The Engine Gods of Formula 1

The Engine Gods of Formula 1

In the world of automobiles, F1 is considered to be the Olympus of petrol-heads. It is worshiped and looked upon with a glimmer of hope to produce the best of all, from the best engines to the best aerodynamics to the best drivers (we should really call them gladiators though).

It is the benchmark of the automotive industry and has been in that position since 1946. The inception of Formula 1 racing was post the world war, a committee (FIA) decided the rules and regulations and flagged off the first Formula 1 race in the month of September 1946. The regulations were mainly based on engine specifications, with supercharged engines and naturally aspirated engines, fighting together to the finish.

When it comes to racing cars, the true passion lies in the engine, the horsepower, the battle between turbochargers and natural engines and the pure symphony of the grueling V8’s and V12’s echoing through the grand stands. Engines are the heart of racing cars and their history is quite fascinating.


How it all came to be:

The engines used in the early 1950s were the voiturette engines, consisting of 2 types; the naturally aspirated 4.5L and the 1.5L supercharged engine. These pre-war engines produced 425 HP of power.

After that the engine size variations went on a roller-coaster ride, from reducing the 4.5 litre engine to 2.5 litre and 2.8 litre in the late 50s and later on increasing it to 3.0 litres in the early 60’s. Different constructors (teams) had varying formulas in place to achieve the best engine design and performance, from inline 6 cylinders of the Alfa Romeo’s to the V8s of Ferrari. The Italians too, had their way, while the German Porsche 804 had an inline 8 cylinder air-cooled engine that floored the Tasman series of the 1960. Ford-Cosworth had its 3 litre V8 while BRC (British Racing Motor) created the 64 valve V8 H16 engine to compete with the big dogs, and ruled the 70’s (1968-1974).

The mid 60’s to 80’s were revolutionized by Renault due to the introduction of the V6 turbo engines, claiming that the future of F1 is in turbocharged engines. The naturally aspirated companies realized this the hard way though over time all of them converted to the turbocharged engine.

BMW created their turbocharged inline 4 cylinder in 1981 and Alfa Romeo came up with the turbocharged V8 engine. The introduction of Honda also happened around this time. These engines created massive power, way too much for a mortal to control (hence gladiators). The turbo boosted engines created 950-1000 BHP, owing to the special boost feature, a pressure regulator that created a 60-80 psi pressure in the engine that would give immense horsepower but ruin all the mechanical parts. Hence, these engines and gearboxes could only survive 2-4 laps and were then used as qualifier engines. This era gave us the most famous drivers of all time, from Jackie Stewart to Emerson Fittipaldi, not to forget, the battle of James Hunt and Nikki Lauda.

With the end of the 80’s, there was an end to the turbo era and the naturally aspirated ones were back with 3.5 litres, reducing the HP to 675. The Honda had a good V10 engine and the team name of McLaren in front to go with which led them to winning the championship under a legend of that time – Alan Prost, and the great Aryton Senna who drove the McLaren-Honda to victory thrice. The competitors were V10s of Renault-Williams and V12’s of the Ferrari, all 650-690 BHP engines, revving up to 13000 rpm, making rampant noises from the V12’s and V8’s. With the death of Aryton Senna, there were changes in the racing world, engines were not the first priority anymore, safety was!

The end of 80’s started with the downsizing of engines, from 3.5L to 3.0L. Renault pioneered these and dominated the 90’s to 99’s. They supplied to Benetton and Williams, which were outstanding throughout the decade but Mikki Hakkinen stopped this domination in his Mercedes as he won the championships of ‘98 and ‘99. This was also the era where Ferrari got better and started making V10s instead of its trademark V12. With an 800 BHP, the engine became more powerful, reliable and guess who showed up at Ferrari’s doorstep around this time? Michael Schumacher! BMW also came up with a 900 BHP V10, reaching an astonishing 19000 rpm, making it extremely unreliable.


That’s the thing about Formula 1 though, the limits are pushed to such extremes that an 800 BHP engine can be optimized to give 900 BHP, making Formula 1 the best of all motor-sports.

The true spirit of Formula 1 is such that it has taken the world of automotive to new benchmarks every decade. The new millennium brought with it the electronic technology and downsizing continued with a new 2.4 litre engine which gave out almost 740 BHP (approx).


The downsizing continues till present date and today, it’s a 1.6L engine you’ll find but guess what? The turbos are back and the new 1.6L engine is fitted with a dual turbocharger. But today’s engines are not just about creating power, it’s more of a combination of reusing lost energy, introducing electric energy and optimizing the car dynamics for enhanced performance. The engines of today are connected to an external power unit consisting of a motor and generator that helps to reduce the turbo lag and preserve lost energy by creating electric energy out of a running flywheel.

The point of this post is simply to understand that the world of automobiles would be stuck with Ford model-T and Daimler’s flimsy V12 if there was no Formula 1. The next generation of road car technologies are a decade old F1 technologies and that is the most amazing part, the sheer brilliance of engineering that is developed in the F1 world.


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