#F1 Features: The Formula 1 Turbo Era – Part 3 – The Cars

Brought to you by tj13 contributor James Parker of GrandPrixMerchandise

Welcome everyone to the final instalment of the TheJudge13’s mini-series discussing the Formula 1’s turbocharger era. In the first two episodes we covered both the drivers and the tyres, exploring the differences between the turbocharger era in the eighties and the one that is about to grace us starting in 2014.

So, on to the final episode then. Today we will be talking about the brutal, fire-spitting beasts themselves – the fearsome turbocharged monsters that created an iconic generation in the sport’s history – so, let’s begin.

Yester year

Renault RS 01 © F1 FanaticTurbochargers in Formula 1 took some time to really catch on. But when it did, it was a gargantuan explosion leading to the point where a separate championship was needed for normally aspirated cars on the grid – the Jim Clark Trophy in 1987. So, where did it all start?

In 1977, there was a clause in the FIA regulations which stated that engines, for normally aspirated cars, must have a 3L capacity, or 1.5L of forced induction in the form of a turbocharger or even a supercharger (much like the BRM V16 of the fifties).

At the time, Renault had just entered Formula 1 under a Renault subsidiary, and with their first car – the RS01 – decided to be the first manufacturer to flirt with turbocharged engines. Relying on their lead designer André de Cortanze to build the RS01 as a “test car”, and lead driver Jean-Pierre Jabouille for developing it, they were hoping for great things.

The engine was made from cast iron, in order to withstand the increased forces in a turbocharged unit. This, however, made the car very heavy and cumbersome, which in turn made it difficult to drive, but with 580bhp on tap from the twin turbo layout, the potential was there.

The team rapidly develop the idea all through 1978 however initial reliability problems led to a running joke in the paddock. The cars were nicknamed “yellow teapots” by rival teams, due to the car’s tendency during a race to erupt in a cloud of smoke, little success was expected.

This all changed in 1979, when Renault released their new car, the RS10, part way through the season and won in Dijon in quite dominant fashion. Combined with a potent ground-effect chassis, the big power gained by turbochargers allowed Renault to show the world just what it was capable of, and left the likes of Brabham, Ferrari, and McLaren scrambling to develop their own turbocharger programmes. The Cosworth DFV was close to being obsolete.

By 1984, the inevitable happened and the technology race for more power led to incredible results. After Renault and Brabham had dominated the championship in 1983 with their turbocharged cars, the path was clear – F1 had uncovered a new evil.

Porsche, racing under the TAG name, Ferrari, and Honda all stayed true to the philosophy that Renault had pioneered in 1977, sticking with 1.5L V6 twin turbo engines, and by 1984/1985 outputs varied from 800bhp to 900bhp in race trim. In qualifying trim, when boost pressure in the turbo could be turned up to eleven the power could reach up to 1100bhp!

TolueneBoost pressures differed from engine to engine, with most of them not going above 3.2 bar in race trim or 4.5 bar in qualifying trim. Fuel for these beasts was made up of a mixture of 86% toluene and 14% n-heptane in order to meet sporting regulation requirements.

However, one manufacturer was to go one step further to create an engine that has since grabbed the fans’ fascination with the period. Unlike other manufacturers, BMW opted to produce a 1.5L inline-4 engine. The iron block was based on a standard, production M10 unit, and each one was bought new and then left out exposed to the “elements” for a year, to become weathered and to naturally strengthen it to withstand the forces sustained during the combustion process.

Featuring a high compression ratio of 7.5:1, and with a hugely potent KKK Garret single turbocharger attached to it, the M12/13 Formula 1 unit was to become the most powerful Formula 1 engine in history. By 1986, strapped into the back of the Brabham BT55 at an 18-degree angle, BMW were pushing almost 5.5 bars in Qualifying trim, corresponding to around 1350-1400hp. Reliability issues and the Brabham’s relatively unsuccessful chassis restricted its success in Formula 1.

