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Formula One: A History of Innovation

Formula One: A History of Innovation

The technical revolution of 2014 can be expressed in one simple phrase: the engine is no more, long live the Power Unit!

The idea of the engine as a standalone source of propulsion in Formula One was consigned to history several years ago through the introduction of KERS Hybrid power in 2009 and from 2011 through 2013. That said, the change for 2014 is altogether more far-reaching.

Out go the 2.4 litre, normally aspirated V8 power plants used over the past eight years. In comes a 1.6 litre, turbocharged V6 configuration with integrated Hybrid Energy Recovery System (ERS) to form the Power Unit. Each driver will be limited to a maximum of five Power Units per season; three fewer than the allocation of eight last year.

This latest amendment to the powertrain regulations draws on a long line of similar – if sometimes less far-reaching – regulation changes dating back to the very beginnings of Formula One. In the early years of the competition from 1950 – 1953, 4.5 litre normally aspirated and 1.5 litre supercharged engines were permitted (although races were run to Formula 2 regulation in 1952 and 1953), before the introduction of a restricted 2.5 litre maximum capacity in 1954; the same year in which Mercedes first entered the championship with its W 196 R.

For 1961, maximum engine capacity was reduced to 1.5 litres, at the same time as the ‘rear-engine revolution’ took hold of chassis technology. Although initially underpowered, the units quickly grew in power output; eventually resulting in faster lap times than those seen under the previous regulations, and setting a trend which has continued throughout each era of Formula One powertrain technology to date.

With Formula One beginning to fall behind the more powerful sports cars in the mid-1960s, maximum engine capacity was raised to 3.0 litres with 1.5 litre compression charged formats also permitted. The 3.0 litre format was the norm until, in 1977, Renault exploited the opportunity of turbocharging for the first time. Where the French manufacturer led others soon followed, with every championship from 1983 to 1988 won by turbo power until the technology was outlawed at the end of the year.

The ban on pressure charging led to larger capacity engines being reintroduced as the sport’s governing body sought to allay fears that Formula One would once again fall behind sports cars as the world’s fastest racing category. Between 1989 – and 1994, a mandatory 3.5 litre maximum capacity was set in place, before being reduced back to 3.0 litres in 1995 as constant development of the unit began to produce ever-higher levels of power. The high-revving, high-pitched screaming era of the V10 was thus born; hailed by many as a peak of uniformly regulated Formula One engine performance.

Fast forward to 2006 and the latest incarnation of regulations – driven by the twin objectives of capping performance and controlling costs – introduced a 2.4 litre, normally aspirated V8 configuration of minimum 95 kg weight. The reduction in capacity was designed to give a power reduction of around 20% from the three litre engines, however constant development meant that performance consistently improved. Further restrictions introduced in 2007 saw engine specification homologated in order to contain development costs.

The new rules for 2014 mark a watershed for the sport of Formula One, with a set of regulations written to encourage and promote the development of advanced new technologies with which efficiency and performance will become synonymous. Where previous revolutions were prompted by engineers identifying and exploiting opportunities in the regulations, this step change in Power Unit technology has been applied across the board for 2014.

These rules position Formula One firmly at the cutting edge of automotive technology, redefining what’s possible in the field of automotive engineering and actively encouraging innovation to stretch technological boundaries. In other words, exactly what Formula One has been about since its early days.

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