What’s in store for Formula 1 as the second turbo era looms?

The turbo on Michele Alboreto's Ferrari 156/85 blows up in the pits during the 1985 British GP at Brands Hatch

The turbo on Michele Alboreto’s Ferrari 156/85 blows up in the pits during the 1985 British GP at Brands Hatch – turbo failures at the time were dramatic

First, a question: who was the last F1 driver to win a World Championship Grand Prix in a turbo-charged car? (answer at end).

Second, a history lesson: turbo-charged engines went out at the end of the 1988 season, when McLaren used Honda power to make Ayrton Senna the World Champion for the the great Brazilian’s time and to claim the Constructors’ Championship on what was the fourth occasion in the team’s history to that date.

Obviously that means that none of the current drivers have any experience of racing in F1 with turbo-charged engines, which are the new norm for 2014. The Energy Recovery Systems, a huge step up from the KERS we had come to know, will deploy twice the power and have 10 times the capacity of the previous technology, allowing the driver to call on an extra 120 kilowatts of power for more than half a minute on every racing lap.

Renault F1 turbo engine for 2014

Renault F1 turbo engine for 2014

Through the 64-year history of the World Championship a total of 12 engine suppliers have powered the title-winning drivers. But in 2014 only three companies will be supplying engines to the sport’s 11 teams: Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault.

Of those, only Ferrari and Renault have previous F1 experience with turbo-charging – Mercedes retired from the sport way back in 1955 and returned only in 2010, well into the V8 normally aspirated era which began in 2006.

Third, today’s vocabulary practice: back in the late Eighties all the talk was of turbos, boost, wastegates and throttle lag, each of which was responsible at various times for team and driver frustrations as they all got to grips with the technology of the time. Turbo/engine failure was perhaps the most common reason given for retirements.

Jacques Laffite suffers a turbo engine failure during the 1986 British GP

Jacques Laffite suffers a turbo engine failure during the 1986 British GP

As the great Alain Prost has said, “You have to say that the turbo engine years generated interest in F1: everyone was interested in this new technical challenge. It was also a bit of an emotional journey, insofar as huge developments were expected at each race.”

Will we see the same hair-tearing at the start of 2014 when the radical new F1 comes to Melbourne? Probably not – the issues raised by the technology a quarter of a century ago have been largely by-passed.

On the other hand, there is a new generation of complex technology to be mastered: two turbos at work to provide the ‘boost’ in engine power which is the technology’s whole raison d’être.

The Honda RA168-E V6 turbo engine fitted to the 1988 McLaren MP4/4.

The Honda RA168-E V6 turbo engine fitted to the 1988 McLaren MP4/4.

Boost – pressurizing the engine to more than its nominal cylindrical capacity – also equates to fuel use, and fuel flow is one of the central elements of the new power-train technology in F1. It’s limited to 100 kilogrammes of racing fuel per hour, and the total fuel allowed is 100 kilos per grand prix. The fuel flow limit puts a check on the amount of boost that can be used.

We don’t have wastegates any more, either: they were escape exits for excess energy back in the day. Nowadays the turbo will have a second electric motor attached to it to convert that excess energy into instantly usable electricity.

That in turn means that throttle lag shouldn’t be a problem, as it used to be, with drivers desperately waiting for what old-timers like Derek Warwick used to call that ‘kick in the back’ that propelled the cars forward at breakneck speeds.

Mercedes V6 turbo F1 engine

Mercedes V6 turbo F1 engine

But how well will the three engine-suppliers succeed in recuperating energy, storing it and deploying it effectively?

Many expert analysts believe that, following the bullet-proof reliability of engines we have come to expect in recent years, engines will not only make the difference but may also be the weakest link in the chain of components that contribute to a grand prix car’s performance.

