car though.

    • If Grosjean can bounce back this year, then I’d add him in, Monaco was certainly a wobble, but to go out there and go fastest first lap in Q1 impressed the hell outta me. If he can harness this issue he seems to have, with other vehicles around particularly, then don’t discount him too.

      • I’m not so sure about Grosjean. Monaco wasn’t a wobble it was a massive faceplant. I can’t believe his self-esteem hasn’t taken a knock that weekend. Being on 3-race probation contracts is humiliating enough. Having it be publicly known now even more and Ricciardo’s “you can probably guess the driver” radio message gives a clear indication what his peers think of him. That must be an awkward feeling in the drivers meetings.
        Maybe he could pull an Andrea de Cesaris and become more consistent later in his career, once it has sunken in that the transparent part of the helmet belongs on the side of the head where the face is, but I doubt team bosses have that kind of patience these days.

      • I am torn with Grosjean, on his day he is as fast as anyone on the grid – particularly over 1 lap. In terms of raw pace I would rate him as the quickest French driver to hit Formula 1 since Alain Prost (Panis however was very underrated).

        However you need the complete package, and sadly speed is simply not enough unless you plan from starting at the front of the grid every GP 😉

        Grosjean I fear loses his head far too easily, and 4 crashes in 1 Grand Prix weekend is far too much for a driver of his calibre. Lotus is a top team, and unless he finds consistency they will sadly never challenge for the WCC (where the money really lies) something that is most useful to them at this time with their current financial woes.

      • I don’t particularly disagree with you guys, but I do think I qualified my initial statement, to take account of all theser things. If he can sort his head out, then I think he’s in that group, thats all, as opposed to Vergne for example.

        He’s like the typical surly teenager that needs laid, he just needs to win a race, then I think he might calm down.

        We haven’t seen enough of Bottas yet, but monaco was a good weekend for him, performance wise. Maldonado… again, I’m not sure, he’s quick, and whilst so far he seems to have his issues under better control than Romain, I’m not sure if he has enough to be a future champion.

    • Depending on tyre degradation, I have a feeling Alonso, Kimi, Perez and Di Resta will do well under the new formula. I can see Paul being strategically strong and efficient at using the myriad options available. If tyres can withstand aggressive driving of the higher torque, then Vettel, Lewis, Webber, Massa.. should be fine, but I think Massa may be more likely to struggle given recent reg changes. But it may be all about driving style, and whether the new formula is front or rear-limited. I think the first 4 I mentioned drive more front-limited car set ups, while the loose rear end drivers are more rear-limited. E.g. Barcelona – front limited track, Alonso wins. Melbourne – an example of a pure management race, Raikkonen wins. Canada – all about traction, rear grip – Hamilton always strong.

      It will be very interesting to see if any styles are brought to the fore, as always. I was thinking recently if the 2009 regs slightly favoured Button – larger front tyres making the cars have a great front end?

    • Because it was so ridiculously superior to all other cars in the field that it cleaned out the 1988 season. It only didn’t win each and every grandprix that year, because JL Schlesser piled into Senna at Monza.
      Ferrari in the 2000s and RBR in recent years have been hated for less dominant cars.

      • Almost correct: Senna was being caught so quickly by the 2 chasing Ferrari’s that he tried to double JL Schlesser in a way that according to Kimi would deserve him a punch on the face…

        • Legend has it, that Prost knowing his engine wasn’t going to last had turned up his boost and forced Senna to drive faster than his fuel allowance would last. (and you thought they always raced flat out back in the day)
          Once Prost retired, Senna had to reduce his pace and consumption to the point that the Ferrari’s were catching him.
          He came up to lap Schlesser into the first chicane and a misunderstanding from both drivers resulted in this…


          Schlesser by the way was standing in for an injured Mansell.

          When they collided, there was less than 2 laps left, Senna was leading by 5 seconds but wasn’t being caught quickly enough to threaten his position and perhaps most significantly of all, it was the first Italian GP after the death of Enzo Ferrari. The crowd went crazy. In fact you can hear the crowd before the TV pictures pick up the stranded Mclaren.

