Remember the awesome BMW V10s of the early noughties and how they helped Williams take the fight to Ferrari? Or the Honda powerplants of 20 plus years ago that helped both Williams and McLaren secure world domination?
The inevitable curbing of costs in F1 resulted in an engine freeze, which at the time of the introduction of the latest-generation V8 engines appeared to signal the death knell for power-unit development. But the reality has been slightly different.
This week, Mercedes-Benz threw opened the doors of its High Performance Engines (HPE) factory at Brixworth to a select group of media, and the tour delivered a fascinating insight into just how modern power units are still very much a defining factor in F1.
So here are some things that you may not know about F1 engines…
1. If there was a world championship for engines, Mercedes would have won the title in 2011
Amid the fanfare caused by Red Bull’s march to back-to-back world championship titles, the focus has very much been on the efficiency, driveability and compact design of the Renault engine in the back of the RB7.
But a deeper delve into the statistics of this past season shows that if there had been a championship for engines, it would actually be Mercedes that came out on top – for the third consecutive year.
This year, the German manufacturer’s three teams – Mercedes, McLaren and Force India – scored a total of 731 points. This compares with the 723 points that Renault’s squads – Renault, Red Bull and Lotus – delivered.
As well as providing good speed, reliability was a key factor in bringing home such a healthy amount of points. In 2011, Mercedes engines completed an impressive 92 per cent of the total possible race distance mileage, the only race failure coming via Michael Schumacher’s car in Monaco.
No wonder Mercedes motorsport vice-president Norbert Haug is delighted. “This is a good result and quite a satisfying one for our engine specialists, to score three times in a row the most points per season in Formula 1 as an engine manufacturer,” he says. “Our reliability record is also worthy of mention and our target will be to stay at the level we have achieved, or even to improve it.”
2. KERS played a bigger part in races than anybody realised
The dramatic increase in overtaking this year was widely attributed to the arrival of Pirelli and Drag Reduction Systems in F1.
But the return of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System, after its enforced ‘sabbatical’ in 2010, also contributed quite a bit to the racing throughout 2011.
KERS brought an average one lap benefit of 0.45s, and intelligent application of it by drivers could prove decisive in the races.
Take the opening lap of the Indian Grand Prix: Schumacher had qualified down in 11th place on the grid, and knew that he needed to make progress early on if his race afternoon was not going to be compromised by getting held up by slower cars.
A lot of drivers may have thought about deploying their 6.7s of KERS off the line, to grab places into the first corner.
Schumacher played a different game. He used no KERS off the line – and instead saved it all for the huge run down the long main straight. That decision meant that by the end of the run to Turn 4, he had a 7.4mph advantage over other cars that had KERS, and an 11.2mph advantage over those with no KERS. That was why he was able to move up four places so swiftly…
There were other occasions too when KERS use was as decisive – even if fans did not appreciate at the time what was happening.
When Lewis Hamilton slotted past Sebastian Vettel for the lead during the Chinese Grand Prix, at the time it was thought that his fresher tyres had simply given him better traction out of the preceding corner.
But data analysis showed that he had activated KERS at the exit of Turn 6 – a place on the track where KERS is not normally used – to give himself a 5.6mph boost to pounce on Vettel.
Mercedes HPE managing director Thomas Fuhr says: “What was a bit frustrating was that there were a lot of things that people on the outside did not know about – and they were the result of KERS. It was only after you looked at the data afterwards that you knew that KERS was involved.”
3. KERS batteries now last longer than engines
When KERS first came in, there were no end of sceptics ready to accuse F1 of simply getting involved in ‘greenwash’. There was talk at the time of teams throwing away battery packs after every race, which was hardly good for the environment.
The reality now is very different, and Mercedes reckons that 2011-specification battery packs are now lasting five times as long as engines – up to 6200 miles.
Battery technology has improved dramatically, and since 2009 the weight of the KERS has come down (it is now around 24kg), with its efficiency increasing from 75 per cent to 80. It means that for every 500kJ of energy recovery, its KERS can output the maximum limit of 400kJ per lap.
The improvements in efficiency mean not only a longer life for batteries, but also less heat waste, which means less cooling requirements. That then has benefits elsewhere on the car.
Mercedes engineering director Andy Cowell says: “The reality is that we have battery packs that have lasted over 10,000km [6,200 miles].
“The way we have developed our system is to be highly efficient, so energy harvested isn’t wasted in the trip to the cell and back out. By doing that, you end up generating little heat, and little heat generation inside the cell means the cell survives longer.
