Formula 1

A race to the future (part 1)

Alfa Romeo Alfetta 159
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The relentless progress in all walks of life certainly hasn’t passed by F1. Not too long ago, radios, TVs, computers and mobile phones were larger than some counties. Now, all that technology has been condensed into something that fits in your pocket. Similarly, for 20 years from the 80s to the early 2000s, F1 cars were powered by relatively large, turbocharged monsters – and now they’d fit in your mum’s Micra. That’s not to say the current cars are tardy, but it does raise the question of whether shrinking the technology has been as successful for engines as it has for mobiles and how this has affected the sport.

First, a history lesson. For the first few years of F1’s official existence, naturally-aspirated engines had a maximum limit of 4.5 litres – almost laughably gigantic for a vehicle supposed to be light and agile – and delivered around 400 horsepower. British Racing Motors experimented with a 600 bhp V16, but it was even more unreliable than the other cars so its design wasn’t copied.

Back then, the sport carried none of the modern day worries of overregulation. In fact, throughout the 1950s, there were no safety measures of any kind in the sport. The complete lack of a safety net meant that drivers had to be on red-alert just to make it to the end of the race.

The 1960 Belgian Grand Prix proved to be a turning point. Two drivers were killed during the race, with another two badly injured in practise. It would be F1’s deadliest day for another three decades, and it finally spurred the FIA into action. The sport became more highly regulated, and amongst the changes engine sizes were reduced to 1.5 litres from 2.5 litres.

1960 Dutch Grand Prix Crash

Even in cars that weighed less than half a ton, power levels subsequently fell off a cliff. It took until the loosening of regulations in 1966 before 400 bhp would be generated again in F1, this time by a brand new BRM 16-cylinder engine. Teams were now allowed to use engine up to 3 litres in size, a figure that would be the bare minimum for most of the next 40 years.

The 60s would see more revolutionary ideas brought to life, from sponsorships stickers to spoilers, and at first the 70s continued this rich vein of innovation. F1 noses began tapering to a point, which allowed cars to travel almost 10mph faster on long straights. Fans even got a glimpse of a strange alternative universe when Tyrell’s six-wheeled P34 rocked up at Circuit Zolder in 1976. A Ford-Cosworth V8 gave this bizarre vehicle 495 bhp, and the twin pair of small wheels at the front of the car allowed for better aerodynamics and more total brake area.

Although the P34 did secure a double victory in Sweden, six wheels on an F1 car was sadly not the most radical thing to come out of the 70s. That accolade would go down to the wire between Lotus ‘re-discovering’ aerodynamics and Renault introducing the starting grid to turbochargers. Both came about in 1977, but where the former found instant success, the latter was made to wait. Originally derided as unreliable, difficult to control and weak, they would quickly adapt to life in F1, and within just a few years, turbochargers would become so vital to a team’s chances of winning that not a single car would go without.

Ferrari 312T4-1

1979 Ferrari 312 T4 - At the gateway into the era of 'greed is good and excess is everything'. Welcome to 1980s Formula 1... (coming soon). 

Main image (top): Alfa Romeo Alfetta 159 Lothar Spurzem 

by Andrew Shaw at 27 Apr 2018, 00:00 AM