“It’s a return to an era when the driver will need to be strategic and very calculating in how he uses his racing car,” adds Prost. “Being quick will no longer be enough on its own: you’ll need to be quick and sensitive.” And that should suit a certain young German down to the ground…

Ferrari have now contested a staggering 870 grands prix, winning an equally amazing 222 of them. But there were only two wins for the Scuderia in 2013 – both for Fernando Alonso, and there has been some fairly loud sabre-rattling from Di Montezemolo ahead of the new F1 era. The Italian marque will supply not only the scarlet cars of the Scuderia, but also those of Sauber and Marussia.

Gilles Villeneuve turbo powreed Ferrari 126C2 during the 1982 South African GP

Gilles Villeneuve turbo powreed Ferrari 126C2 during the 1982 South African GP

Mercedes will cater for four teams: the works cars, of course, plus McLaren, Force India and Williams. Teams like Sir Frank’s will be desperately hoping that wholesale changes level the playing-field and allow the independents like Williams back into the race, so to say.

Renault, meanwhile, brings a brilliant record of success in the last two decades – 12 Constructors’ titles and 11 Drivers’ titles between 1992 and 2013 – to their pursuit of continued glory in the new era. Can four straight titles with Red Bull become five with the new power trains?

Alain Prost drives to victory at the 1988 Australian GP - the final F1 victory for a turbo powered car at the end of the first turbo era

Alain Prost drives to victory at the 1988 Australian GP – the final F1 victory for a turbo powered car at the end of the first turbo era

With so much change in the offing, any degree of continuity can only be a positive. That’s why Mercedes looks such an attractive bet: the only team with the same drivers as it had in 2013, both Rosberg and Hamilton operating at a high level, and a genuine ambition to build on last year’s runners-up status.

But if you can’t make up your mind, hang fire for another year. In 2015 Honda will return yet again to F1, where they bridged the end of the turbo era and the return to normally aspirated engines with five straight title wins from 1987 through 1991. You can bet that they’re coming back intending to win…

The sport’s last turbo charged winner was Alain Prost, winner of the 1988 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide driving a McLaren Honda. (Report by Australian GP Media Office)

Subbed by AJN.

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  • F1 Novice

    The good thing about the “Old” Turbos was that when they blew-up – they generally blew up in spectacular fashion for all and sundry to see :)

    My fear is that, with the new technologies and with the fact raised in this article that most of the problems with Turbos have been overcome over the years, we will get “breakdowns” but they will be more down to the electronic side of the Powerplants and cars will just slow to a totally underwhelming stop when things go pear-shape – For the spectacle alone a proper visual explosive, fiery, smoking blow-up would be better 😀 – might compensate a bit for the inevitable reduction in decibels we will experience track -ide the re-introduction of Turbos will bring :(.

    Anyhow I’m gonna be at Jerez for first test of new 2014 F1 Cars as it’s only 20 minutes away from me – C U there maybe ?


    #F1testing Jerez

    C’mon Jenson and good luck Jan !
    Got me two big Jenson Button Flags Washed and Irpned ready 😉

  • F1 Novice

    or “washed and ironed” even. :s

  • Bub

    You’re only 20 mins. from Jerez?

    Lucky devil…..

  • grat

    I’m not sure the young German is that “sensitive” to his car– He tends to drive hard when the engineers know his tires are in trouble, and any time he loses the radio, he loses the race.

    Granted, I’m not sure I know of any other driver since 2009 who’s won without their radio working either, but watching Vettel for five years now, he has a comfort zone, and rarely performs well outside of it.

  • SteveisGreat

    Lol all in the name of “cost savings” right? These new regulations are garbage and won’t do a damned thing to level the playing field or slow Vettel and RBR down. May as well hand them the trophies now. At least I’ll have plenty of time to nap this year as everyone coddles their cars to the finish line in a yawnfest.