“Then, by understanding what temperatures it wants to run at, it means you can look after it even more. In theory one battery pack could be in the car all season, but we tend to treat them like the engine allocation and move them around a bit depending on performance needs and logistics.”
4. Tyres are not the only thing that need nursing at a safety car restart
When Formula 1 cars start lapping behind the safety car, you could be forgiven for thinking that engine people could relax a little bit. After all, their power units are being put under less stress than if they were at racing speed.
But that’s far from the case – drivers need to be as careful about managing their engine temperatures for safety car restarts as they do their tyres.
Cowell explains: “Under the safety car, the engine is not being used as hard, so the temperatures start to drop. That helps a little bit as the average car velocity drops, so cooling diminishes, but you still end up with water and oil temperatures rising.
“When the piston temperatures start to drop, the clearances increase and you can end up with too much relative movement between the piston and the ball.
“If the safety car goes in and the temperatures are not up to the required running temperature, then you can damage the piston in that initial safety car in/drive away period.
“Also pressures, when the temperatures drop, typically go up because viscosity goes up and you need to watch that. All the wall thicknesses that are holding the fluids in are down to the bare minimum, and if you’re not careful you can end up rupturing them.”
Cowell says that if a driver has not warmed his engine up properly behind the safety car, then there could be a call for him to not use maximum performance as he returns to the race.
“In a worst-case scenario you would have to ask drivers to limit revs,” he says. “We’ve never ended up in that scenario, and we’ve always been able to manage it.
“Drivers need to keeps the revs up, as the best way of generating energy inside is through friction.”
KERS also needs to be managed properly behind the safety car, as it’s not simply a matter of loading it up with judicious use of brakes and waiting for the race to restart. “Parts of KERS need to be running hot for best operation – so that needs doing too,” explains Cowell.
5. Vettel’s Q3 brilliance could only be down to driving
There have been numerous theories floating around about just where Vettel’s brilliance in Q3 came from this year.
Was it a secret ‘special’ engine mode that he could use for a single lap to improve flow from exhaust gases through the blown diffuser to help improve handling and add more downforce? Or was it that he was better able to deal with the intricacies and handling characteristics of a blown-diffuser car.
Cowell reckons probably neither. He reckons that the progressive restrictions on engine modes over the year (following the Valencia parc ferme restriction), and the implementation of exhaust blowing by the engine manufacturers, meant that the true answer probably lies with Vettel simply extracting more from himself in the final qualifying run.
“At the end of a straight, with the engine close to 18,000rpm, there is a lot of fuel coming out – so a lot of thrust coming through the exhaust,” he says.
“But downforce is useless at this point; you want downforce under braking, at the apex and as you are traction limited on the way out.
“Without blowing, the throttle closed gives a low level of thrust, and it only comes back up as throttle comes back to 100 per cent. With the throttle held at 94 per cent [as they were throughout 2011], you increase the thrust considerably. From engine and exhaust you increase gas temperature with the modes we were running by nearly 200 degrees Centigrade.”
That means the blown exhausts were reaching temperatures of around 960 degrees C – so no wonder it became difficult to keep bodywork from burning.
Cowell is not so sure whether the driver could have an influence in helping the blown diffuser work better in a corner.
“There are different engine modes and there is the opportunity to tune the engine mode during the race, with some modes helping make engine braking different, some making fuel consumption worse. So a driver could decide if he wants more downforce, or if he wants to save fuel.
“From Valencia onwards people were pretty locked into the modes and, from our perspective, the mode was the same through qualifying.”
6. Calendar concerns matter for engine makers too
While the debate over races being on and off calendars may be of greater interest to teams and fans, the number of grands prix in a season is also of vital importance to the engine manufacturers.
With each driver limited to just eight power units per season, the difference between there being 19 races or 20 is actually quite considerable – and much more complicated than simply adding the extra distance onto the yearly mileage and dividing it by the number of power units available.
“We went into the season not sure exactly how many races there were going to be,” explains Cowell. “We targeted initially at 20, but we ended up at 19 because of troubles in Bahrain.
“Planning for 20 meant an extra 100km [60 miles] for engines, which sounds easy, but it’s harder than that, because with the opening engines you load a lot of kilometres on those. So for the first engines we had to add an extra 800km [500 miles] to give us a comfortable set-up for the rest of the year.”
7. Engine allocation means finding the answer from 36 billion combinations
You’d think that sorting out the engine allocation for a driver from his eight units over the season would be fairly easy. It’s surely just a question of getting a few engines to last two race weekends, with a couple of units being asked to do a bit more.
