Turbochargers in Formula 1

The history of turbochargers in Formula 1 is pretty fascinating. Turbochargers were initially introduced in 1905, applied to large diesel engines in the 1920’s and found their way into commercial automobiles in 1938. However, it took a few more decades for the turbochargers to be used in Formula 1 car racing.

When Renault decided to enter the sport in 1977, they started their engines based on the novel turbocharger concept. As one would expect, their first design suffered from constant reliability problems through all the races it competed in. As Renault focused their development entirely on the engine, the car’s aerodynamics worsened; it suffered a huge turbolag under acceleration, and when the boost finally triggered the tires were not able to handle it [1]. “So the engine broke and made everyone one laugh”, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, the driver, admitted in an interview. At the time, everyone was looking at the turbo engines as something that no one would ever hear about again.

MMR, twin turbocharged GT500 V8 engine, from Mustangs Daily [3].
MMR, twin turbocharged GT500 V8 engine, from Mustangs Daily [3].
From theJUDGE13 [2].
From theJUDGE13 [2].






Fortunately, Renault did not let go of turbochargers for the next season. They worked heavily on the aerodynamic performance of their cars, while adding twin turbochargers to resolve the turbolag issue. Subsequently, in 1979, they got their first ever win in a race using a turbocharged engine. The V6 Turbos held a visible advantage over the naturally-aspirated Cosworth engines at high altitude [1]. Impressed by the success of Renault’s twin turbocharged engines, Ferrari decided to give turbochargers a shot in 1981. By the next year, they became the first ever F1 champion to win the competition on turbo power. In 1983, all the major players in the series were using turbocharged units, whereas a few years ago everyone was laughing at them.

In just a few years, the engine powers skyrocketed and reached enormous amounts of 1100-1200 bhp from the previous 500-600 bhp. The dazzling success of turbochargers pushed the International Automobile Federation (FIA) to introduce some limitations on turbocharged engines to bring fairness to the competition. Therefore, they limited the amount of fuel to be used by the turbo-powered cars and later on they imposed more limitations on them by introducing pop-off valves [1]. But all of that did not stop the turbocharged engines to win the competitions year after year. Finally, the FIA banned turbochargers altogether in 1988 before they could develop into driver-killing machines due to insanely high speeds. It is astonishing to know that turbocharged engines won every single F1 races since 1983 until their ban in 1988. “The relatively brief reign of turbocharged engines in F1 witnessed some of the greatest raw horsepower ever unleashed on the famous circuits” [4].

Renault V6 turbocharged engine, the Energy F1-2014, from Renault Sports [5].
Renault V6 turbocharged engine, the Energy F1-2014, from Renault Sports [5].
In 2014, the new F1 regulations once again allowed the use of turbochargers with restrictions [6]. Now, the question is: WIll the Golden Turbo Era be repeated again or it is gone for good? No matter what the answer is, from the engineering perspective, turbochargers can bring a golden era to the engine performance at any time.


[1] www.AutoEvolution.com
[2] www.theJUDGE13.com
[3] www.MustangsDaily.com
[4] www.F1-GrandPrix.com
[5] www.RenaultSport.com
[6] www.Formula1-Dictionary.net

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