The incredible F1 cars racing around a track wouldn’t be capable of much without their powerful engines. As much as you may be in awe of the speeds that F1 cars can drive at around a track, you’ll be even more astounded at the incredible engineering involved in how F1 engines are made.
An F1 engine is made up of six components, of which the internal combustion engine is the most significant. The internal combustion engine is made with cutting edge manufacturing technology, with engine blocks made by a casting process that involves something called sand printing.
To understand an F1 engine (or more accurately, the power unit as a whole), we need to look at the various components in some depth. Below, we discuss more about the incredible technology that goes into making F1 power units.
What Is An F1 Power Unit?
An F1 power unit is not simply an engine. The F1 Technical Regulations define the power unit as “the internal combustion engine and turbocharger, complete with its ancillaries, any energy recovery system and all actuation systems and PU-Control Electronics necessary to make them function at all times.”
This definition shows that there are actually multiple components that go into the power unit – particularly in the current era of F1, where the most complex power units ever seen in the sport are currently used. The regulations identify six specific components of F1 hybrid power units:
- Internal Combustion Engine (ICE)
- Motor Generator Unit – Kinetic (MGU-K)
- Motor Generator Unit – Heat (MGU-H)
- Turbocharger (TC)
- Energy Store (ES)
- Control Electronics (CE)
We’ll discuss each of these components in more detail soon. But first, let’s discuss where F1 engines are actually built.
Where Are F1 Engines Built?
F1 engines are built at each engine supplier’s respective engine production facility. With the current regulations, there are four suppliers. Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault have been manufacturing power units for F1 since 2014, while Red Bull Powertrains took over from Honda after the 2021 season.
Honda reentered the sport in 2015 with much excitement from the teams and fans. The regulations introduced in 2014 were specifically written to make F1 more relevant to road cars in order to entice vehicle manufacturers to invest in development within the sport again. This appeared to have worked by attracting Honda.
They also chose to make their return to F1 with McLaren, leaning heavily into the nostalgia of the glory days of McLaren Honda’s domination in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, Honda made the decision at corporate level to not continue past the 2021 season. The official reason was that the company was looking to focus on developing electric vehicles rather than hybrid powertrains into the future.
Red Bull took over the Honda engine under the name Red Bull Powertrains. This is a viable option for Red Bull as there is a freeze on engine development from 2022 until 2025. They therefore only need to manufacture engines according to the current design, rather than actively developing the engine. It remains to be seen how Red Bull takes their engine supply further into the 2026 regulations.
F1 Engine Factory Locations
The engine factories for each F1 engine supplier are in the following locations:
- Ferrari – Maranello, Italy
- Mercedes – Brixworth, UK
- Renault – Viry-Châtillon, France
- Honda/Red Bull Powertrains – Sakura, Japan (to be relocated in 2023 to Milton Keynes, UK)
Which F1 Teams Use Which Engines?
Each of the power unit manufacturers supplies some of the other teams on the grid, since there are ten teams, but only four manufacturers. Engine supply agreements can change from season to season, but generally on multi-year deals. Each constructor’s engine supplier (for the 2022 season) is listed below.
- Mercedes – Mercedes
- Red Bull – Red Bull Powertrains
- Ferrari – Ferrari
- McLaren – Mercedes
- Alpine – Renault
- Alpha Tauri – Red Bull Powertrains
- Aston Martin – Mercedes
- Williams – Mercedes
- Alfa Romeo – Ferrari
- Haas – Ferrari
How Much Do F1 Engines Cost?
F1 engines can cost in the region of $5 million each and are by far the most expensive part of the car. The overall cost of an F1 car is estimated at approximately $10 to $20 million. The hybrid power units introduced in 2014 are incredibly complex, and therefore expensive to build.
Considering that each team may need to purchase or build as many as five (or more) power units per driver per season, the cost of the power units alone could be up to half or more of a team’s total budget.
Why Are F1 Engines So Expensive?
The astronomical cost of producing an F1 engine does have some reasons behind the price tag. The main reason is the incredible complexity of the current turbo hybrid power units. Each component of an F1 power unit is a complex system on its own. There are many parts in each component, and each part needs to be designed and manufactured with precise techniques.
Some further reasons for the huge costs that go into a Formula 1 power unit include the ongoing development, the quest for minimal weight, and the need for increased reliability.
F1 is notorious for the relentless pace of development throughout a season. A team will never end a season with exactly the same car that it started with. It is the nature of the beast that each team will constantly develop their car, trying to develop faster than their rivals in order to move up the pecking order. This approach certainly applies to the engine, and this incurs huge costs.
Now that the sport is more than 6 years into the development of the current power unit configuration, an effective freeze has been placed on development to limit the costs of this aspect. Reliability and safety updated will be allowed, but performance enhancing upgrades are not.
