History of the F1 engine
How did Formula 1’s current engine regulations come into existence? Through nearly 70 years of iteration, invention and, erm, destructive testing.
We exhaustively chart the intense arms race that has defined each and every different era of Formula 1.
1950-1953: Formula 1 begins: the super-charger years
At the inception of the Formula 1 World Championship, teams had a choice of a super-charged engine of up to 1.5l capacity or a normally-aspirated one of up to – monstrous by modern standards – 4.5l. Talbot ran a 4.5l in-line six cylinder (L6) engine but the other manufacturer teams went down the super-charged route. Borrowing aerospace technology, the lighter, super-charged engines held the early power advantage but the combination of a small engine and enormous super-charger made for a very thirsty package, consuming perhaps five times as much fuel as the normally-aspirated cars. When more powerful, normally-aspirated engines appeared, designed specifically for F1, the super-charged units went out of fashion. The super-charged engines were an eclectic mix: Alfa ran an L8, Maserati an L4, while Ferrari had a V12. At the far extremes there was JAP V-twin, and a BRM V16.
1952-53: Marriage of convenience: F1 goes F2
A lack of manufacturer teams in 1952 lead to the World Championship being run under Formula Two rules – which meant 2.0l normally-aspirated engines. L4 and L6 engines dominate the field – though the first V8 appears at the 1952 Swiss Grand Prix. Later in the season the first flat-four engine appears.
1954-1960: The last hurrah of the front-engined formula
F1 regs came back for 1954 but with engine capacity reduced to 2.5l. Teams could also have a 750cc super-charged engine – but no-one took up that option. L4 and L6 engines carried over fro the previous regime made up the bulk of the field initially – but development was massive. Instrumental in this was the arrival of Mercedes and the M196 L8 engine. Mercedes utilised a mechanical direct injection system (previously used in Mercedes’ Messerschmitt Me 109) that gave it considerably more power than the carbureted competition. The M196 also featured desmodromic valves – a system that replaces a return spring with an additional cam to control valve closure and exert greater control over the combustion cycle.
Another innovation of the time came courtesy of Lancia, whose D50 car (later inherited by Ferrari) featured the novel idea of a stressed engine: its DS60 V8 was a load-bearing component of the chassis rather than simply being dropped into a frame.
1957: The dawn of the mid-engine formula
In 1957 the Cooper T43 was the first F1 car to mount its engine behind the driver. It wasn’t a new idea – Auto Union had built mid-engined grand prix cars in the 1930s – but it was something that fitted with the direction F1 was heading in the late 1950s.
Mounting the engine behind the driver created a better-balanced car, less prone to the enormous understeer that afflicted the front-engine cars. Auto Union’s pre-war effects had created cars that were prone to oversteer and difficult to handle – but two decades of suspension development, notably the introduction of double wishbones made that less of an issue.
Cooper’s fundamental reshaping of the F1 landscape, however, came out of a more practical engineering choice. Their post-war Formula 3 cars used 500cc motorcycle engines better suited to a chain drive than a prop-shaft. Mounting the engine behind the driver was therefore a necessity, and a design decision that carried over into Cooper’s Formula 2 T43, and thence into F1 where it used the 2.0l Coventry Climax FPF engine.
Modern thinking places Formula 1 at the pinnacle of motorsport, both in terms of technology and appeal. It hasn’t always been the case, which is why back in the early decades of the sport, it was common to see drivers jumping between series on a week-by-week basis. The gap between F1 and what now would be considered ‘junior series’ was not so pronounced, and thus there was more cross-fertilisation of technology. Cooper’s mid-engine T43 – which began life as a Formula 2 chassis – is one example, another is the Ferrari V6 Dino engine. F1’s first V6 also began life in Formula 2.
Ferrari developed the original Dino engine specifically for new 1.5l Formula 2 regulations which came into force in 1957, eventually settling on a 65° V6 design with a Double Overhead Cam Shaft (DOHC). An enlarged version, developed for the 2.5l F1 Ferrari 246 appeared in 1958 and propelled Mike Hawthorn to the Drivers’ World Championship.
Independent engine makers
The late 1950s are recognised as the point at which the independent racing teams started to displace the previously dominant car manufacturers. The same was happening with engines. Gradually Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, Maserati et al. were displaced by BRM, Coventry Climax and latterly Cosworth and Repco. The subtle distinction of a migration from automotive engineers designing racing engines to racing specialists doing the work ensured F1 continued to experiment in the 1960s even when the regulations become more settled.
1961-1965: A restriction to cap speeds
Using an idea that would return to F1 several times in the future, regulations for 1961 restricted F1 to a 1.5l engine in an effect to reduce speeds, which had been rising rapidly. Over the four years the 1.5l formula operated, development was rapid, and by the end of 1965 the 1.5l engines were producing more power than the 2.5l units they had replaced.
