Honda website
Honda website

NOVEMBER 17, 2006

Turbocharged biodiesels in F1

Forced-induction is a concept which pre-dates the automobile. America's Francis Roots patented a pump system designed to increase the power of blast furnaces as long ago as 1860. As early as 1900 Gottlieb Daimler obtained a patent for a similar idea in relation to automobile engines. He was followed down the same route by Louis Renault and the first "supercharged" engines began appearing in racing in the early years of the Twentieth Century. World War I played a big role in the development of the concept as engineers sought more power for their aeroplanes and in the years that followed supercharged engines began to invade the racing world. Mercedes-Benz led the way in Europe while Harry Miller's engines dominated in America.

Turbocharging developed as an alternative solution - superchargers were mechanically-driven while turbochargers are driven by exhaust gases. The idea was first patented in Switzerland in 1905 by Alfred Buchi but its development was slow and largely linked to the growth of aviation as turbocharging enabled planes to fly at higher altitudes. During World War II there was much development and turbo engines began to appear in land vehicles in 1949 with much success in trucks although in 1952 Fred Agabashian qualified for pole position at the Indianapolis 500 using a Cummins diesel turbo engine. It would be 10 years before the first turbocharged production cars appeared, the first being the Oldsmobile Cutlass Jetfire and Chevrolet's Corvair. They were not very reliable and while turbocharging continued to be used in racing, notably with Offenhauser and Porsche CanAm engines, it was not until the 1970s that BMW took the concept back to road cars with the launch of the BMW 2002 Turbo in 1973 and the Porsche 911 Turbo in 1974. Renault led the way in F1 in 1977 and in the years that followed development was such that a 1.5-litre turbo engine could be made to produce an astonishing 1500hp. In the end the FIA had to step in and ban turbochargers in order to cut the costs in F1.

Diesel engines were first invented in the 1890s by Germany's Rudolf Diesel and were used in many forms of commercial vehicle although as early as 1931 a Cummins Diesel ran non-stop in the Indianapolis 500, finishing 13th, on the same lap as the winner. As previously mentioned a turbodiesel took pole position at Indianapolis in 1952 but the first commercial turbodiesels appeared only in 1978 with the Mercedes 300SD and the Peugeot 604 which followed in 1979. As gasoline prices rose, diesel cars became more economically viable and as sales increased so did development and in the 1990s turbodiesels were raced in touring cars, notably with BMW winning the Nurburgring 24 Hours with a 320d. In recent years the technologies have been applied in sports car racing with Audi winning the Le Mans 24 Hours this year, the first diesel-powered victory in the French classic. Peugeot is now trying to achieve the same thing and earlier this summer the British-based earthmoving company JCB set a new diesel land speed record, achieving 350.092mph with Andy Green at the wheel.

The increasing awareness of environmental issues has given the turbodiesels an additional boost. Diesel engines not only get 40% more miles per gallon than gasoline engines but they produce very little carbon monoxide. They do produce particulate matter (soot) if the engine is not properly tuned although the development of electronic injection systems has reduced this significantly.

When Rudolf Diesel first revealed his prototype engines in the 1890s these ran on peanut oil and as early as 1912 Diesel argued that the use of vegetable oils for engine fuels might one day become "as important as petroleum and the coal-tar products of the present time". That now seems to be coming true as engineers look at what can be achieved using biodiesel rather than petrodiesel.

Biodiesel can be obtained from vegetable oil or animal fats which can be mixed with petrodiesel in any amount in modern engines. It is biodegradable and non-toxic, and has significantly fewer emissions than petroleum-based diesel when burned. Biodiesel functions in current diesel engines and could in theory supplement fossil fuels as the world's primary transport energy source. Although it is currently more expensive to manufacture the price should reduce as economies of scale kick in and governments use subsidies to encourage users to switch away from petroleum. It is seen as the fuel of the future.

Helping the automotive industry to develop turbocharged biodiesels would be a major step for F1 in terms of the sport's relevance to the automobile industry. It would advertise the products and perhaps offer new scientific developments that could be applied to production cars. Certainly such work would have more ultimate value than the current gas-guzzling, high-revving 2.4-litre V8s that are used today.