Formula 1’s 5 Most Iconic Engines ever
In this four part series, we will bring you the most significant and historic developments that F1 has ever seen in its over 70 year history. Today, we’ll be kicking off with the five most iconic engines in the history of the sport, including one that the Mercedes, McLaren, AlphaTauri and Williams teams owe their existence:
Cosworth DFV (1968-1985)
Key specs: 3.0L V8, 408bhp @ 9,000rpm (1968) to 510bhp @ 11,200rpm (1983)
The Cosworth DFV is probably the definitive F1 engine. It was born out of an exclusive deal between Lotus, Ford and Cosworth. However, Ford grew worried of bad press due to the pace advantage they held over their competitors. So, they decided to sell the engine to customer teams through Cosworth from 1969 onwards.
What became available was a small, power-dense and relatively cheap engine, about £140k in today’s money for a front running F1 engine. It could also be mounted as a stressed member, reducing overall car weight and improving chassis stiffness. Of course, more and more teams took to using it for their Formula 1 ambitions.
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It continued to be the engine to have for teams up and down the paddock until turbocharging became commonplace in the early 80s. It may have been lightweight and, by now, phenomenally reliable, but it simply couldn’t compete with the monstrous power available through forced induction. Its final race was the 1985 Austrian Grand Prix.
All in all, the DFV managed 155 wins from 267 entries, a 58% win ratio across its 18 year lifespan. Updated DFY, DFZ and DFR versions saw it remain in service until 1991. It also saw success at Le Mans taking 2 overall wins, 10 consecutive Indy 500 victories, and gave those previously mentioned teams their starts in F1.
Renault EF1 (1977-1983)
Key specs: 1.5L Turbocharged V6, 510bhp @ 11,000rpm (1977) to 700bhp @ 11,000rpm (1983)
The 1970s saw the introduction of turbocharging with the installation of the EF1 engine into Renault’s RS01 chassis. Forced induction wasn’t new in Grand Prix racing; supercharging had been commonplace during the pre-war years, right up to the beginnings of the world championship in the 1950s.
This was however, the first use of turbocharging in Formula 1. The engine’s exhaust gas spins the compressor via a co-axial turbine, instead of a belt to the crankshaft, as in supercharging. This produces less “drain” (known as parasitic loss) on the energy produced by combustion in the piston, making the system more efficient.
Modern F1 had allowed forced induction since 1966. However, as engine performance had developed over time, most manufacturers didn’t see the point. They believed it to be too heavy and complex for something as light as an F1 car. Besides, regulations required that the engine would have to be half the size of a naturally aspirated counterpart. So, this would negate any performance benefit anyway.
In terms of pace, Renault’s effort immediately disproved the naysayers, matching the venerable DFV for power out the box. Where they suffered badly was reliability. The RS01 acquired the name “The Turbo Teapot”; it was all too often seen steaming trackside thanks to issues with overheating and turbo longevity.
Renault persevered however. They replaced the single turbo configuration with a pair of smaller units, one fed by each bank of the V6. This worked far better for the small capacity engine. The smaller turbines needed less exhaust gas to spin them up to working speed, reducing the turbo-lag that had plagued the drivers. Later developments brought a water injection system to increase the density of the intake air, as well as a pneumatic valvetrain, allowing the engine to reach a higher rev ceiling.
It took time, but eventually the EF1 proved itself, taking its first win, the first of any turbocharged F1 engine, in 1979. While Renault never took a championship during its first F1 stint, they did show the way forward in terms of engine design.
Turbos became the norm right up until their eventual ban in 1989. At their peak, its rumoured that 1400bhp was possible from qualifying spec turbo engines, still only displacing 1.5 litres.
Renault RS1-RS9B (1989-1997)
Key specs: 3.5-3.0L V10, 650bhp @ 13,300rpm (1989) to 760bhp @ 16,000rpm (1997)
This is a slightly vaguer entry to this list, since it covers a wider range of developments from a single platform. However, this engine series is too successful to ignore and marked Renault’s return to the sport since withdrawing at the close of the 1986 season.
They chose a V10 design to power the Williams FW12C, who had exclusive access to the new RS1 engine. One note of the V10’s design was a pneumatic valvetrain; a first on such an engine configuration, and a revival of the technology that Renault had debuted on their “EF15 Type B” turbocharged V6 in 1986.
This system replaces the camshafts at the top of the engine. Instead, pressurised air acts on small piston connected to the valve stem to open and close it. This allows the engine to reach a much higher rev ceiling. By about 12,000rpm, conventional valvetrains start to reach their limits.
