Formula 1 is a sport that is at the forefront of technological advancements. The high level of competition forces teams to pioneer new ideas to get the better of their competitors. However, big changes to things like engine regulations means the teams almost have to start from scratch.
Formula 1 continually changes the engine regulations based on the needs of the sport. However, every couple of years there will be a major change that shakes up the sport and allows the teams to develop new technologies and pioneer new ideas. Many of these ideas are caried over to road cars.
Engines are a focal point in Formula 1. There are different manufacturers, and all of the engines have their own strengths and weaknesses. However, it’s the engine rule changes that brings this technical contrast between each team’s engine, and below we’ll discuss them in more detail.
Why Did F1 Change Engines In 2014?
The 2014 Formula 1 season saw one of the biggest rule changes in the history of the sport. The beloved naturally aspirated V8 engines were replaced by 1.6-liter turbocharged hybrid V6 engines, which was a controversial decision to say the least.
The main reason behind this massive rule change was to reduce the fuel consumption of the cars. There was a though process behind this reasoning which was discussed by the FIA whilst considering the global stance on climate change.
The first was that Formula 1 had to become more relevant to average road cars. With monstrous gas guzzling V8 engines, the cars were an unrealistic representation of the type of engines that you would see in your average road car. Moving to a smaller engine would make the cars more relevant to modern society while reducing their fuel consumption and carbon footprint.
This is also important for the specific manufacturers of the engines. Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda all make production cars alongside their F1 endeavors. Ensuring there is relevance between the sport and normal road cars makes it more financially viable for the manufacturers.
The smaller engines were also implemented as a solution to creating a greener and more sustainable sport. Motorsport naturally uses a lot of fossil fuels which is bad for the environment. However, the new V6 hybrid engines were not only smaller, but also more efficient.
The engines were focused on producing hybrid power, which means that a battery system is used to give the engine more horsepower, making use of waste energy lost through exhaust gases and under braking. Ultimately, this means that less fuel is burned while the engine is running, reducing the carbon footprint of the engines that are used in Formula 1.
The hybrid concept in a Formula 1 engine stems from two parts that are known as ‘ERS’ or Energy Recovery Systems. There are two types of ERS systems in a Formula 1 engine, although both use the same concept to capture lost energy and convert it back into horsepower.
MGU-K & MGU-H
The first is the MGU-K, or motor generator unit (kinetic). The ‘K’ suffix stands for kinetic, which is the type of energy that is lost under braking. While the car is braking, the MGU-K is in generator mode, sending power to the battery, and the electric energy from the battery can be used to send more power to the wheels without burning more fuel, hence making the cars more efficient.
The second ERS system that is used in the V6 hybrid engines is the MGU-H. The ‘H’ suffix stands for heat, which is the energy that is lost in the turbo charger. The MGU-H does not charge the battery using heat, but rather the kinetic energy generated from a motor that spins as a result of waste exhaust gases passing through it from the turbocharger.
It might be a bit confusing, but all you need to know is that the combination of these two energy recovery systems can give a Formula 1 car around 300 HP more without burning extra fuel. This makes the cars significantly more efficient and allows them to go faster for longer without using as much fuel.
Small But Mighty
This is how Formula 1 cars almost magically manage to get 1000 horsepower out of a tiny engine, with the combustion components only producing around 700-800 HP. It’s this kind of technological marvel that puts Formula 1 at the forefront of automotive development.
At the end of the day, Formula 1 had achieved what they had set out to do with their 2014 engine regulation changes, which makes it a success. The idea to create an engine that consumes less fuel while producing an incredible amount of performance paid off.
Modern day road cars are using the same kind of hybrid power that you can find in a Formula 1 car. Mercedes-Benz are at the forefront of building hybrid powered cars as they transfer all their knowledge and technology from Formula 1 over to their road cars. In this sense, Formula 1 has become more relevant to your everyday road car.