Diversity was prominent. In 1961 the Constructors’ Championship saw Ferrari finish first with their V6, Lotus-Climax second with an L4 and Porsche third with a F4. Ferrari’s progress presents a good example of the innovation present in the quest for more power with radically new concepts being trialled every few months. They started the new regime with the 65° Dino V6, replaced it part-way through 1961 with a 120° Dino that added around 10hp with the added advantages of smoother delivery and a lower centre of gravity. A move to a 24-valve derivative was mooted but abandoned for 1962, and the 12-valve engine received fuel injection for 1963 in place of carburettors.
Climax, meanwhile, went in another direction. Its L4 FPF engine was near-ubiquitous in 1961, but toward the end of the season Cooper debuted the Climax FWMV V8 with a crossplane crankshaft. It started winning in 1962 but was outgunned by BRM’s new in-house fuel-injected V8. While the Climax engine would rev to 7,500rpm, the BRM went up to 11,000rpm. 1962 was also notable for Porsche’s only victory as a constructor. Having moved from a flat-four to an air-cooled flat-eight, the Porsche 804 in the hands of Dan Gurney won the French Grand Prix at Rouen-Les-Essarts. The V8, however, was the preferred choice. In the space of two years in-line engines were rendered obsolete.
By 1964 Ferrari joined the V8 club with the 90° 158 in which it and John Surtees won the championships – but at the same time Ferrari were experimenting with a flat-12 engine. Honda, new to F1 were also experimenting with a 12-cylinder engine, in their case a 60° V12. The battle for higher rpm was a big driver in the proliferation of innovative engine ideas. The thinking behind the leap from L4 to V8 and the exploration into greater cylinder count was the idea that splitting the displacement between a greater number of cylinders made for smaller, lighter moving parts and thus higher rotational speeds. Granted, it involved greater complexity – but motorsport engineering was becoming a very confident discipline. Richie Ginther drove the Honda RA272 to victory in the 1965 season-ending Mexican Grand Prix. The first F1 victory for a 12-cylinder engine.
1966-1986: The three-litre Formula
Between 1961 and 1965 F1 engine suppliers managed to increase engine power for the 1.5l formula by around 25 per cent, finishing the cycle with engines capable of producing around 220hp. Further development halted when a new set of regulations was introduced for 1966, with F1 returning to three-litre engines.
Nowhere is it explicitly stated that F1 must have the fastest road course cars in the world but it is widely held – particularly within F1 – to be the case. The problem in the mid-1960s was that Group 3 GT cars (not restrained by a small engine) were more powerful and getting quicker. F1 moved to 3.0l to combat this – with instant access to 300hp.
The first year of the new formula was a mixed bag for engines with entrants running an eclectic range of power plants from veteran L4s all the way up to BRM’s technically advanced, ambitious but sadly overweight and unreliable H16, the simplified description of which has two BRM 1.5l V8s flattened and stacked. For eccentricity, it rivals 1971’s Lotus 56B, powered by a Pratt & Whitney gas turbine.
The great success of the era arrived in 1967 when Cosworth launched the DFV (double four valve). The company had been lurking around the fringes of F1 for a while but the 3.0l, 90° V8 DFV is the engine which truly made its mark. The DFV powered 12 Drivers’ champions and 10 Constructors’ championships, winning 155 grands prix.
Although originally introduced with Lotus, the value of the DFV to F1 came when the engine was made available to other teams. It emancipated chassis builders: a Cosworth DFV, usually mated to a Hewland gearbox, was an affordable off-the-shelf package through which any competent chassis builder could be instantly competitive without the need to secure manufacturer patronage. Many of F1’s most famous teams, past and present, made their way into the sport with a Cosworth DFV.
The DFV took a clean sweep in 1969, powering Matra, Lotus, Brabham and McLaren – the four teams to win races that year. Further victories would be added in Tyrrell, March, Wolf, Hesketh, Shadow, Ligier and Williams chassis in the years ahead.
Key to the success of the compact DFV was a design optimised for high engine speeds. It had a four valves per cylinder and a pent-roof cylinder profile, both intended to make combustion more efficient at higher speeds. It also featured an oversquare cylinder design (bore diameter wider than piston stroke is long) to accommodate the additional valves but also reduce friction losses (because the piston isn’t travelling so far) and lower crank stress (because of lower piston speed relative to engine speed).
Throughout the life of the DFV, increasing horsepower was a function of raising engine speed. The original 400hp engine ran at 9000rpm; by 1983 (when the DFV was being phased out in favour of DFV-family derivatives) it was producing over 500hp at 11,200rpm. The DFV was not without reliability issues – but its near ubiquity among the ‘garagiste’ teams ensured constant representation on the podium.