It was an engine that made Gerhard Berger, driver of the 1986 Benetton car that featured a variant of the BMW M12/13 unit state:

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

By 1987, the FIA had banned Qualifying tyres, and had mandated the use of a pop-off valve that limited boost pressure to only four bar under any circumstances, thus limiting power to around 1000bhp. Coupled with a fuel limit of 195 liters during a race, introduced in 1986, meant boost pressure had to be very carefully managed.

At that point in time, the FIA did not perceive turbo Formula 1 cars as a particularly good thing, and proceeded in 1989 by banning them. Their reasoning was that the cars were getting far too fast.

McLaren MP4/4 © McLarenIt led to 1988 being a “last hurrah” for turbocharged cars, with boost pressure severely limited to 2.5 bar, or around 680-700hp.  It was a season dominated by the iconic McLaren MP4/4, the only true, fully integrated turbocharged car on the grid, winning 15 of the 16 races it competed in.

Even at 2.5 bar it was significantly more powerful than any normally aspirated engine.


So, here we are, only eight months away from being reunited with our old friend the turbocharger, and a brand new era in Formula 1. How exactly will the new 2014 turbo engine cars stack up against the monsters from the eighties?

The new 1.6 litre V6 single-turbo units, limited to 15,000rpm, will not only have 3000 revs less than the V8 engines this season, but the exhaust note will be distinctly deeper. Although the wail of the V10 era and Ferrari’s V12s have passed, and are somewhat missed by many purist fans, these new turbo beasts, will not let us down in the noise department.

Advancements to turbo technology during the past ten years will see many new features that will be applied once the regulations have been changed, next season.

renault-shema-turbo-inline renault-parts-inline © Renault Sport F1For the first time in Formula 1, the engines will all feature direct injection, which will be capped to around 500 bar. This will allow engines to become more fuel efficient through the rate at which the fuel is used within the engine itself. This could see engines becoming as much as 35% more efficient.

Maximum power will be still capped at around 750bhp. The way this will be achieved is by using a fuel flow controller on every engine, which is supplied to each team and will directly interact with McLaren’s standard-issue ECU system.

This will limit the fuel-to-air ratio when combustion is achieved, and therefore the amount of power available to drivers. In fact, the fuel flow becomes linear once 10,500 rpm has been achieved. This will give all engineers a major headache as to how they can unlock a higher peak power between 10,500 rpm and 15,000 rpm when the fuel flow becomes linear.

This differs from the previous turbo cars, where power was completely controlled by the boost pressure available from the turbo (ranging from 3.4 bar to 5.5 bar).

The KERS system used on the 2013 season spec cars will become much more important once the regulations’ change takes effect.

The energy recovery systems will be set to double in effectiveness, providing up to 120kW of additional power to the rear wheels. Not only will hybrid technology be used to produce extra power for the drivers to utilise, as seen this season, but a motor generator will be also attached to the turbo shaft within the engine.

This in turn will spool up the compressor connected to the turbo, and therefore eradicate the famous turbo lag that has long been associated with turbocharged engines. Excess energy from the turbo can then also be used in conjunction with the KERS device, which gives us the ERS (Energy Recovery System), which means that in 2014 a total of 33 seconds of boost is available to drivers over the course of a lap.

I expect the biggest headache for engine manufacturers during the initial six to twelve months, once the new units come into service in 2014, to be the fuel flow above 10,500rpm.

The FIA has stated that they do not plan to “freeze” engine development on the V6 turbo units until 2018, leaving a fairly large scope for manufacturers to develop the engines.

renault-parts-inline © Renault Sport F1If one of the “big three” in the sport can unlock extra potential from the engine from the point above 10,500 rpm, where the fuel flow becomes linear and thus create more peak power, the gains are there for the taking. Therefore, we may see one manufacturer dominate the sport during the first year or two until the others can catch-up.

Those playing catch-up will face a challenge to get their units up to the required power prior to the engine development freeze in 2018 or face being known as the least powerful engine in Formula 1.