The camshaft spins so fast that the valve following it can come away from the cam lobe as it turns from opening to closing. This is called valve float, which can allow contact between the piston and valve, causing catastrophic failure. The pneumatic system can change valve direction much faster, eliminating any float.
Renault’s engine was strong from the outset; slightly behind the mighty Honda, but comfortably ahead of the other offerings throughout the field. By 1992, their work paid off and the V10, now in RS4 form propelled Mansell and his all-conquering FW14B to glory.
In 1995, the FIA reduced engine capacity to 3.0L. Such was the strength of their engine package, Renault left the V10 largely unchanged. The only significant update to the RS7 was a reduction in piston stroke (how far up and down the piston travels) to meet the new lower capacity. This also marked the end of Williams’ exclusive usage, as Benetton took up a Renault supply deal.
This arrangement remained until the eventual withdrawal of Renault from F1 for the second time at the close of the 1997 season. As it turned out, the 1992 success was only just the beginning. The result was 6 straight titles between Williams and Benetton (’92-’97). In the 3.0L formula, Renault engines also managed a 74% win rate.
BMW P84/5 (2004-2005)
Key Specs: 3.0L V10, 950hp @ 19,000rpm (2005)
BMW were no strangers to powerful engines when they returned to F1 with Williams in 2000. During the turbo era, their 4 cylinders were often the most powerful in the field. The Brabhams and Benettons had that suspected 1400bhp I mentioned earlier at their disposal for 1986. For their return though, a naturally aspirated 3 litre V10 engine was mandatory.
Their initial design was quite conservative, with many improvements possible covering power output, weight and centre of gravity. However, an aggressive development strategy throughout the 2001 season closed the gap significantly to their competitors.
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Unfortunately, this came at the expense of torrid reliability throughout the following season. With persistence however, the main characteristics of the engine were finalised by 2003. The concept could be refined, and BMW began to hit their stride.
With the 2004 P84, BMW became the first engine supplier to break the 19,000rpm barrier. They were also the most powerful, eclipsing even Ferrari during their most dominant era. This performance culminated during pre-qualifying for the 2004 Italian Grand Prix, as Juan Pablo Montoya guided his Williams FW36 around Monza.
With the V10 shrieking behind him, he set the fastest ever lap seen in Formula 1 history. A time of 1.19.525 meant an average speed of 162.950mph, a record that would not be surpassed until 2018, also at Monza.
Improvements in production processes allowed for much more precise castings of both the engine block and cylinder heads. This meant that engineers could work to much finer tolerances, reducing the engine’s weight. For its final season, the P84/5 weighed in at 84kg, 11kg less than the V8 engines that would replace it in 2006.
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It’s worth remembering that this development work took place when the FIA took its first (all be it small) steps to extend engine life. In 2004, engines had to last a whole weekend. This was doubled in 2005, aiming to reduce both engine output and development costs. A far cry from today’s reliability requirements, but it was a start.
The power output was only a temporary issue. BMW once again produced a class leading engine, producing 950bhp with a 20,000rpm rev ceiling. At Monza that year, Montoya was back in the record books. This time hitting 232.523mph, the highest speed ever seen by an F1 car.
Mercedes-AMG PU106A Hybrid (2014)
Key Specs: 1.6L Turbocharged V6, 700bhp+215bhp MGU-K output (approximate)
Any F1 fan of late knows the dominance that Mercedes-AMG has displayed from 2014. Since the introduction of the turbocharged V6 hybrid power units, Mercedes engines have won 103 of the 138 races they have started. That’s a 75% success rate across 7 years, and still counting! And this was the engine that started it all.
One of the biggest advantages Mercedes had with their new hybrid engine was their chosen design for the turbocharger, which they continue to use. It was certainly the most talked about at the time. A conventional turbo will have the compressor and turbine bolted together to make a very compact assembly. They are then normally placed near the exhaust side of an engine to improve responsiveness.
Mercedes have taken a different approach. The compressor and turbine still share an axle as necessary, but are split from each other. The turbine is at the rear of the engine and compressor at the front. This “split turbocharger” is placed in between the banks of the V6. This reduces the overall size of the engine. The split design of the turbo also presents the perfect place to put the MGU-H motor-generator.
There are other benefits. The compressor and intake side of the engine are closer together compared to conventional turbocharging. This gives the air less time to heat up, so smaller intercoolers can be used. This reduces both weight and drag in the sidepods.
This attention to detail, and focus on interlinking benefits, should give you some idea of how the Silver Arrows have come to dominate the sport, with this power unit in particular taking every pole position of the 2014 season.
So that’s it for Part 1! Be sure to check in for Part 2 where we will be shining a light on the standout aero tech that has been seen over the years.
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