  • Taskmaster

    The idea that the driver will make the big difference in this new ear of hybrid robo-cars is fantasy. This is nothing like the old turbo era with all of its lag and mechanical boost control. The ERS system will spin the turbo to mitigate lag, while energy harvesting will be used like cylinder cutting to control over-torque at the rear wheels. The notion that removing down-force is going to make this more about the driver ignores the complex programming and configuration of the ERS system (and included fuel management) will take more away from the driver than the reduced aero influence gives back. In the V8 era, a driver could still succeed with a failed KERS. In 2014, failure of the ERS means instant retirement – 160hp down with a large lag-monster turbo taking ages to spin itself up – sucking fuel like a truck. This is not a driver friendly formula as we will all see as the season progresses.

  • Taskmaster

    Grat.. Vettel’s sensitivity to the car and tires led to his taking fastest laps and winning when the engineer’s data showed the tires were done. He’s done this several times – where after-race analysis showed he was right (based on feel and car feedback) and the engineering data was not. His comfort zone is wider than most, which has led to his success, dating back to 18 of 20 wins in Formula BMW, his first F1 points in Kubica’s BMW/Sauber, first win in in an STR, and his 2,1,1,1,1 of late. Hardly a sign the kid lacks versatility or adaptability – no matter how much this seems to bother some folks.

  • RGB

    Jenson Button’s Dad is dead

  • tim

    1986 F1 Car

    515 kg
    1600hp (qualify)
    1000hp (race)

    torque: 700 nm

    2013 F1 Car

    690 kg

    torque: 410 nm

    Lol, kids sizes and adult sizes.

  • SteveisGreat

    I also just read that 1/3 of the races will have grid girls, while 1/3 will have grid boys, and the final 1/3 will be for LGBTs.

    That actually makes more sense for 2014 than the actual regulations, lol.

  • F1 Fan

    the Redbull car had probably the best Mechanical grip and there is no hiding that it had the most consistent downforce..But with Exhaust Blown Diffusers completely gone, its gonna be amazing..

    I have just one mental picture Sebastian Vettel Australian GP 2012, While being followed by Schumacher. sebastian took turn 1 with very late braking and alot more speed (like he used to with the Blown Floor in 2011)the car just snapped with oversteer and Martin Brundle said something on the lines of “Vettel is driving like the car is the 2011 spec(with EBD) and the rear end has just said you gotta be kidding me! ” alot to look forward to.even Vettel isnt that good!

  • Zombie Jebus

    1) The power unit change – much more road manufacturer-relevant going from 2.4 V8 60kW KERS boosts (for 6secs/lap) KERS to 1.6 V6 turbo with 120kW ERS boosts (for 33sec/lap). Convergence with Le Mans engine technology. Turbocharged unit revving at a max 15,000rpm through a new 8 speed gearbox (with fixed ratios for the season!!!!!!!!! WTF!!!!!!). Only one exhaust tailpipe exit allowed. No more exhaust blowing the diffuser. Cooling could be a major issue.

    2) Resource restriction into Sporting Regulations – new limits on the Wind Tunnel/CFD (30 hrs wind on time/CFD Teraflops/wk, 80 runs/wk, 60hrs occupancy/wk )and no aero test day allocation – Friday practice at GPs will be even more aero test biased.

    3) New penalty structure for power train use over a season. Now max 5 units per year instead of 8 – reliability will be key. Wtf!!!!

    4) Car weight increase from 642kg to 690kg. It is likely that Teams will struggle to hit this target – ballast for weight distribution, additional electronics (for e.g. tyre monitoring) may then become punitive to run in terms of weight. Penalty for heavier drivers.

    5) 100kg fuel mass limit usage during the race with max fuel mass flow of 100kg/h above 10500rpm, which is down from approximately 150kg in 2013. Wtf!!!!!! The mass flow sensor is now the most important sensor on the car – reliability of this sensor is paramount.

    6) Double points for final race of the season – WTF!!!!!! – smaller teams could completely change their design process in an attempt to secure these points as it could make a significant difference to their constructors’ position.