Pirelli Tyres, DRS , and Lewis Hamilton’s ex-girlfriend have all been the subject of many column inches and Eddie Jordan’s paddock talk this season. And to that the current engine freeze, implemented in 2005 by the FIA , F1’s governing body, in response to spiralling costs which threatened to jeopardise the sport’s long-term economic viability, and you may be forgiven for thinking that engines no longer form a fundamental role in the competition.
There are currently four engine providers on the grid, each in fierce competition, to produce a powertrain that keeps true to Rick Mears, four-time Indy 500 champion’s, old mantra: “to finish first, first you must finish” by providing both performance and reliability. If there was a championship for engines (there has been in the past!) then those of you who aren’t fans of Sebastian Vettel’s “I’m-number-1” finger can breathe a sigh of relief in the knowledge that Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains who supply Mercedes, McLaren and Force India would have taken home the trophy clocking up an impressive 731 points compared with Renault’s 723 in the hands of Renault, Red Bull and Lotus.
Modern F1 engines are mastery of modern engineering with 5000 individual components, including 1500 moving parts. The current grid is comprised solely of naturally aspirated eight-cylinder engine arranged in a 90 degree “V” configuration of the 2400 cc and limited to 18,000 rpm. While the engine freeze — which has prevented many design changes — could be perceived as a stagnation of development when, in reality, it has catalysed different areas of development enabling engineers to understand parts and failures in new detail. Take mass spectrometers for example, which can now be used to identify both the extend of wear in components by analysing the frequencies of the tiny shavings deposited in the engine oil.
Maximising performance and reliability is only half the story. When you consider that the 2011 season had 36 billion possible combinations of engine use, without even considering varying modes or gear-ratios, it is easy to see exactly why modern-day race strategy is by no means confined to pitstops and tyres. Engine strategy plays a vital role in race weekend performance as the total number of engines for the season is limited (8 for 19 races in 2011).
Strategy comes heavily into play when determining when teams take a fresh engine to get more power, such as for heavy use circuits like Monza and Spa; or choosing to limit the lap loss time when using an older engine.
From 2014 new F1 engine regulations will be introduced, replacing the current 2.4 litre V8s with more efficient 1.6 litre, turbocharged V6s. The Kinetic Energy Recovery System, KERS , currently on F1 cars, which provides a 60 kW or 80 hp boost, will be doubled to a more effective Energy Recovery System, ERS , which (with the addition of turbocharging) has set a target of a 35% reduction in CO2 and fuel usage for the same lap time.
The 2014 move to turbocharging represents the first time turbocharging was permitted in F1 since the days of Senna and Prost at the close of the 1988 season. Turbocharging is a forced induction system that uses the exhaust flow from the engine to spin a turbine, which in turn drives an air pump allowing the engine to squeeze more air into a cylinder. As more air means that more fuel can be added, the result is more power from every explosion in each cylinder which gives you a higher power-to-weight ratio for the engine.
Turbocharging was first seen in F1 in the form of devilishly fast but highly unreliable “turbo -lag” suffering Renault RS01, driven by Jean-Pierre Jabouille in 1977 and it was only in 1980 that a turbocharged car won the Championship, in the hands of Alan Jones, giving Williams their first ever title. However, it was not until 1983, the year Nelson Piquet won the Championship in a turbocharged BMW powerplant that the death knoll truly sounded for naturally aspirated engines. The once game changing Cosworth DFV, which had dominated the grid so spectacularly since the Dutch Grand Prix 1967 in the back of the Lotus 49 giving Graham Hill pole position and Jim Clark the win, soon disappeared from the grid. Although its legacy as the most successful engine to ever grace F1, and its concept of using the engine as a stressed member of chassis remains to this day.
In fact, if you take a walk to the Hopkinson Lab in the Inglis Building, you will be able to find the Cosworth DFZ, used in the 1987 Championship during the transition from turbocharging (in which 3.5 L naturally aspirated engines ran alongside the 1.5 L turbos).
The DFZ was introduced by Cosworth as a temporary measure to tide smaller teams such as Tyrrell, Lola, Coloni over (outputting circa 560 hp) until the McLarens and Ferraris of the grid were also forced to retire their more expensive turbocharged engines for the start of the 1989 season.
Shoot forward some 25 years later and turbocharging will once again play its role in dictating who stands on the winning podium. The new turbo era from 2014 onwards, for which development has already begun, will no doubt see new areas for the competing teams to find that all important performance differential. In addition to the turbocharging: a more powerful ERS; direct injection; energy recovery from the turbine and a “stop-start” system, in which the IC engine must shot down on entry and start up on exit of the pit lane all draw new battle lines in the all-important F1 engineering war. Many involved, such as Mercedes-Benz HPP’s technical director Andy Cowell, believe that the edge of competition will shift from the current trend of cubic capacity and engine speed towards the broadly speaking, significantly more commercially relevant parameters of fuel flow and thermal efficiency with combustion chamber, port, fuel injector location, and the design of the ERS and aerodynamic surfaces within the turbo all set to take centre stage.
Undoubtedly 2014 will usher in a new era, which will catapult engines back to the forefront of the sport’s attention. Until then F1 may be in an era of engine freezes, cost-cutting, and have the new kids on the block: DRS, the new Pirelli Tyres, and of course Sebastian Vettel’s finger taking up most of the limelight. But it would be folly to deny the important legacy and on-going role that engines have in making F1 the pinnacle of engineering excellence and performance motorsport.
Editor: Tafara Makuni.
Edited: July 2021
Author: Ruth Buscombe.
Published: TCE Lent Edition 2012.
 DRS, Drag Reduction System
 FIA, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile
 KERS, Kinetic Energy Recovery System
 ERS, Energy Recovery System