Weight And Engineered Materials
F1 regulations specify a minimum allowable weight for the engines. Since F1 is so competitive, any kilogram over that weight is lap time that is being handed to the other teams as an advantage.
F1 engines are built with a laser focus on choosing components wisely to minimize weight. The way each part is designed, and the complicated manufacturing techniques needed to make those designs a reality, all add to the overall cost.
In a sport where almost all the visible parts of the car are built from carbon fiber, it is not surprising that their engines also have some specifically engineered materials. The extreme conditions that these components need to operate under, as well as the constant need to minimize weight, contribute to the huge costs.
Reliability is a key requirement of modern F1 engines. In the past, the teams with the financial resources were able to fit a new engine to each car before each race weekend – sometimes even multiple over the course of a weekend.
The approach in the past was to build the engine and its components with so little margin for error, as they only had to complete a single race. The current regulations do not allow this approach. Each car has a limit on the number of power unit components that can be used throughout the season. A driver can use only a set number of each component before they get an engine penalty.
Therefore, in a 20-race season, a single internal combustion engine needs to last at least four races. However, they are built to last longer than that – if a driver is involved in a crash or collision, it is likely that the engine components will be damaged slightly. If a driver needs to take another component over and above the allotted number (usually 3), then grid penalties are enforced.
How An F1 Power Unit Works
An F1 power unit consists of six major components – the ICE, MGU-K, MGU-H, Turbocharger, ECU and energy store. These components mean that the power units are actually turbo hybrid engines. Each part of an F1 power unit works together to produce more than 1000 horsepower.
Internal Combustion Engine (ICE)
This is the heart of the power unit, the real driving force behind it all. In simplest terms, it is the component of the power unit that is the most similar to what you have in your car – an internal combustion engine. This is where fuel is mixed with air and ignited, in order to push a piston, turn a crankshaft and send power to the wheels.
The modern F1 engines are 1.6-liter V6 engines. This means that they have six cylinders arranged in a V-shape, with a total combined swept volume of 1.6 liters. The current regulations also place a limit on the amount of fuel that can be used for a race (110kg), so the internal combustion engine design is maximized for fuel efficiency.
This engine is the smallest to be used in F1 for many years. In the late 90s the cars raced with 3.0-liter engines, commonly as V10s. It was during this era and into the early 2000s that internal combustion engine technology was pushing power and engine revs to incredible limits. These are the roaring engines that many older fans consider to be part of the heart of the F1 experience.
Therefore, in the next iteration of the engine regulations (2006 to 2013), they were defined as 2.4-liter V8s. A host of other restrictions were introduced to limit the power and enhance reliability – an artificial rev limiter was introduced at 19,000 RPM, eventually reduced to 18,000 RPM.
The limit on number of engines per season was also introduced – in 2009 only 8 engines were allowed per driver for the season. Now, it’s three for most components, aside from the ECU and energy store, of which a driver can only use two per season without penalties.
Motor Generator Unit – Kinetic (MGU-K)
The MGU-K started out as KERS in 2009, or Kinetic Energy Recovery System. Essentially, it uses generators on the wheels to perform regenerative braking. When the car needs to brake, an electromagnetic field is used to provide a retarding force on the revolution of the wheels. This actually generates a current (like a standard electrical generator) which then charges a battery (the ES).
The energy that is stored in this battery can then be sent back to the wheels at another time where the MGU-K acts as a motor (hence ‘motor generator’). The electrical energy is used to provide a positive electromagnetic force (in the same direction of rotation of the wheels) to give an extra boost in overall power.
Due to the MGU-K decelerating the car to harvest energy, the brakes on modern F1 cars are smaller than they would be without the MGU-K installed. Brake discs and pads decelerate a car by applying friction (stationary pads pressing on the rotating disc) and converting that friction to heat. The MGU-K harvests some of that kinetic (movement) energy as electricity rather than it being wasted as heat.
Heat Motor Generator Unit (MGU-H)
The heat motor generator unit uses excess hot exhaust gases from the engine (which do not go through the turbo) to turn a generator that generates electricity. This electricity is either used to charge the onboard battery or alternatively to turn the compressor of the turbocharger to eliminate turbo lag (see below).
However, it is expected that the MGU-H will be dropped from the regulated F1 power unit in 2026. This is mainly due to its limited relevance to road car engine development, as well as allowing some cost saving. It is hoped that dropping the MGU-H will make the series easier for new engine suppliers to enter.
A turbocharger is no new piece of equipment in F1 engines. Turbochargers were first introduced in F1 in 1977 and took over the sport in the 1980s. They have been a common element of high-performance road car engines, and in more recent years have been paired with small engines to provide efficient power units in road cars.
