If you’re setting a film in the 1980s, chances are you’re going to depict the decade as a chaotic and decadent mess – think Wall Street, Scarface or American Psycho. Away from the movie screens, real-life was obviously not quite so depraved. With the complete exception of F1, that is.
This was without a doubt F1’s most outlandish era. For most of the next ten years, greed was good, excess was everything and 1,000 horsepower was the bare minimum.
Teams began to see the obvious advantages of having more powerful engines. Ferrari introduced an all-new turbocharged engine in 1981, with BMW doing the same a year later. After this, it was an all-out, turbocharged free-for-all – Alfa Romeo, Honda, Porsche, Ford-Cosworth and other smaller companies all joined in.
By the middle of the ’85 season, every competing team relied on turbocharged engines. For one year the following season all non-turbocharged engines were even banned.
Compared to just a few years before, power levels had more than doubled, and the cars were capable of even more speed. During qualifying, turbo boost pressures were unrestricted, allowing most engines to reach a reported 1,200 bhp – for around four laps anyway. BMW’s M12/13/1 allegedly tore through this figure on the way towards almost 1,400 bhp, still the most powerful engine ever seen in the sport.
BMW M12/13 engine
Photo credit: Rick Dikeman
With engines now offering drivers more horsepower than Genghis Khan’s army, the FIA perked up and realised something had to be done to increase safety. Their efforts to cut power levels worked, but even as they reduced turbo boost pressures and declared a set amount of fuel would be all that was allowed per Grand Prix, turbo cars still dominated, right up until their outright ban in 1989.
The naturally aspirated, 3.5 litre engines that were left had only been brought out in 1987, and were the biggest engines allowed in F1 since the early 50s. Power was down compared to the crazed turbocharged engines of the mid-80s but was actually up compared to the more restricted engines seen at the tail end of the decade.
Alain Prost certainly wasn’t complaining with his 675 bhp Honda engine as he took this third title. From then onwards, with the help of new, high-tech developments such as active chassis and traction control, F1 cars began a rapid ascent back up to the thousand-horsepower heights of the mid-80s.
In the space of just over a decade, beginning in the early ‘90s, horsepower shot up from 700 to 900. Even without the use of turbochargers and far more safety restrictions – including reduced car widths, larger cockpits and a ban on slick tyres, smaller front and rear wings, exotic materials in engines, active suspension and anti-lock braking systems – F1 was unstoppable in its ruthless improvement.
Williams FW14B: Williams were dominant for much of the 1990s, and the FW14B gave Nigel Mansell his sole Championship title in 1992.
Photo credit: Buschtrommler
The pinnacle of this period were the early-2000s, V10-powered cars. On long straights, these vehicles were capable of reaching well over 220mph, and pole position times for many courses were obliterated – 2004 lap times at Silverstone were almost four seconds quicker than in 2003. These cars were so quick that when the V10 engines were banned, it took arguably 10 years before their speed was fully matched.
Ferrari F2004: In the hands of Michael Schumacher, the Ferrari F2004 won 12 of the first 13 races in the 2004 World Championship on the way towards Schumacher’s seventh title. So dominant was this vehicle, it still holds lap records on eight courses.
Photo credit: Mikelo
From 2006 to 2013, the new V8 engines were capped at a puny 2.4 litres, but even this would seem huge a few years later when the FIA brought out 1.6 litre V6s. For all the technological advancements the sport introduced after the death of the V10, many fans, pundits and even the occasional driver saw the harsh truth – F1 was slower than it had been in years.
Where was the progress in making racing cars worse at racing? But the dark ages of F1 may finally be coming to an end. With the reintroduction of turbochargers and new regulations designed to massively increase downforce, promises are being made of blistering new lap records.
It’s been argued that the current crop of cars are on average two seconds faster than the cars from last year, which were already a few seconds up on the year before that. It’s been a long time coming, but F1 cars may finally be back to being the quickest they’ve ever been. BMW M12/13 – BMW’s 1.5 litre, turbocharged 4-cylinder engine may not sound like much, but by 1986 the M12/13/1 was estimated to be producing almost twice what it had been three years earlier.
The irony is that as F1 petrol engine size and speed creeps back up, they may never compete with the new kid on the block. Over in Formula E, engines without petrol are promising the fastest laps ever.
By Andrew Shaw at 13 May 2018, 00:00 AM