      • I wouldn’t say that Mclaren were hated at all during that period. In fact, I think it was because of the war between Prost and Senna that F1 became truly global.
        What was hated was Ron Dennis, saying to journalists, “we make history, you merely report it”

        One thing I did like about that era was that Ron never gave out team orders, although I can’t imagine either Senna or Prost would have listened.
        The Mclaren was so good, that practically any combination of driver would have dominated that year. You don’t turn up to your first test and circulate 2 seconds a lap quicker and not dominate.
        Ultimately, you had the best drivers in the world, in a car that was designed specifically for the 1988 season, whereas Ferrari had updated the previous car.
        Honda also redesigned the engine for the 150litre fuel limit and 2.5 bar turbo pressure, whereas Ferrari merely made minor changes to the powerplant.
        Williams were forced into using Judd, and that was it essentially for competition.

        As far as RBR and Ferrari being less hated.. I’d actually say they are more hated, for one very important reason, the drivers are not allowed to race each other.

        Those cars were amazing, the drivers too. Between 1982 and 1988, I saw every British event, British GP, European GP and the Race of Champions in 1983, the 1986 Italian GP and a few tyre tests too. Magical times.

      • I’m familiar with the dominant performance of the McLaren MP4/4. But that doesn’t make it “infamous.” Perhaps you’re no more aware of the meaning of that word than Mr. Parker is. Notable, important, celebrated, pre-eminent, momentous, renowned…all true. But hardly “infamous.”

        • Pedantic – but most fair in my view 😉

          Further, I know where to turn when I’m reaching for an adjective. Good to hear from you DaveP

          • Hi Dave, I simply meant it was infamous because it brought about a season of dominance that has been unrivalled by almost anyone else in the history of the sport.

            As a spectacle the 1988 season was a complete farce with 1 team over 2 seconds a lap faster than their nearest competitor. In that regard the MP4/4 had an evil reputation of destroying any form of competition in Formula 1 at the time as the F2002 and the FW14b did preceding it.

            It was simply notorious or “infamous” for taking away any type of competition from F1 during 1988.

          • Thanks for giving room to vent, TJ13. Yeah, I’m a bit primed about that word because just last weekend I was watching a video clip in which some guy (bloke, you would say) at Hedingham Castle with the ’70 LeMans-winning Porsche 917 intro’d the location as being “at the infamous Classics at the Castle” and then turned to his guest and said, “And beside me, again, the infamous Richard Attwood…” Not sure if this is a creeping (mis)use in the UK or what…but Richard had the grace to let that one go by. Not sure I’d have done the same.

          • Dave P

            I am genuinely laughing out loud (lol) as I type.

            TJ13 has in fact proved to be a refuge for all its readers. Whether they have pent up F1 frustrations or just for those who may be suffering general trauma, social and even linguistic abuse.


        • May I add to your displeasure of mis-use of words in articles.


          Everybody is legendary these days. Be it reality TV fodder or a sports star, actor or musician.
          It turns my stomach when I hear lazy commentators or journalists using that word because they haven’t actually developed a vocabulary.

          • That’s the culture of our time. Everything has to be sensational. Just take the current situation in F1. If someone criticizes someone else the rags will report ‘x slams y for…’.
            Also, nobody is displeased anymore – they’re furious. Also nobody rebuts criticism anymore, the hit back at whoever dared to be furious and slammed them.

            It’s the Bild and The Sun generation.

  2. I’d love to see people racing. It’s F1 after all, not a dumb fantasy league. Management has to come to play only if nursing an ailing car home, methinks.

  3. Great to hear Murray again at Kayalami – “Downhill to BBQ bend” – great smooth stuff from Walker and from Prost.

    “I am surrounded by a bunch of cheering, gesticulating, shouting, overjoyed Itailans AND the atmosphere is unbelievable” … And the commentary is unbelievable too…. Roll over Croft, Brundle, and Coulthard. (Let alone the Swiss or German commentators I’m usually subjected to…:))

    Great article JP – looking forwards to part 2 with bated breath!

