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The Curious History of Formula 1 Engines

In the sport of Formula 1, engines transcend everything. The drivers, engineers, team managers, tyre strategies, car design - all of these are important parts of the equation. But nothing has been more impactful than the engine.

This has been true for over seven decades, with raw power being a decider in many championship wins and splitting many races into two separate tiers of competing teams (for example Red Bull’s domination in the early 2010s, followed by Mercedes from then on).

Need proof? Just take a look at the history of F1 betting odds, which favour not just the seasoned champions of the sport, but those with the statistically better and more reliable engines.

As the design and capability have changed in alignment with the constant developments in this area, decisions are made by the FIA and passed down into the race rules to a mixed reception. Some choices have been beneficial to the sport, whereas others have made the field more divided and less competitive.

But a small amount have even gone so far as to baffle every F1 fan, including the recent proposed changes for 2021 that Renault has called “frightening” (we’ll get to that one later). How did we get here? Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

The 1940s and 1950s

Using pre-war voiturette regulations, F1 engines varied from 4.5 L atmospheric to 1.5 L supercharged. This meant a power range of up to 425 hp, although the BRM Type 15 of 1953 reached the high levels of 600 hp.

Between 1954 and 1960, the rules were changed. Engine sizes were reduced to 2.5 L for naturally aspirated cars, and they permitted the use of 750cc supercharged - but no manufacturer built one for the world championships, simply sticking to reducing their current engine sizes.

Little did manufacturers know that one big change was coming around the corner which warranted an avalanche of criticism…

Source: Pixabay

The Smaller Mid-Engines

Introduced in 1961 to a lot of critics, F1 regulations reduced the engine size yet again to 1.5 L - a change that happened just as every team and manufacturer switched from front to mid-engine cars.

This initially led to an underpowered and slower race for the first five years, as the power range varied between 150 hp and 225 hp. Over this time, manufacturers managed to increase power outage by nearly 50% and improve on lap times over the 2.5 L engines of old through improvements to aerodynamics, acceleration and handling performance.

Back to Power

Fast forward to 1966, and this strange lull in F1 power screeched to a grounding halt, as sports cars were capable of actually outrunning Formula 1 cars… That’s right - thanks to the much larger and powerful engines being placed in sports cars at the time, they were actually far faster off the line than any racing car.

As this embarrassing fact was realised, the FIA were quick to increase engine capacity to 3.0 L atmospheric and 1.5 L compressed. Although the manufacturers had been clamouring for this change, the transition was not smooth at all - with 1966 being a truly transitional year containing a wide field of differently powered cars.

In this year, BRM and Coventry-Climax supplied 2.0 L versions of their V8 engines to several entrants, with other entrants cobbling together whatever standard-produced Cosworth block they could get their hands on.

This led to a wildly sporadic field of power levels - ranging from 285 hp all the way up to a whopping 500 hp. It left the sport of F1 in a bit of a mess for the time…

Fast-forward to the 1980s

Two decades of developments brought us into the age of 1,350 hp cars, all thanks to the widespread use of turbochargers - adding a burst of speed to the big team V8s of Alfa Romeo, Honda and Porsche (badged TAG). Even smaller companies like Ford Cosworth made turbo-charged engines, mostly twin-turbocharged V6s - making them surprisingly competitive.

But the power was restricted during races to ensure engine reliability, as turbos powered the cars up to 900 hp during races. Only during qualifying rounds were the taps fully opened, to reach around 1,350 hp at a 5.5 bar boost pressure.

Things were starting to get interesting… Until turbochargers were banned!

The Early 1990s

From the 1989 season, only one option was left - naturally aspirated engines. This massively divided the field, starting with Honda’s dominant V10 pumping out 675 hp (helping Prost win the championship in front of teammate Senna). Ferrari was just behind, Renault lagged behind with a 650 hp V10, Ford Cosworth’s V8 churned out 620 hp and Zakspeed Cars’ Yamaha engine remained firmly at the back with 560 hp.

But it wasn’t long before Renault became the dominant engine supplier, winning five world championships between Williams and Benetton between 1991 and 1997. As 1998, it was time for a new manufacturer to dominate.

The 3.0 L of the Late 1990s and Early 2000s

As everyone changed from traditional V12 engines to the V10, favouring reliability over power, Mercedes had the power to dominate - giving Mika Häkkinen two world championships and giving everyone a run for their money.

That was until Ferrari began improving, which gave way to the epic confrontations between Häkkinen and Schumacher.

This was also the years when the FIA started imposing more regulations on engine efficiency, permitting no more than 5 valves per cylinder and limiting each car to one engine per two Grand Prix weekends - penalising those who fail to comply with grid drops in 2005.

Late 2000s: The End of the Loud Engines and the Start of Strange Regulations

2006 was the start of big changes in Formula 1 - engines had to be 90-degree V8 with a maximum 2.4-litre capacity, normally aspirated and weight a minimum of 95 kg.

However, for smaller teams who couldn’t get their hands on a V8 they were allowed to get a V10, such as Toro Rosso’s Cosworth engine.

This led to a 20% reduction in power from the 3-litre engines of old, reducing the overall speeds from the faster years. A response to this was found in 2009, as constructors were allowed to use kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS) - using the energy from regenerative brakes to power a battery that provided extra speed.

But with new ways of upping the miles per hour, the FIA stormed in with ways of slowing things back down - reducing the engines again from the 2.4 L V8 to 1.6 L V6 turbo, including multiple energy recovery systems.

And the most powerful car from these changes would (obviously) be Mercedes, packing 870 hp - again leading the charge for multiple constructor’s and driver’s championship wins.

The Future

With this hybrid era, Mercedes has been dominant, with Ferrari and Renault lagging way behind and Honda not even being part of the conversation.

But F1 chiefs have proposed new changes for 2021 - essentially keeping the current V6 hybrid turbo, but imposing development restrictions and increasing the rev limit. While Renault have been quick to call this frightening, it just shows how cyclical these developments are. Renault dominated in the V8 era with Red Bull Racing, but came under heavy criticism for bad reliability during the early hybrid years.

And now, who knows what the next iterations on the rules will bring…