Final Thoughts

We simply cannot compare the two turbo eras in Formula 1. During the first one, regulations were open to interpretation to a much greater extent than today. Teams pushed each other to the limit, especially in 1986, which eventually led to the decline of turbocharger technology in Formula 1.

In 2014, the sport will enter a totally new, alien era where advancements in turbocharger technology mean that we can take almost nothing from the 1980’s. This, however, does not mean that, when looking back to the first time Formula 1 flirted with turbo units, the same basic principles do not apply. Especially with respect to the tyres (see episode 2), turbo engines will always have the same underlying characteristics.

This final article concludes our miniseries, which was set to explore the history of turbocharger technology in Formula 1. I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I did.

The 2014 season is certainly set to make its own unique mark in the history of the sport – I am very excited … are you!?

13 responses to “#F1 Features: The Formula 1 Turbo Era – Part 3 – The Cars

  1. How will the teams use the exhaust? Are they going to blow anything considering the 10,500 -15000 range.

    • Hi John, we simply do not know yet as complete details on the new units have not been released yet.

      What we do know is that there will probably be no more beam wings on cars in 2014 due to the new aero regs. The front wings will also be narrower by about 75mm.

      Exhaust wise, the FIA have been very careful with the regulations to limit the teams ability to exploit the exhaust gases. In 2014 the window for placement of the exhausts is very narrow 330mm to 550mm. They will be placed much further back on the car, meaning it limits the teams ability to “sculpt” and then direct the airflow to the diffuser.

      It is set to be very fascinating indeed.

  2. Are you sure about the 35% more efficient, or is that actually an efficiency of 35% for the engine? A turbo engine that needs mention was the Brian Hart unit, built on a very low budget. The Hart engine was an inline 4, but was a monobloc, with the head cast with the block and hence no cylinder head sealing problems. A real problem with the inline 4’s was that they weren’t rigid enough, because of their shape, to carry the rear suspension loads. I believe both the BMW and Hart engines required extra structure in the rear, which complicated the chassis and body work and made some fitting awkward. Hart fooled around with a twin turbo setup but didn’t have the money to develop it, which was too bad because a double turbo would have solved some turbo lag problems. On a final note, Honda developed a turbo engine with oval pistons (never raced and then banned) that improved gas flow into and out of the engine by unshrouding the valves; it was supposed to have reached 1500 hp on the test bed. I hesitate to think what power they might have reached with the current low friction technology, high revving pneumatic valve closure, current electronic engine controls, and the use of materials like beryllium or metal matrix that are now banned.

    This was a fascinating era in F1; I highly recommend the book “The 1000 BHP Grand Prix Cars” by Ian Bamsey. Let’s hope the FIA let the manufacturers have some leeway to make technology advances.

    • Fantastic insight Steve, many thanks for sharing. Do you know what year the oval pistoned Honda turbo unit was planned to hit the track before it was banned?

      My understanding was that, the inline 4 configuration would allow potential more power and a smoother transmission of power compared to it’s V6 counterparts. If we think, the iconic production BMW inline 6 is famed for it’s smoothness in power delivery (inline engine).

      Do you know if the Hart block was also based on a production unit like the BMW’s Steve? Obviously two strategically placed “smaller” turbo’s would have dramatically decreased the lag compared to a “giant” KKK Garret single turbocharger and would have helped with overall driveability of the car – (something the TAG Porsche engine was famous for I think?).

      I will definitely have a look at the book for sure, and it is great to see some brilliant insight from that era.

      • Actually, if you run the numbers, a six cylinder engine of the same displacement and compression ratio as a four cylinder engine has about 16% (don’t quote me!) more piston area than the equivalent four cylinder engine. Since torque is generated by piston surface area, and horsepower is simply torque integrated over time, the six cylinder engine will be more powerful. There are, of course, offsetting advantages, as the six will have more internal friction and more components. The four cylinder also has an inherent balance problem, which is why some engines run a balance shaft to reduce vibration. Interesting topics.

