Can you hear it? The shriek of an F1 engine as it zooms past so quickly you’ll miss it if you blink. A really angry lion, or a jet plane – whatever you think the F1 engine sounds like, there is something immensely satisfying about watching the Grand Prix just to hear the noise of the cars go by.
And this year, you can enjoy the noise whilst watching history being made as Lewis Hamilton attempts to equal Nigel Mansell’s British record of four F1 wins at the hallowed Northamptonshire circuit.
In preparation for Sunday’s race, and because it’s Friday, we looked into the heart of a Formula 1 racing car – the engine – and how it’s evolved over the last 50 years.
1950–1953: The Super Charger Years
At the inception of the Formula 1 World Championships, super-charged engines of up to 1.5l capacity were in fashion. Taking inspiration from aerospace technology, engines were small with an enormous super-charger.
1952–53: F1 or F2?
Normally-aspirated engines appeared around 1952, and were more powerful whilst using 5 times less fuel! But a lack of manufacturer teams in 1952 led to the World Championships being run under Formula 2 rules – which meant 2.0l normally-aspirated engines. L3 and L6 engines began to dominate the field.
1954–1960: The final era of the front-engine
Formula 1 regulations came back in 1954, but engine capacity was reduced to 2.5l. Teams were also allowed a 750cc super-charged engine, but the L4 and L6 engines remained the popular choice. Mercedes led the way in engine development with the introduction of a direct injection system (for more power) and desmodromic valves (for greater control over the combustion cycle).
The Lancia D50 featured another innovation – the stressed engine. Rather than being dropped into a frame, the DS60 V8 engine was a load-bearing component of the chassis.
1957: Bye bye front-engines, hello mid-engines
The Cooper T43 was the first F1 car to mount the engine behind the driver. This gave the car better balance and drastically reduced understeer.
Independent racing teams started to displace the previously dominant car manufacturers throughout the late 1950’s. This move from automotive engineers to racing specialists designing F1 engines ensured continued experimentation throughout the late 50s and 60s, even when regulations became more settled.
1961–1965: Restrictions on cap speeds
With an aim to reduce speeds, F1 regulations restricted engines to 1.5l in 1961. Over the next four years, engine development rapidly progressed, meaning the 1.5l engines were producing more power than the 2.5l units they had replaced.
Ferrari’s progress is a great example of the quest for more power and new concepts were trialled every few months. They went from a 65° Dino V6 in 1961 to a V8, which won them the championships in 1964. They also experimented with a flat-12 engine.
The battle for higher rpm was a big driver in the creation of innovative engine ideas. Engineers leapt from L4 to V8; and explored further into greater cylinder counts. The idea was that splitting the displacement between a greater number of cylinders made for smaller, lighter moving parts and, therefore, higher rotational speeds.
1966-1986: Three-litre engines
Regulations introduced in 1966 halted development by limiting teams to 3l engines. The first year with the new regulations showed a diverse range of engines; entrants used anything from an L4 all the way up to the ambitious, but overweight, H16 (think two BRM 1.5l V8s flattened and stacked on top of each other).
The next great innovation of the era came in 1967, when Cosworth launched the DFV (double four valve). Although originally introduced with the Lotus, the engine came into its own when it was made available to other teams. In 1969, the DFV powered the four teams to win races that year – Matra, Lotus, Brabham and McLaren.
1977–1988: The Rise of the turbo
The regulations introduced in 1966 allowed for a normally-aspirated engine of up to 3.0l displacement or a forced induction engine of up to 1.5l. Until 1977, the second part of the regulations were ignored.
Then, Renault debuted the RS01, which was powered by a 1.5l Renault-Gordini EF1 V6 turbo engine – and everything changed. Though heavy, unreliable, and with a propensity to blow up – the engine wasn’t a success as a racing car. But it paved the way for the advancement in turbo engines. Its successor, the RS10 was the first turbo to win the 1979 French Grand Prix.
Renault’s innovation changed the sport completely and by 1983, turbos were the dominant force on the track. By 1986, normally-aspirated engines had disappeared completely.
Engineers focused solely on increasing the power of a turbo engine, the ability to control it came second. This led to the phenomenon of gas-guzzling ‘qualifying engines’ – engines designed to last for a few laps before expiring.
1987–1994: The 3.5L
Once again, a change in regulations inspired a great diversity of engine design. The 3.5l normally-aspirated category was introduced in 1987 but didn’t become popular until 1989. The V10 was a new configuration for F1 and balanced the power of a V12 and lower fuel consumption of a V8.
Innovation continued at pace as engineers set horse power targets to match those of the turbo era. Teams turned to metallurgy, looking at lighter alloys and pneumatic valve systems to reduce weight whilst maximising control.
1995–2013: Downsized again
Engine size was restricted again to 3.0l in 1995 as a measure to control the speeds being reached in F1. This period of stability in engine regulation also resulted in convergence and, by 1998, every team was running with a V10 engine. A few years later the 3.0l V10 would be codified as the only engine allowed.
Horsepower and engine speeds continued to rise at the start of the 21st century, with the V10s producing over 900hp and engine speeds pushed past 19,000rpm. Regulations began to change their focus to longevity rather than size and an engine was required to last a whole weekend in 2004.
In 2006, the focus turned to costs and exotic alloys and materials were banned. By 2009, regulations went even further to limit rpm to 18,000.
2009: The Hybrid
KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) was introduced in 2009 and allowed an extra 80hp in short bursts. The system recovered energy from underbraking, stored it in a battery, and allowed it to be restored to the powertrain at the driver’s initiation.
Game-changing specifications were introduced in 2014, which took hybrid technology to the next level. The manufacturers developed the specification for a 1.6l direct-injection V6 with a single turbo-charger. It featured two energy recovery systems: an upgraded successor to KERS to recover energy from braking, and a turbo compounding loop recovering waste heat from the exhaust. The combined Energy Recovery System (ERS) added twice as much power for five times as long as KERS.
The new regulations aimed to bring F1 in line with the current automotive demand for economical, downsized, turbo engines. However, it led to a huge jump in innovation and placed F1 a decade ahead of current technology.
With 65 years of engine innovation, the latest developments in F1 engines are perhaps the most creative. It’s easy to see the technological chasm between the dominant 1.5l pressure-charged engines of the early 1950s and their modern inheritors of 2016, but the gulf between 2013 and 2016 is equally wide.
The question now is where technology will go next.