Such was the hegemony exerted by the DFV that, rather than attempting to replicate the design, Cosworth’s rivals sought to outflank it with alternate engine philosophies. Ferrari abandoned its V12 in favour of a flat-12 (technically a 180° V12 rather than a ‘boxer’ type engine) that had the advantages of getting the centre of gravity very low and providing clean airflow around the rear wing. Alfa Romeo also brought a flat-12, supplying the Brabham team. While Matra and BRM were still making V12s, by the mid-’70s the sharp end of the grid was a straight fight between the privateers with their DFVs and the Italian works-supported F12s – but that was about to change…
1977-1988: The swift rise of the turbo
The regulations introduced for 1966 allowed for a normally-aspirated engine of up to 3.0L displacement or a forced induction engine of up to 1.5l. The second part of the regulation was roundly ignored until 1977 when Renault debuted the RS01, powered by a 1.5l Renault-Gordini EF1 V6 turbo.
The turbo Renault was heavy (iron rather than aluminium), thirsty and chronically unreliable. It earned the nickname ‘the yellow teapot’ for its propensity to blow up. While not a success as a racing car, the RS01 was effective as a mobile laboratory, testing out Renault’s turbo concept and paving the way for further advancement. Its successor, the RS10, powered Renault to F1’s first turbo win in the 1979 French Grand Prix – the tide was turning.
Renault continued to tweak the EF1. Electronic ignition was added in 1982 and water injection in 1983 – the later was a method of cooling ‘hot-spots’ in the combustion chamber to prevent premature detonation. It was retired at the end of 1983, having won 15 grands prix. In 1977 it was producing around 500hp; by 1983 that figure was about 700hp.
The start of the turbo era coincided with the chassis makers concentrating their R&D on understanding and exploiting ground effect. The success of the F12 engines (Ferrari won three Constructors’ Championships in the mid-70s) was effectively neutered when the low, wide F12s proved incompatible with ground-effect venturi tunnels. Alfa Romeo reverted to a V12 but Ferrari were the second team to join the turbo revolution, producing a 120° V6 for 1981.
Renault’s innovation had changed the sport: by 1983 turbos were the dominant force. By 1986 normally-aspirated engines had disappeared entirely from F1.
At that point the ability of engineers to increase the power of a turbo engine outstripped their ability to contain it. It led to the phenomenon of ‘qualifying engines’. Nicknamed ‘grenades’, the qualifying engines were designed to last for only a few laps before expiring. The basic package that produced 800hp in race trim could be hardened for increased boost pressure and produce 1200hp for qualifying. BMW’s M12/13/1 L4 turbo was reputed to produce 1400hp in qualifying spec – the most powerful F1 engine ever produced.
While turbo-charging wasn’t invented for F1, the sport carried the technology forward. In the plus column, turbo engines produced prodigious power – but at a cost of great unreliability, poor driveability and terrible fuel economy. The headlines of the 1980s were of turbo engines generating more and more power – but in the background the engine makers were also busy solving the inherent weaknesses of the technology, advancing combustion technology and metallurgy to a point where F1 transitioned from 500hp to 800hp in a few short years. F1 went turbo-free in 1989 but the legacy of the era was that reliable, driveable and acceptably economical turbo engines entered the automotive mainstream in the 1990s.
1987 -1994: 3.5L
Following the pattern established in the 1950s and 1960s, the move to a new set of regulations inspired a great diversity of engine design. The 3.5l normally-aspirated category was introduced in 1987 but properly began in 1989. Every engine manufacturer opted for a V-configuration but the variety within that was great. V8s, V10s and V12s all won races in 1989, with the 600hp Honda 72° V10 RA109E being the pick of the bunch, powering McLaren’s MP4/5 and Alain Prost to the titles. V10 was a new configuration for F1, a compromise between the higher power output of a V12 and the lower fuel consumption of a V8.
Innovation continued at pace as engine makers set horsepower targets to match those of the turbo era – at least those for race engines. F1’s interest in metallurgy, developed intensely in the turbo era, continued, with Honda introducing titanium-alloy valves. Renault, meanwhile introduced their pneumatic valve system (offering finer control and lower weight at the top of the engine than the traditional return springs). Honda’s V10 hit 650hp at 13,800rpm in 1990 (now also using pneumatic valve control) but the company believed bigger gains could be made elsewhere. It introduced a 60° V12 for 1991. This provided a big leap in power output, reaching over 750hp, and became the only V12 to ever win a Constructors’ Championship.
Renault persevered with their 67° V10 and continued to make gains in engine speed and horsepower, reaching nearly 800hp (and thus, approximating the turbo era output) when the 3.5l formula ended in 1994.