But how does a turbocharger work? Essentially the hot exhaust gases that leave the engine after combustion pass through a turbine. The expanding gases spin the turbine, which then turns a shaft which is connected to a compressor on the air intake to the engine.
The compressor pressurizes the air entering the engine cylinder. This pressure allows a greater mass of air within the cylinder, which means that more fuel can be burned at a favorable air-to-fuel ratio, thus giving higher power output. Therefore, a turbocharger utilizes ‘waste’ energy from the engine exhaust to boost the performance of the engine.
However, a significant issue with this component is turbo lag. The power boost is only realized at higher speeds of the turbine and compressor, at higher RPMs. If the engine is idling, and the driver presses the accelerator pedal, there is some time before the additional fuel injected increases the exhaust gas volume to the point where the turbine and compressor are turning at a useful speed.
This lag can be worked around in a few ways, but one is to use electricity from the onboard energy store to get the compressor turning the moment the accelerator pedal is pressed, preempting the turbine spinning up to then turn the compressor. This is what the MGU-H is for.
Energy Store (ES)
The energy store is essentially a large onboard battery. It is a lithium-ion cell (the same technology that powers your cellphone), and it stores the electricity generated by the MGU-K and MGU-H, allowing it to be redeployed at other times. It is only allowed to store a maximum of 4 MJ of energy and cannot be charged while the car is stationary.
The total assembly of the cells of the energy store are regulated to weigh between 20 to 25 kg. The regulations do not state that the cells must be Li-ion, but only that they must be approved by the FIA. Also, it is prohibited to sign any exclusivity agreements between a supplier and a team. Any supplier must be free to provide energy store cells to any other team who may request them.
This is to avoid teams from embarking on a development race in battery technology. Development in this area would simply be another way that those teams with the financial means would be able to buy themselves an advantage over the teams who could not develop the technology.
Control Electronics (CE)
This is an FIA standard Electronics Control Unit (ECU) that must be used by all teams and connected in a specific way as set by the FIA. This FIA ECU allows the FIA to track and record all the necessary parameters to be sure that all teams are abiding by the rules.
Teams are allowed to run their own software over and above what is contained in the FIA ECU, as long as it is approved by the FIA. Going into the 2023-25 seasons, teams are only allowed to make one software update per season regarding control of the power unit and energy recovery systems.
A related component is the FIA Accident Data Recorder (ADR) which logs all the relevant data when an accident occurs. This allows better care for the driver in case of injury, but also provides information so that the causes can be better understood and safety improved going forward.
How F1 Engines Are Made
These incredibly complex and highly engineered engines require an equally complex and detail-oriented approach to making them. The modern F1 power units are made up of the 6 overall components described earlier. However, each one of these components, particularly the internal combustion engine, are complex units in their own right.
Each of the individual parts needs to be designed via Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. Each part is then manufactured and tested rigorously. These tests include x-rays, microscopes, and robotic measuring machines. Only then can the engine be assembled. It usually takes a team of highly trained and specialized mechanics several weeks to build an F1 engine.
How Are F1 Engine Blocks Built?
Traditionally, engine blocks are cast from molten metal. This means that a sand mold is constructed, with hollowed out areas in the shape of the desired metal block. Hot molten metal is then poured in to fill all the space in the sand mold. Once the liquid metal cools it solidifies into the solid, cast engine block. The sand mold is then broken off, leaving the engine block.
However, the complexity and close tolerances of modern F1 engines needs a highly sophisticated casting process. The first step is actually to 3D print the sand mold from a blend of synthetic sand. This additive manufacturing (3D printing) allows far more detail and precision to be built into the sand mold.
The mold is built by a robotic printer, one slice at a time according to a computerized model. An example of the benefit here is that cooling water channels thinner than 2mm can be incorporated in key areas such as between two cylinder bores.
The sand mold is usually printed as a number of individual pieces that are assembled. This gives better control over specific areas of the engine block to be cast, and also to ensure that all the air can escape when the mold is filled with molten metal. Different sand blends with different properties, such as how they expand when hot metal is poured over them, are used for different areas.
F1 engine blocks are cast from an aluminum alloy to keep the weight down. The molten metal is poured in carefully to avoid turbulence that can create imperfections and weaknesses in the finished engine block. Also, the molten metal fills the mold from the bottom up, being pushed ‘uphill’, to minimize exposure to air.
Even the cooling of the metal while it solidifies needs to be carefully controlled. Some areas are cooled faster than others to influence the final crystalline structure of the solid metal, and therefore its properties in operation. For instance, the cylinder head experiences some of the highest loads, and so this area is cooled rapidly to provide a tight crystal structure and higher strength.
Once the engine block has been manufactured, it then goes through an analysis and validation process. The engine block is essentially CT scanned – providing multiple ‘x-rays’ through the intricate piece of metal. These are then reconstructed virtually in a computer model and compared with the original design to pick up any consistencies.