    You mention ERS management at the end of the article, will the drivers have any direct control over this (like KERS this year) or will it be a completely automated system…? – Cheers!

    • Yes, I remember that race so well. Not many occasions that I had tears in my eyes and despite supporting Senna, I’m a Tifoso at heart.
      To this day, I don’t think there was a better combination of commentators than Murray and James.

    • What a circuit the old Kyalami was, the last section leading on to the pit straight (short straight followed by quick kink) was mighty with cars on full throttle for over 20-25 seconds.

      I think the voice of Walker will firmly remain within the history books of Formula 1 – he will go down in folklore. I have always campaigned to get him back into the commentary box one last time as a “special” one off, perhaps at a British GP – but have yet to receive my wish.

      Glad you enjoyed the article my friend, part 2 will be published in due course 😉

      Essentially ERS will just be a strengthened version of KERS with it harvesting unused energy from the turbine as well as the power from the braking phase that we see in today’s KERS package.

      Drivers will have direct control over when they decide to use the 33 seconds worth of 161hp over the course of the lap. This will open up strategic opens no end when we compared it to the 80hp – 7 seconds we have now.

      Overtaking I feel will be greatly increased with this measure. As 33 seconds and 161hp boost gives an incredible scope for places to pass. We could see drivers employing all of the seconds available in one go in an effort to get past, however will then be weak for the rest of the lap – with the overtaken driver still having some 20 seconds left from the same lap and opting to fight back with it.

      I am hugely fascinated to see how that pans out during the 2014 season.

      • James – dont you think 33s is a bit too much though? We already see some drivers spare their KERS through twisty bits where a faster car cannot get past and then use all fo their KERS and some more to get away from the DRS/KERS car behind. Some drivers have perfected it so will 33s not just mean I’ll ERS you of you ERS/DRS me? Maybe we should dump DRS now?

        • Hmmm that is a very tricky one to answer to be honest. If you think the average lap around an F1 circuit is between 1.25-1.35 (apart from the longer circuits like Spa and Singapore).

          That means in 2014 drivers will be utilizing ERS for over 33% of the lap on average at most Grand Prix’s. Whilst I think that is quite extortionate, I do believe the longer a “boost” button is given to a driver, the more strategically they can use it. At the moment, KERS is very structured in terms of it’s usage.

          You regularly hear Race Engineers on the radio to the drivers describing the best way to use the 7 seconds of KERS available to them, meaning a lot of the time the drivers are using them all in the same places.

          What you get with 33 seconds is a completely different perspective of things. For a third of a lap in essence a driver can be on “boost” therefore I think drivers can be a lot more creative in it’s usage than now with a measly 7 seconds – creating hopefully some racing where certain men find an advantage with ERS that others don’t.

          What I do think however is that DRS is potentially not necessary with ERS as effective as it will be now. With the DRS zones still active on the circuit, I think it would go back to structuring ERS usage around those areas in an attempt to get away from the following driver.

          If we ditched DRS then I think it would leave drivers a blank sheet of paper over when is the “optimum” to release ERS rather than highlighting the DRS zones as the focus of most of their “boost” creating more opportunities elsewhere on the track where drivers will look to “catch out” the man in front.

          • If I attack at the same place every time will you not defend at the same place every time? Overtaking should be about outbraking an opponent into a corner or pressuring him to make a mistake and miss an apex so you can overtake him.

      • The length of new ‘KERS’ time per lap concerns me.

        Would we have seen Alonso’s crafty use coming off turn 1 in Barcelona to nail Kimi and set up the pass on Lewis?

  4. Hi guys / TJ13
    Just on a side note – not a big fan of the “rate this” at the top of each comment.
    It’s distracting,
    and I feel like I’m reading youtube comments or other blogs with their +1 etc.
    I thinks it belittles this blog.
    Perhaps TJ13 could run a pole about whether anyone else dislikes this new change??
    Maybe I’m just getting old (or grumpier) !!

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