1995-2013: Downsize, restrict, freeze
Engine size was restricted to 3.0l for 1995 as part of a raft of measures to control the speeds being reached in F1. The modern trend for using regulation to retard speed really begins here. Lighter engines could run at higher speeds, and thus manufacturers continued to improve power output by increasing rpm, increasingly using exotic alloys to cut weight. A side effect of the lighter engines was that teams started running significant amounts of ballast to make the minimum weight.
This period of relative stability in engine regulation also resulted in convergence. By 1998, every team was running with a V10 – the first time in the history of the sport that this degree of homogeneity had been achieved. A few years later the 3.0l V10 would be codified in the regulations as the only engine allowed.
Horsepower and engine speed continued to rise, with the V10s were producing >900hp at engine speeds pushed past 19,000rpm at the start of the 21st Century, utilising CAD/CAM, better analysis of combustion cycles and advanced fuel chemistry. The engines peaked in 2004, and thus many of F1’s current track records come from that year. The end of the V10 era also saw some interesting restrictions imposed. In 2004 an engine was required to last the whole weekend. In 2005 that requirement extended to two weekends. This began to shift development focus onto longevity.
For 2006 the 3.0l V10 was replaced with a 2.4l V8. Exotic materials were banned in an effort to contain costs. Power output dropped back to 700-750hp for 2006 but Cosworth’s CA-series became F1’s first mainstream 20,000rpm race engine.
Cost cutting began to have a great effect on the agenda in the next few years with a development freeze imposed at the end of 2006 and greater longevity requirements. The basic incompatibility of those two aims was addressed with F1’s first rev-limits: 19,000rpm in 2007 and 18,00rpm for 2009 onwards.
While the V8 engine hovered around the 750hp mark, in 2009 F1 cars gained – in short bursts – an extra 80hp through the introduction of KERS. The Kinetic Energy Recovery System was a form of mild hybridisation introduced with a view to making F1 more road-relevant. It recovered energy under braking, stored it in a battery and allowed it to be restored to the powertrain at the driver’s initiation.
The original specifications were cautious: a 60kW motor-generator and a maximum 400mJ deployed per lap gave cars an 80hp boost for around 6.6s. KERS added around 30kg to the weight of the car, limiting its usefulness to teams unable to make the minimum weight. Nevertheless, KERS-equipped cars began to win races from mid-season. The McLaren MP4/24, fitted with the Mercedes FO108W engine was the first hybrid to win in F1, Lewis Hamilton taking the honours at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.
Keen to push hybrid technology further, game-changing specifications were introduced in 2014. The most comprehensive overhaul in the history of F1came with a complex specification but a straightforward aim: the new spec would consume one-third less fuel than the V8 with no corresponding drop in performance.
The manufacturers developed the specification for a 1.6l direct-injection V6 with a single turbo-charger. It features two energy recovery systems: an uprated successor to KERS to recover energy from braking and a turbo compounding loop recovering waste heat from the exhaust. The combined Energy Recovery System (ERS) can add 120kW at the crank and deploy 4MJ per lap – essentially twice as much power for five times as long as KERS. The power unit (it’s a bit more than an ‘engine’ today) is either recovering or deploying energy for most of the lap, mapped into the engine mode rather than controlled by the driver.
Limits on the power unit are imposed by a maximum race fuel load of 100kg with a maximum flow rate of 100kg/hour – the later a de facto limit on boost pressure (with only so much fuel to burn, there’s no requirement to push boost into the realms reached in the 1980s.)
While the intention with the new regulations was to bring F1 in line with the current automotive demand for economical, downsized, turbo engines, the specification was written to lead innovation and stimulate creativity, placing F1 a decade ahead of current technology on the automotive roadmap. For instance much of the technology in the e-turbo existed only in theory and on the test bench before F1 put it on track.
Worries that the new power units would turn F1 into an economy run proved groundless. From an early base of around 750hp, the hybrids have made rapid progress. They may now be the most powerful (mainstream race) engines in the history of F1, surpassing the 930hp produced at the end of the V10 era, constantly developing through fuel research, better control of the ERS, improving understanding of the V6 combustion cycle and strong focuses on reducing losses through friction and from the high-power electrical system.
While F1 boasts 65 years of engine innovation, the latest developments are perhaps the greatest. It’s easy to see the technological chasm between the dominant 1.5l pressure-charged engines of the early 1950s and their modern inheritors of 2016, but the gulf between 2013 and 2016 is equally wide. 125 years’ petrol car development saw thermal efficiency rise from around 17 per cent to the mid-25s, with 2013’s F1 V8’s delivering an impressive 29 per cent. The ambition for F1’s new hybrids was to reach 40 per cent. They’ve massively overachieved, reaching over 45 per cent today with 50 per cent the next milestone.
Where the technology will go next is a topic of excited discussion but there’s every reason to assume it will be somewhere spectacular.