The combination of an overhaul in the engine regulations plus another rise in the minimum weight limitd has led to concerns that the new-look F1 will be less exciting than what went before.
How will the performance of the new cars compare to previous generations of Formula One racers? Let’s take a look at the data.
F1 car power-to-weight ratios, 1966-2008
The chart below shows the power-to-weight ratio of McLaren’s F1 cars between 1966 and 2008 and gives a useful indication of the performance of competitive Formula One cars during recent eras of engine regulations.
In 1966 the short-lived 1.5-litre engine capacity limit was scrapped and teams were allowed engines of up to three litres. The Cosworth DFV was the engine to have for much of this time, with Ferrari taking a few titles in the second half of the seventies.
However the arrival of Renault’s F1 entry in 1977 heralded a coming revolution in F1 engines. They took advantage of a rule allowing for 1.5-litre turbocharged engines and by the early eighties these were clearly the future of F1 engine development.
McLaren were a little late to get on board as reflected in the data below – Renault and Ferrari’s early eighties contenders were more powerful, though also considerably heavier. When the turbo era ended in 1988 their all-conquering Honda-powered MP4-4 represented a peak in terms of power-to-weight ratio.
In 1995 the F1 rules were changed so that the minimum weight for a car had to include its driver. To make for a fairer, albeit rough comparison, that 90kg hike has been added to previous years’ data in the ‘adjusted’ line below.
That shows us that when V10 engines were scrapped at the end of 2005 their power-to-weight outputs were comparable to what had been seen during the turbo era.
However it’s very doubtful they approached the extremes of the qualifying laps of the early eighties, with unlimited boost and ‘hand grenade’ engines which destroyed themselves after a single lap, during which they produced more power than the dynamometers could read…
|Power-to-weight – bhp per tonne||600||691.59||793.04||822.05||803.74||789.47||798.61||798.61||773.71||792.16||789.47||800.68||785.95||803.42||820.51||944.44||1388.89||1388.89||1388.89||1574.07||1666.67||1370||1380||1425.74||1462.45||1267.33||1465.35||1142.86||1166.67||1233.33||1266.67||1308.33||1325||1350||1375||1475||1516.67||1533.33||1225||1275||1275|
|Power-to-weight – bhp per tonne – adjusted||513.6||592||675.45||700.16||688||681.82||690.69||690.69||672.94||686.85||684.83||694.24||683.14||696.3||711.11||809.52||1190.48||1190.48||1190.48||1349.21||1428.57||1161.02||1169.49||1210.08||1241.61||1075.63||1243.7||1142.86||1166.67||1233.33||1266.67||1308.33||1325||1350||1375||1475||1516.67||1533.33||1225||1275||1275|
Data source: McLaren – The Cars 1964-2008
Power-to-weight ratios in the V8 era
Two changes have affected power-to-weight ratios since 2008. The first was a steady increase in the minimum weight limit, which by 2013 had risen by 47kg to 642kg. This obviously has a negative effect on power-to-weight ratios.
The second change was the addition of energy recovery systems, which made a further contribution to total power output.
With engine development rules frozen the introduction of KERS in 2009 represented by far the most significant opportunity for engine manufacturers to increase horsepower. And even then only to a limited degree – the regulations permitted an extra boost of 80bhp for 6.6 seconds per lap.
This indicates that by the end of the V8 engine era last year Formula One cars had a power-to-weight ratio of over 1,300 bhp per tonne – comparable to what Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari was producing when he won his third world championship.
Power-to-weight ratios in 2014 and beyond
The engine rules have been completely overhauled for 2014. The new units are smaller in capacity (1.6 litres) and have fewer cylinders (six). But for the first time since 1988 they are sporting turbochargers and, perhaps most significantly, boast considerably more powerful and sophisticated electrical energy recovery systems than has been seen before in F1.
The cost for this in engineering terms has been another substantial increase in the minimum weight limit. It now stands at 691kg and with most teams struggling to hit that mark it will rise again to 701kg next year.
Simple maths shows us that in order for this year’s F1 cars to have a comparable power-to-weight ratio to last year’s they will need over 900bhp.
A recent report indicated one engine manufacturer may be close to that. Mercedes have indicated their engine is producing close to 700bhp before the extra 160bhp-plus from the energy recovery systems is taken into account.
That indicates a power-to-weight ratio of around 1,240bhp per tonne. But it’s important to keep in mind that power isn’t available at the exit of every corner – a major part of the new regulations requires teams to manage the energy they have and unleash maximum power when they need it most. We look set for some exciting qualifying sessions this year.
It will remain comfortably the highest-performance single-seater racing championship in terms of power-to-weight ratio. The current IndyCars produce over 900bhp per tonne and the new Japanese Super Formula racers will be close to 850. While NASCAR’s monstrous machines are at least a match for F1 in terms of sheer power their huge weight – 1,515kg for the lightest drivers – results in a more modest 560bhp per tonne.
Formula One engineers’ pursuit of maximum power for minimum weight has been repeatedly thwarted by the rule makers and often with good cause – in the name of improving safety or protecting teams from the worst excesses of an out-of-control spending war.
But seeing the world’s best drivers grapple with light, powerful racing cars is a fundamental part of the sport’s attraction and one which those who write the rule book should be wary of diluting.
However there are encouraging signs that the new generation of engines will not leave us wanting in terms of the spectacle. The difficulty of handling the power and torque of the hybrid-boosted turbos had drivers slewing sideways out of the slow corners at Jerez.
“The power of the engine is awesome,” Jenson Button enthused after his first taste of new-style F1. “It’s very torquey.”
“It feels the most powerful engine I’ve driven. Obviously it isn’t in terms of outright power but as a racing driver you feel the torque, you feel the power at low-speed, high-speed, throughout the corner, you don’t really feel the difference.
“But it’s coming out of the corners when you have so much torque it’s exciting.”
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Images © Daimler/Hoch Zwei, Honda, Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, McLaren/Hoch Zwei