      • The Hart monoblock was purpose built; no manufacturer produces a single block/head casting that I know of, although I seem to recall that the Offenhauser engine was a single casting. I imagine it was a bit difficult to machine and assemble the Hart engine, as the valve port machining and assembly had to be done through the bore from the crank end. Still, a single casting would make for a strong and rigid unit.

      • Honda – I’d never heard of a turbo F1 oval engine ?

        However Honda did produce an oval engined motorcycle for both the road and racing – the NR.


        The oval piston concept allowed for 8 valves per cylinder which generated more power due to the increased air/fuel mixture throughput and compression.

        However, due to problems with sealing from the piston rings due to their shape, it never achieved the performance that Honda had hoped for, and was eventually abandoned in favor of more traditional round piston 4 valve engines.

        BMW – they actually bought a lot of M10 engines from owners of old, low mileage cars ( 1500’s I think ) that had already had the stresses “worked” out of them – and did not just use new “weathered” engines.

        Renault – the first turbo engine was supposed to have been installed in a Tyrrell – the P34.

        The deal was done, with ELF financing the project, but at the last minute Renault reneged, refusing even to supply engines to Tyrrell whilst it developed it’s own RS01.

        This was the reason why Ken Tyrrell so vehemently opposed the introduction of turbo engines into F1 and lodged many official protests over many years.

        Probably the kindest, most gentlemanly team owner in F1 was stabbed in the back by Renault, and from which he and his team never recovered.

  3. First off, fantastic series. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and hard work.

    Am I understanding that because of the linear delivery, essentially the torque curve will flatten at 10,500 rpm? Also, you seem to imply that the upper parts of the rpm range will be where manufacturers will define themselves. Do you have any thoughts as to how they might do that?

    • No problem Matt, It is probably the period of F1 which most fascinates me given how “loose” the regulations became – turbocharging and ground effect combined was a very scary prospect indeed.

      Although I can not conclusively say yes, I would almost assume that, that would be correct. The fuel-air mixture will become static at that rpm so it would be wise to think peak torque will be around 10,500rpm.

      I did, my main thinking behind this was because it appears the most obvious part of the engine to develop before the engine freeze comes into force in 2018.

      How might they exploit the upper rpm band? I think it may all come down to the fuel controllers and manipulating them in a way to “legally” input more fuel above 10,500rpm – how they would do that is beyond my reach or technical understanding.

      But I would be surprised if a manufacturer did not follow that route, as it is the area of the engine that offers the “biggest” scope of improvement in my view, as on paper, all engines will suffer the same drawbacks of it.

  4. In the above pic of the old Renault v6 the turbo is a mile away from anything! That couldn’t have helped with the turbo lag, surely.

  5. Many thanks JP! Really appreciate the hard work and knowledge that has gone into this series – really enjoyable to read and this has whet my appetite for turbo racing in 2014! Cheers!

  6. Re : fuel flow controller

    Keith Duckworth ( of Cosworth fame ) suggested using this principal in the late 70’s.

    His proposal to the FIA was that there should be NO engine size, layout, method of aspiration, or fuel restrictions – and that you could build ANYTHING you liked.

    The caveat being the use of a fuel flow controller which would limit the maximum power output of an engine. This limit would have been set by the FIA.

    To equalize the different types of fuels that could have been used, he proposed this equalization be based on the calorific value of a fuel. So a petrol engine would have a lower fuel rate ( by mass ) for example, than an ethanol, or diesel engine.

    Imagine the possibilities ……. 2 strokes, diesels, Wankels, etc. – it would have been a Darwinian struggle …….. and imagine the effect it would have had on everyday car engines, and the benefits to all of us ?

    Of course, as per usual with such a simple and brilliant proposal – the FIA ( aka Jean-Marie Balestre ) ignored it and went down the road of more and more engine regulation.

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