It has not been all good news though. There are many disgruntled fans who do not like the V6 turbo hybrid engines. The main problem is the sound that the engines produce, or lack thereof. Watching Formula 1 live used to be an incredible experience where the roar of a V8/V10/V12 engine would cause the seats in the grandstand to vibrate.
Modern day Formula 1 cars do not offer the same level of exhaust sounds, and they are significantly quieter than previous versions. This has led to many fans being disappointed in the new engines and many have called for the return of bigger engines. Speaking of older engines, how often do the F1 engine regulations change?
How Often Do F1 Engine Regulations Change?
Engine regulations usually change every year (apart from when engine development is frozen). Although they might not be as major as the 2014 rule changes for example, there are always some small details that are changed to perfect the engines and to ensure the sport is always moving forward.
For example, a maximum rev limit might be imposed on the cars like in 2007, 2009, and in 2014, with 2007 and 2009 not seeing major engine regulation changes apart from these limits. Gone are the days when Formula 1 cars could rev up to 20,000 RPM. Rule changes have gradually bought that number down significantly.
Smaller More Frequent Changes
Although engine rule changes can happen every year, it might not have a big effect on the cars themselves. For example, despite lots of small engine rule changes since 2014, Mercedes still have the most powerful hybrid engine.
It was predicted that some of the engine rules changes in the past few years would slow them down and allow the competition to catch up, but that has not been true in terms of engine performance.
Why The Rules Change
The reasons for these small rule changes could be related to the sporting, financial or environmental side of things. For example, rules might be implemented that prevent teams from using more than a set number of engines per season.
This is often done to reduce the costs of the sport and prevent the top teams from becoming too dominant by spending more money bringing brand new engines to each race, thus levelling the playing field. Instead, there is equality between all teams in the number of engines they can use, and they need to make their engines last a set number of races (or face penalties).
The 2014 rules changes are a prime example of environmental reasoning behind rule changes. The engines were designed to be more efficient by using hybrid power. The goal was to create engines that consume less fuel than before, which would reduce the carbon footprint of the cars.
The Most Recent Engine Changes In F1
Major rule changes happen once every few years. In general, it tends to be once a decade, but there is no set rule on this. The most recent engine regulation changes in F1 are:
- 1996 – Move from V12 to V10
- 2006 – Move from V10 to V8
- 2014 – Move from V8 to V6
- 2026 – New engine regulations (TBC)
These major engine rule changes always shake up the grid and force manufacturers to start from scratch. This usually means that there is a new team that comes out on top. Mercedes, who made the most of the 2014 rule changes by focusing much of their research and development on the engine, were the most recent beneficiaries.
The result was a dominant era for the German manufacturer, who have won 8 constructors world championships in a row from 2014 to 2021.
Engine Development Freezes
In some cases, the FIA will issue an ‘engine development freeze’. This means that teams can no longer alter or develop their engines until the freeze ends. This includes the small changes teams may make to their engines between and during seasons. What this means is that a team will need to stick with the engine they have until the engine freeze is over.
This can be done for several reasons. However, the main reasons tend to be financial, as the FIA aims to bring down the costs involved in participating in the sport. This evens out the playing field between the big teams and the small teams.
Engine freezes are not uncommon. The most recent engine freeze was between 2007 and 2009 when the FIA aimed to reduce the costs of the sport. This meant the engines used in the 2006 Japanese Grand Prix remained the same through the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
F1 2022 Engine Regulations
There is currently an engine freeze in place from 2022 until 2025. All the teams’ engines will be homologated (thoroughly investigated) by the FIA at the beginning of the season and the engines must remain the same until 2025.
This can be challenging for many teams because, if you fall behind the others and you have a poor engine, you are stuck with it until the engine freeze is over. The current engine freeze has been put in place to reduce the costs and help teams to comply with the new cost cap rules that are coming into effect with each season.
Winners & Losers
However, teams like Ferrari who have made massive strides forward in their engine development during the 2021 season will be at an advantage. Teams like Red Bull could suffer as they have just lost their engine supplier Honda. Red Bull will be building their own engines for the first time in their history, so we could see them struggle in this department during the next couple of years.
