Formula 1 engines, or “power units” as they are known, are complex machines. These state-of-the-art technological marvels produce over 1000 horsepower and allow F1 cars to reach top speeds of well over 200 mph. But many may wonder if F1 engines are turbocharged or naturally aspirated.
F1 engines are currently turbocharged. The turbo helps the relatively small 1.6 liter V6 engine to produce over 1000 horsepower by forcing more air into the combustion engine as the revs increase, therefore allowing the engine to produce more power than a naturally aspirated version of the engine.
However, the current generation of F1 engines go even further with hybrid technology. Below, we’ll discuss this overhaul compared to the naturally aspirated engines of the past and how these newer engines have become more powerful and more efficient than ever.
Turbocharged vs Naturally Aspirated Engines
When it comes to engines, there’s a big difference between a naturally aspirated one and a turbocharged engine. It’s important to understand the difference between the two in order to see why turbos are now being used in modern Formula 1 and why the switch was made from naturally aspirated engines.
Engines need three things in order to run properly. The first is something that is flammable and capable of igniting, which is the fuel. The second is a spark, which is used to light the fuel and cause a miniature explosion inside the cylinder that moves the piston. However, without oxygen this explosion can’t happen, so the third magic element needed inside an engine is air.
Naturally aspirated engines, also known as normally aspirated or simply ‘NA’ for short, are engines that rely entirely on atmospheric pressure to get air into the engine. This means the air simply flows into the engine naturally, and as the car begins to move more, air can flow into the engine.
A turbocharger on the other hand is known as a “forced induction system.” This means more air and oxygen is forced into the engine. The result is the fuel inside the engine can ignite quicker and therefore the engine will be able to work harder. The turbo compresses the air, allowing more air to be injected into the engine at a much faster rate.
Advantages Of Naturally Aspirated Engines
Naturally aspirated engines have their advantages compared to forced induction engines. One advantage is that they are much more reliable and durable than engines with turbochargers strapped onto them because, when you add a turbocharger, there are just more things that can go wrong. Since a normally aspirated engine is less complex, they are more reliable and easier to maintain.
Naturally aspirated engines tend to have consistent power levels throughout their whole range of RPMs. Turbocharged engines on the other hand experience something known as “turbo-lag,” which is usually on the lower end of the RPMs. This is because the turbo takes time to spool up, so the engine doesn’t produce maximum power until the turbo is spinning fast enough.
What this ultimately means in terms of performance is a turbocharged engine will be slower in the lower RPM ranges compared to a naturally aspirated engine, which will instantly kick in at full power rather than having to spool up a turbo first. However, F1 turbochargers don’t have this problem thanks to the MGU-H, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.
Advantages Of Turbocharged Engines
Turbocharged engines also have their advantages over naturally aspirated engines. The first and most obvious advantage is the increase in power. Since a turbocharger can boost the power output of an engine, you can get the same amount of power from a smaller turbocharged engine as you can from a larger naturally aspirated engine.
In other words, a V6 turbo engine can reach the same level of power as a naturally aspirated V8, and in some cases a V10 engine. Having this extra boost of power allows the engine to be smaller, which also significantly reduces its weight and increases the car’s top speed.
Lighter cars are nimbler and faster overall, which is another advantage to having a turbocharged engine. Turbocharged engines are also more fuel efficient than their NA counterparts, due to the increase in air going into the engine boosting the power per combustion cycle.
Are F1 Engines Turbocharged?
F1 engines are turbocharged. They have been turbocharged multiple times in the past, but the 2014 engine regulation changes brought turbochargers back to F1 for the first time since 1988. F1 turbochargers work in tandem with the MGU-H to provide the engines with plenty of air for combustion.
Formula 1 cars have very little to no turbo lag, because their engines usually run at extremely high RPMs. When it comes to road cars, the turbo only kicks in when the RPMs begin to build, but F1 cars rarely drop their RPMs low enough for the turbo to stop running, meaning they get an instant turbo boost when accelerating.
