Of all the professional racing disciplines, Formula One has arguably the coolest looking cars. Open wheel race cars have always been my favorite as they look low, wide, and minimalist. Formula One, also known as F1, is the highest class of single seat racing sanctioned by the FIA. A season in F1 consists of a series of races known as Grand Prix, French for grand prizes. These Grand Prix races are held all over the world and feature some of the more challenging race tracks. There have been many advances in racing technology since the start of Formula One in 1950. It is truly a global sport although for the 2018 season, 10 of the 21 races will take place in Europe. 2017 ushered in some fairly major changes for the cars as they are now allowed wider front and rear wings as well as wider tires allowing for the fastest road course cars in the world to be even faster. Before we delve into the new stuff let’s take a look back into F1’s colorful history.
The “Formula” in Formula One stands for a set of rules that participants must meet in order to compete. This was true back in it’s inception in the 1920’s and 1930’s as much as it is today. Formula One was a new set of rules that was put in place after World War Two. The first championship race was held at Silverstone raceway in the United Kingdom in 1950 and was won by an Italian Giuseppe Farina. Farina one 5 championships in the 1950s and his record stood for 45 years until Michael Schumacher won his sixth championship in 2003. Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Mercedes Benz, and Maserati Dominated the sport in its early years as they all competed before the war already. The first races in the 50’s were run with pre WW2 cars that all looked similar to the Alpha 158. These cars wore skinny tires and were powered by supercharged 1.5L engines or naturally aspirated 4.5L units. The British dominated the sport from 1958 to 1974 winning nine driver’s championships and 14 constructor’s championships.
The 1970’s saw a transformation within the sport allowing teams to negotiate with circuit owners, who once controlled the income of the teams one on one, as teams or groups. There were multiple political controversies towards the late 70’s with two associations for the Formula One sport. Ground effect aerodynamics were used in the 1970’s but were banned in 1983. The 1980’s saw a rise in turbocharger technology which wasn’t anything new but cars were making considerably more power. Renault pioneered the use of turbochargers in the sport in the late 1970s. By 1987 the typical power output of the cars was in the neighborhood of 1,100 bhp with 4.0 bar of boost restrictions. These engines were estimated to make over 1,400 hp without boost restrictions. Formula One cars had never been more powerful and made roughly double the hp of the old 1937 Mercedes Benz W-125, more on that later. Boost was again regulated to 1.5 bar in 1988. About that same time, driver aid technology started to rare its head and things like traction control and semi-automatic gearboxes started showing up in the sport. The late 80’s also ushered in the crash testing of fuel tanks and safety cells for the F1 cars. Helicopters on standby at events were made mandatory as well as medical facilities at the circuit. Safety walls were also regulated to be one meter tall and the pit wall 1.35 meters. Doping tests similar to the ones used by the International Olympic Committee were also implemented, remember it was the 80’s.
Turbos were banned in 1989 as lighter, naturally aspirated engines limited to 3.5L were only slightly down in power and used less fuel. Most of these engines were co-developed between McLaren and Honda and dominated the early 90’s. The drivers aids i mentioned earlier are now becoming more prevalent although they were expensive to implement. They allowed for drivers to push the cars harder and faster than ever before. Things that are now standard in most new cars were developed for motorsport almost 30 years ago. Many thought these aids were overcoming talent form drivers and were too much a part of determining the outcome of races. Most systems were banned in 1994. That year was a bad one for the sport as multiple serious injury crashes as well as a few deaths forced the FIA to regulate the cars for safety reasons. The Air box had to be perforated (the “ram-air” intake above the drivers head) to reduce intake air limiting power output. Special racing fuels used previously were banned and regular octane fuels had to be used and other aerodynamic inhibitors were also made mandatory to regulate speeds.
Engine restrictions made their way to the displacement of the engines being limited to 3 liters in 1995 but teams were quick to adapt and these restrictions had little effect on the competition between cars and drivers. Since the ban of the turbocharges in 1989 the V-10 engine reigned supreme although V12s made more power, they used more fuel. The V-10 era came to an end in 2005 when 2.4L V-8s were introduced to the sport. Throughout the 2000s, F1 cars became much more efficient and very complex making the sport more of a car vs car than driver vs driver. New regulations emerged in 2009 limiting rev limits of the engines and if you don’t know much about Formula One engines be ready to have your mind blown. Prior to these rules F1 engines revved to 20,000 rpm, that’s not a typo! They were restricted to 18,000 rpm from 2010 to 2013 and 15,000 rpm after that. The most significant system to be added to F1 cars of this time period was the KERS systems. It stands for Kinetic Energy Recovery System and it would store energy during breaking through a flywheel saving energy then funneling it into the drivetrain helping to increase the car’s acceleration, pretty crazy stuff. The 2014 to present cars are now again turbocharged but have been limited to a single turbo, 1.6L V6 engine with a 15,000 rpm rev limit. It is a tiny engine but minimum car weight restrictions make the cars weigh just over 1500 lbs. I cant imagine many cars weight much more than the minimum to compete. The little 1.6 engines are good for a minimum of 600 hp and the new energy recovery system is good for another 160 hp.
Remember that Mercedes-Benz W125 i mentioned earlier? It’s crazy how far automotive technology has come in 80 years and that has really shown in motorsport. The W125 was developed in the mid 1930’s to race in the 1937 Grand Prix season. I think the early Formula one cars looked awesome. They are like a pill with wheels but there is something minimalist and sleek about them. The W125 was regarded the fastest car in Formula One for 3 plus decades until the monster turbocharged engines started being developed for cars in the 70’s and 80’s. The Mercedes was powered by a supercharged 5.7L straight eight engine that was good for 595 hp in race trim. The engine produced upwards of almost 640 hp on test beds. The big straight eight relied heavily on the blower for power as it made a measly 240 hp at 2,000 rpm. Only one year later the engine size was regulated to 3000 cc and the W125 was replaced with the W124 powered by a 3000 cc supercharged V12 that was good for an average of 475 hp.
Nowadays modern F1 cars are powered by “power units”, which are hybrid systems. They are engines at their core but there are three additional power producing components to the system today. The KERS system has been renamed the Motor Generator Unit-Kinetic and has seen a few iterations now adding an additional 30-50 hp or roughly 160 hp on top of what the engine produces. The Mercedes engine being once again the most powerful with about 870 hp…..in a 1500 lb car, haha. The Mercedes Formula One engine of today is one of the most advanced units on the planet and has been very successful in the sport. The “power unit” is a hybrid system and the latest Mercedes units are good for over 50% brake thermal efficiency. Without getting too nerdy, most engines only covert 30-35% of the fuel they use into power. This engine converts over 50% of the fuel into power. Racing teams have been chasing this for a while because these engines have to be efficient as they are not allowed to refuel during the race. They have definitely come a long way. I hope you learned something about the sport of Formula One in this article and with the 2018 season about to kick off with the Australian Grand Prix March 25th, you can tune in and catch the first race.
From all of us here at Gearbox have fun, be safe, and keep the shiny side up!