Given the ability to construct an engine block via 3D printing a sand mold, adjustments to engine designs can be made within a much shorter timeframe, even as quickly as a week. The computer 3D model can be adjusted, then printed, then cast. The final engine block can then be verified largely by computers and delivered to the customer.
It is clear that these modern manufacturing techniques have been key to enabling even better efficiencies being unlocked in these incredible engines. Concepts that were only theoretical 20 years ago are now being implemented and optimized.
Do F1 Engines Have Camshafts?
F1 engines do have camshafts. As they function in conventional road car engines, camshafts are used to open the valves on top of each cylinder. A valve is lifted (opened) by a cam of the camshaft acting against the stem of the valve, before a spring forces the valve to seat (close) again.
In F1, the springs have been replaced by a pneumatic piston, but essentially the operation of the valves is very similar to road-going cars. F1 engines have Double Overhead Camshafts (DOHC). This allows four valves per cylinder – two for air intake (operated by one camshaft) and two for exhaust gas release (operated by the other camshaft).
Modern engine technology is shifting towards Electromagnetic Valve Actuation (EVA) which no longer needs a camshaft, but rather actuates each valve individually via electronics. For now, F1 continues to regulate that timing via camshafts.
Do F1 Engines Have Turbos?
The current F1 power units do have turbos and are therefore considered turbocharged engines rather than naturally aspirated engines. These turbos are one of the key differentiating factors of the current engines compared to those of the last 25 years or so.
F1 History Of Turbo Engines
Turbocharged engines in F1 were first developed by Renault and introduced experimentally in their RS01 in 1977. The car was infamously unreliable, but in 1979, the car’s successor, the RS10 became the first turbocharged car to win an F1 race. At this point, other teams sat up and took notice, and the turbo development race started.
In the early 80s, all engine suppliers to F1 had converted to turbocharged engines. Power outputs were soaring to around 1400 hp, an eye-watering figure. In order to bring engine outputs back into safer ranges, and to limit the costs of the turbo development race, the output pressure of the compressor was limited in 1987 and 1988. This severely limited the benefit gained.
Turbos were then prohibited by the changing regulations in 1989, and they were not allowed in F1 again until the 2014 regulation change. Before that change, there were many that felt it was counter-productive to force the cars to race with naturally aspirated engines, while turbos had such clear performance advantages.
The reintroduction of turbochargers in 2014 was done in conjunction with significantly reducing the engine size to only 1.6 liters. This allows the turbos to provide the advantages of performance, fuel efficiency and relevance to road car development, while still staying within safer limits of overall output power.
Do F1 Engines Have Spark Plugs?
F1 engines do have spark plugs because the rules require them to. The regulations specify that ignition may only happen by a single spark plug per cylinder. Alternative ignition techniques such as using plasma or lasers is not allowed – only conventional spark plugs are allowed.
However, in true F1 style, they are not your average spark plugs! Their penetration into the combustion chamber is minimized to allow for complete use of the limited chamber volume. Therefore, they do not have the tang that protrudes like conventional spark plugs. In F1 spark plugs, the outer case of the plug forms a concentric ring around the central electrode, which provides a surface gap.
In addition, F1 spark plugs generally have a smaller diameter than conventional spark plugs. This means less space is dedicated to accommodating the spark plug, allowing for better coverage by coolant channels along the head cover.
Homogenous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI)
Again, as expected in F1, there are always little tricks to maximize performance while staying within the letter of the law. It is understood that F1 engine manufacturers have managed to incorporate Homogenous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI). This uses very high compression ratios (similar to a diesel engine) which can, under certain conditions, allow spontaneous ignition.
HCCI is under development by a number of road car manufacturers for use in high performance engines. When HCCI is employed, it allows the engine to burn leaner mixtures (less fuel for the same power output). Further to this, the combustion temperature is lower after ignition, which results in fewer polluting chemical products (such as NOx and soot) being formed.
However, the engine is not able to rely on this ignition across a wide operating range. The key is the software that allows the engine to switch between using HCCI in the band where it is effective and using spark ignition in all other operating conditions.
Do F1 Engines Have Piston Rings?
F1 engines do have piston rings. They have only one compression ring and one oil ring. The compression ring seals the gases from the explosion inside the chamber. The oil ring scrapes the oil along the cylinder wall to ensure that the piston movement is properly lubricated.
Using only two piston rings limits the friction of the piston head moving through the cylinder. The piston rings are incredibly thin, at 0.7mm wide. The thin rings also help to reduce weight on the piston that has incredible acceleration and G-forces. The piston rings are made of titanium.
F1 engines are made using a complex casting process, with an aluminum alloy engine block casted using sand molds. F1 turbo hybrid power units are made up of various components other than the internal combustion engine, which makes the manufacturing process even more complicated.
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