However, another reason F1 engines don’t experience turbo lag is that the turbocharger is connected to the MGU-H, which uses waste exhaust gases to generate battery power within the hybrid system. As soon as the driver presses the accelerator, some of this electrical power is used to spin the turbocharger right away, rather than waiting for the exhaust gases to spin the turbine.
When Did F1 Switch To Turbocharged Engines?
Formula 1 made the switch from naturally aspirated engines to turbocharged engines in 2014. That season, Formula 1 saw a huge overhaul in the engine rules as the FIA set out to reduce the size of the engines, but still wanted teams to hit the 1000 horsepower mark.
The cars went from naturally aspirated V8 engines down to 1.6-liter turbocharged engines. Initially, there were a lot of complaints about this change as many fans, teams, and drivers claimed that the engines were too small to be used in Formula 1 and the racing would suffer as a result.
Smaller engines usually mean less power, and initially teams struggled to match the power output they got from their previous generation of naturally aspirated V8 engines. However, it was not long before the power output of the smaller engines surpassed that of the bigger naturally aspirated engines.
The first season of using the 1.6-liter turbo hybrid engines was not great in terms of reliability either. The season opener was held in Albert Park in Australia. Only 11 out of the 20 cars on the grid managed to finish the race. The rest of the season was much of the same, with engines causing teams and drivers reliability problems.
Why Did Formula 1 Choose To Add Turbochargers?
The FIA chose to change the engine regulations in 2014 for several reasons. The first was to reduce the costs involved in racing in Formula 1. This evened out the racing field because smaller teams do not always have the budget to keep up with engine development like large teams do. A massive engine change would put all teams back to square one.
The other reason for the massive change in engine regulations was to start moving towards becoming a carbon neutral sport. Bringing in smaller engines fitted with turbochargers, as well as the hybrid system, made the cars more fuel efficient. The size of the fuel tank nearly halved when the new engines were introduced, showing that the cars were now using less fuel than before to complete a race.
When overhauling the engine regulations in 2014, it was clear that bringing in smaller engines would not go down well with the fans, teams, and drivers. The biggest complaint was a lack of power in the pinnacle of motorsport. Adding the turbochargers helped the teams to regain that power through forced induction.
Have F1 Engines Used Turbos Before?
In the mid-1980s, the regulations surrounding engines in Formula 1 were much more lenient. We saw some cars adopting turbos and others sticking to the more simplistic naturally aspirated engines. In those days turbo lag was still an issue in Formula 1, but the power output of the engines increased massively with a turbocharger.
1986 was the first season where every car on the grid used turbocharged engines. These cars were known for being brutal for drivers, as they produced close to 1000 horsepower. Also, with the lightweight bodies that these cars had, they became incredibly difficult to drive with such power.
It was the Honda engineers who had reached the pinnacle of turbo engines in the late 1980s as they produced engines for McLaren. During these years, McLaren were a dominant force in Formula 1 with Ayrton Senna at the wheel. Turbochargers were eventually banned in 1989 as they were too powerful, too dangerous, and too expensive.
When Were F1 Engines Naturally Aspirated?
Following the end of the turbo era in the late 1980s, the sport moved on to 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V10 and V12 engines. Teams were able to choose which they preferred to use, and McLaren Honda went with the V10 engines while Ferrari opted for the mighty V12.
While naturally aspirated engines remained in the sport, the rules around the engines changed over the years. In 1995, teams were limited to using 3.0-liter V10 engines. This lasted until 2006 when the naturally aspirated V8 engines were introduced.
The beloved V8 engine remained in the sport until the 2014 rule changes, when the 1.6-liter V6 turbo hybrid engine was introduced. Each subsequent season has brought small tweaks to the regulations, such as adjustments to the maximum RPM limit on the engines, but the basic formula has remained the same.
F1 cars are turbocharged. The turbocharger allows the car to produce more power from a smaller engine by injecting more compressed air into it. Formula 1 had used turbos before, but this was in the late 1980s before they were eventually banned, with naturally aspirated engines used until 2014.