Not so: Cowell reveals that there are 36 billion combinations of engine use possible over the season! No wonder the parameters have to be fed into a computer for engineers to get an answer on the best way forward.
One of the first considerations is working out the tracks where it’s best to have fresh engines: Sepang, Monza, Spa and Istanbul put hefty requirements on power. On the other hand, Singapore and Monaco are not so power-dependent and can be earmarked for older units.
Then environmental factors have to be considered. Brazil’s gas pressure is low because of the high altitude; Bahrain and India have high temperatures and low humidity, which can hurt ignition retardation.
Engine manufacturers also have to be slightly flexible, because accidents and mechanical retirement can have a swift knock-on effect on plans.
In the end, Mercedes’ highest-mileage engine did 3037 kilometres [1,887 miles].
8. F1’s engine freeze has helped manufacturers understand tecnology
When F1’s engine freeze was introduced in 2007, there were concerns that the move would stifle innovation and make the life of an F1 engine engineer redundant.
By contrast, Cowell reckons that the understanding of engines is far greater several years into the freeze.
“Beforehand you would just change the design because you could,” he explains. “Now, with the freeze, if you have a problem you have to understand it because you can’t change the design.
“If you have a spread where some parts last 3000km [1880 miles] and one part fails at 1000km [620 miles], then you need to understand that part at 1000km – about exactly what’s happening. So you go digging into the detail. You can’t just change the design anymore, so the guys have to understand it.
“Beforehand you’d say, ‘Let’s come in with a different design that makes it more robust and forget that failure.’ What happens now has driven us to have better investigation methods, and improved monitoring of build and the mechanisms in the engine.”
9. Engines will sound great in 2014
There have been countless stories about Bernie Ecclestone and race promoters complaining that the new era of turbocharged engines, which begins in 2014, will sound tame compared to the current generation of V8s.
The race promoters even went as far as suggesting that they would turn their back on F1 and switch to IndyCar if the power units changed.
But Cowell reckons there should be no fears about the engine sound, and that a look at the details of the V6 turbos explains why they will sound good.
“The engines are high revving,” he explains. “You don’t get the maximum fuel-flow rate until you’re above 10,500rpm, and the maximum revs are at 15,000rpm. Plus, with six pipes going into one turbocharger, a single tailpipe from six cylinders revving at 15,000rpm will sound very nice.”
Of course, the F1 cars will not sound so brilliant in the pitlane, because the 2014 regulations state that they must be powered solely by electricity when coming into the garages.
Cowell admits that silent cars could prompt some safety issues – which is why the FIA is looking into the matter: “There is a working group led by the FIA looking into those sorts of things…”
10. F1’s new engines are not going to cause a spending war
We have seen first-hand in F1 this year that attempts to control costs in the sport can be fraught with frustration – as the split within FOTA and season-long rows between Red Bull and its rivals over spending have left the sport divided.
Although that experience has prompted fears that the effort by manufacturers to build all-new engines for 2014 is simply going to open up a spending war, matters actually appear to be under control.
There was talk when the 2014 rules were written that the engine manufacturers could agree their own Resource Restriction Agreement to stop big money paying dividends, but the evidence so far from early development is that the technical rules themselves will keep spending under control.
With Mercedes’ 2014 engine set to run on the dyno ‘soon’, Fuhr is confident about the financial aspects of the development.
“The biggest achievement with this, irrespective of a physical RRA, was to get sensible technical regulations,” he explains. “The FIA, together with the manufacturers, did a great job. A lot of things are pre-defined, so you don’t spend money developing it – you know there is a single turbo, so it makes things much, much easier. That’s the biggest benefit of these regulations.
“If you control it technically, it’s much easier saying you can control it here and there. You see on the chassis front how complicated it has got. The FIA has it in hand with the engines, and there’s no way around it.”
The strict technical regulations will also ensure that there should not be a huge performance disparity when the cars hit the grid for the first time in 2014.
Cowell adds: “The key thing controlling performance is fuel-flow rate – 100kg per hour.”
One interesting aspect here is that the fuel-flow rate based on weight could result in even greater emphasis being put on the fuel suppliers to improve their products.
Mercedes fuel supplier Petronas has shown under current regulations how aggressive it is in development. It introduced new (so take it as read ‘more powerful’) fuel at several races this year – first in Malaysia and then a further iteration at the Indian GP. That development programme could well be ramped up in the new ‘fuel-flow’ era.