In 1966, 3-litre normally aspirated engine regulations were introduced to F1 with a 1.5-litre equivalency formula for anyone wanting to run a turbo instead. Nobody did. Until, that is, a decade later.
The British Grand Prix of 1977 saw two highly significant debuts. One was Gilles Villeneuve in a McLaren, and the second was the 1.5-litre V6 turbo Renault with Jean-Pierre Jabouille at the wheel.
At first, nobody took the Renault too seriously. It blew up a lot and because brewing up could be more or less be relied upon, it earned itself a nickname of ‘The Teapot.’ Or, some said, ‘Teapot 2’ because the original Teapot had been a Ligier with a particularly tall and distinctive airbox.
By the time a couple of seasons had gone by, the Renault was being taken very seriously indeed. Jabouille scored the first turbocharged win by an F1 car, fittingly enough in the French GP at Dijon in ‘79. But even that race was better known for its epic tussle for second place between Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari and Rene Arnoux aboard the second Renault turbo.
Arnoux was using the better top speed of the Renault and Villeneuve the better drivability of the naturally-aspirated flat-12 Ferrari. They banged wheel repeatedly and went off everywhere until Villeneuve crossed the line ahead.
“Irresponsible!” bellowed the Puritans. “Nothing to worry about, just a couple of young lions clawing each other...” reckoned laconic ’78 world champ Mario Andretti.
Running more boost in qualifying, the Renaults were always at the front of the grid and when they started to develop reliability too, the writing was on the wall. The opposition realised that turbos were the only way to go and it effectively spelled the end of the road for the legendary Ford Cosworth DFV (below).
It wasn’t Renault, though, who claimed the first world championship success for a turbocharged car. That honour fell to Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team with its four cylinder BMW turbo, which snatched the championship from under Alain Prost nose at the very last race of 1983 in South Africa.
Turbos dominated F1 for the next five years with Niki Lauda and Alain Prost claiming a hat-trick of titles for McLaren with a TAG-Porsche V6 between 1984-6. Prost won that ’86 title in dramatic fashion when Nigel Mansell suffered a dramatic tyre blowout just 18 laps short of winning the title with his Williams-Honda in Adelaide.
Nelson Piquet made amends the following season for Williams-Honda before Ayrton Senna took the first of his three world titles in a McLaren-Honda in ‘88.
By the mid eighties turbo engine development saw stratospheric horsepower figures derived from the 1.5-litre motors – as much as 1500bhp in qualifying trim, where every gearshift sounded like a detonating grenade and produced a dark haze behind each car. Costs were spiralling out of control and for ’89 the FIA banned turbos and introduced a new engine class for 3.5-litre normally aspirated power units.
Today’s F1 engines are 2.4-litre V8s but the governing body is busy drafting regulations for a new small capacity turbo formula to be introduced in 2013 along with more powerful regenerative systems.
The thinking behind it is threefold; being seen to be green, capping spending as much as possible and having more direct relevance to the motor industry.
Cosworth Group’s chief executive Tim Routsis has been part of the ongoing discussions and says: “The big difference this time will be the amount of fuel we can pour into the engine over a race. In terms of efficiency, the differences have to be marked. We are looking at using somewhere between 35 and 50% less fuel than we are using today for a car that’s got to do fundamentally the same sort of lap time and distance, so it’s a big change.”
There’s concern about a couple of things: preventing a financial arms race and, in terms of fan appeal, making sure the turbos still sound good.
“As regards the spending, one route is to constrain areas where we know you can spend a great deal of money for very little gain and just keep the development focused on areas which are relevant to the future,” Routsis says. “The other is to look at the amount of resource that each engine manufacturer deploys on the job. It’s very much work in progress but everyone is committed to finding an answer.
“As for the sound, a turbocharged engine will always be a little quieter than a naturally aspirated one running open pipes. But I’ve never seen a really good racing engine that sounded bad. I think we’re going to find the old story that if it goes fast, it’ll sound great. There are things we can do as well. Playing around with firing order does actually make a remarkable difference but if we are going to have less cylinders the amount that you can actually play with that is reduced. But I don’t think they’ll sound bad. They’re still going to be pretty high-revving by any normal standards.”
So there you have it. Coming soon, to a circuit near you – Turbos 2!