The engine freeze will have the biggest impact on the ‘works’ cars. This means the teams that build their own engines (Ferrari and Mercedes for example). The rest of the grid are known as ‘customer cars’ as they use engines from other suppliers. For example, McLaren F1 cars currently use Mercedes engines.
The works teams will have to focus on building a decent engine before the engine freeze if they want to remain competitive. On the other hand, customer teams won’t need to worry about developing their engines and can fully focus on the big aerodynamic changes, which could help offset any power disadvantages as a result of their engine supplier.
Will Formula 1 Change Engines In The Future?
Formula 1 will always continue to push the boundaries of technology and they will constantly develop their engines. Formula 1 is becoming more relevant to the average road car which makes it even more important for the sport to perfect their engines.
The next big rule change will be in 2026. The FIA has recently announced the details of their plans for the 2026 engine regulations, and although it might not be as drastic as the 2014 rule changes, it is certainly something to look forward to as a fan.
The 1.6-liter turbo hybrid engines will remain in use with the 2026 engine regulation changes. However, the MGU-H will be removed from the engine and the cars will only use the MGU-K to power the energy recovery system.
More Electrical Power
Despite removing a key part of the energy recovery system, the electrical power that the engines will produce will increase to 350 kW. This means even more horsepower that will be available to the drivers in the form of a sustainable electrical boost.
The cars will also become more sustainable with a big focus on moving to carbon neutrality. As such the 2026 Formula 1 cars will run on 100% sustainable eco fuels. This will develop technology even further for road cars to use.
Formula 1 aims to make the entire sport carbon neutral by 2030. The campaign ‘Net Carbon Zero’ was revealed in 2020, and the sport is already taking steps towards reducing the overall carbon footprint. This is not only for on-track activities, but it also includes the logistics, offices and factories of Formula 1 teams.
Power Unit Cost Cap
2026 will also introduce a power unit cost cap which will challenge the teams to create engines that are cheaper to build, maintain and operate, yet deliver the same incredible amount of performance that the previous generations have.
The power unit cost cap comes as a result of the strict budget cap that is being enforced in the coming years. By limiting the amount of money that teams are allowed to spend on developing their engines, it helps all teams to comply with the cost cap, and it reduces the gap between the larger teams and the smaller teams that have less money to spend on their cars.
Formula 1 has stated that they aim to bring back the spectacle of Formula 1 by producing engines that bring back the incredible exhaust notes that fans have missed since the V8 era. One of the most controversial topics in the V6 era is that the engines do not sound good, which is a part of Formula 1 that used to draw in a lot of fans. How they will do this is currently unclear.
Another one of the goals of the next major rule change is to draw in more engine manufacturers. Currently there are Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault, with Honda having left the sport at the end of 2021. More engine manufacturers mean better contrast and competition between teams, which is naturally good for the sport.
The rule changes are exciting, and they have already drawn attention from other large manufacturers such as Audi and Porsche. The two brands are owned by the Volkswagen Group, and there are plans for both to enter F1 when the 2026 rule changes come into force, possibly as teams or as engine suppliers.
Both of these manufacturers have experience with building high performance hybrid engines. They both won the 24 hours of Le Mans with their hybrid powered prototype cars.
Continuous Small Changes
From 2026 onwards there will be small amendments made to the engine regulations each year as the FIA aims to perfect the new engines. We may see some new rules being implemented to make the engines even more cost effective, more powerful, or more efficient.
We’re then unlikely to see another major engine rule change until after 2030. By then, a lot could change, and we might even see the reintroduction of bigger engines as long as 100% sustainable fuels are used. This could win back the hearts of many Formula 1 fans who dream of experiencing the incredible Formula 1 engine sounds of the past!
Formula 1 engine regulations change in order to ensure the sport is continually improving and moving towards a more sustainable future. The last major engine regulation change was in 2014, when the hybrid power unit was introduced, and regulations will change again in 2026.