Features - Technical

DECEMBER 5, 2001

The future for Formula 1 engines


Jordan, Malaysian GP 2001
© The Cahier Archive

This year has not been one of the safest in recent motorsport history, with fatalities and major injuries in most of the premier series gaining worldwide publicity.

This year has not been one of the safest in recent motorsport history, with fatalities and major injuries in most of the premier series gaining worldwide publicity. The Australian marshal's fatality in the Australian GP; Dale Earnhardt's death in NASCAR; Michele Alboreto's death while testing his Audi Le Mans sports car; Alex Zanardi's massive leg injuries in a recent CART race. The common factor in all these accidents was the high speed of at least one car involved - in every case over 280kph (180mph). At these speeds, the energy involved is very high and the cars are often capable of flying, thereby avoiding engaging with the energy dissipation systems installed at the circuits, and adding unpredictable risks. Burti's high-speed accident at Spa shows that if everything goes right and there is a bit of luck involved, the driver can escape a high-speed impact without major injuries. But, it is all too easy for something to go wrong and the consequences to become a fatality or very serious injury. The energy increases as the square of the speed, and the speed comes from the power of the engine.

After the Melbourne accident at the start of the year and the dramatic drop in lap times at that track, which appeared to result from the new tire war between Bridgestone and Michelin, the talk immediately turned to possible ways of controlling the speed of the cars. A number of measures to reduce downforce have succeeded in holding speeds reasonably steady since 1996, but have proved to be inadequate to deal with competitive tire compounding. Up until recently the safety emphasis has been on protecting drivers in high-speed corners, with enormous strides being made in circuit protection in these areas, and in the strength and energy absorbance of the cars. However, recent accidents have tended to be initiated around the end of straights, where parts, particularly the bonded composite wings and suspension components, are most highly stressed, brake failures are most likely to show up, and where drivers often attempt overtaking maneuvers. The speed at the end of a straight is dependent on the exit speed from the preceding corner (predominantly tires, especially from slow corners, and downforce), acceleration (power and tires), and top speed (power and drag). The tire war has had a big effect on slow corner speeds and traction, and hence on top speeds, combining with the reduction in front and rear downforce which has tended to reduce drag. Are more tire grooves the answer? There is big opposition to further compromising the tires, and more grooves would give the tire designers major problems. Thus it was inevitable that the Formula 1 Technical Working Group was asked to consider the future engine regulations as part of long-term measures to control lap speed escalation.

With DaimlerChrysler, BMW, Renault, Ford, Honda and Toyota all trying their hardest to beat Ferrari, there have never been so many resources concentrated in extracting power from Formula 1 engines. Even though the 3-liter V10 NA configuration mandated by the regulations is pretty mature and is reaching a level of high optimization, power continues to increase. R&D departments are starting to look at radical new technology to improve RPM and combustion, and designers, armed with the most sophisticated modeling and analysis software, are extracting incremental gains in weight reduction, RPM, friction reduction and smaller, more efficient auxiliaries. Confirmed figures are hard to come by, but peak power is undoubtedly in the high 17,000's RPM (maximum RPM will be higher - over 18,000), and is well over 800PS even if it is not as high as the currently often-quoted 850+. To raise power from 800 to 850PS requires an increase in RPM of over 1000. The prospect of 900PS (at nearly 20,000rpm) in a few years time has concentrated minds on the problem of what to do next. There was some discussion about changing the formula before the current engine regulations expire in 2007, but the engine suppliers, who in the main are major manufacturers and are parties to the agreement, are reluctant.

Unfortunately, the discussions on the future of engines appear to have become bogged down at the first question that has to be answered: Is a reduction in power necessary and/or desirable? From a safety point of view, the answer is probably "yes". The sporting view seems to be "no". It is generally considered that an excess of power over grip is good for racing, and to have less power than other premier series such as CART and NASCAR is not good for Formula 1's image; therefore slow down the cars by other means - back to square one! From an image-making viewpoint, 800-900PS is becoming a bit embarrassing environmentally, but the major manufacturers are in Formula 1 to sell their up-market, powerful cars (hence Ford's decision to badge their cars as Jaguars) and Formula 1 is the still-acceptable way to demonstrate technology and performance while selling 1-liter road cars (Renault and Toyota).

Before the engine suppliers were involved in the discussions, the Technical Working Group, comprising the Technical Directors of the Teams, did agree that a reduction in power was desirable - it let them and their aerodynamicists off the hook for a change. A number of approaches were considered. There are two main directions for a change in engine formula: either stay with normally aspirated, piston, petrol engines, or change the engine cycle employed. The methods used to control power in other series i.e. RPM limiters, orifices, technology limits, and series-production based engines, are all considered inappropriate to Formula 1. The sound of high-revving, multi-cylinder engines is one aspect that sets Formula 1 apart from other series and no one wishes to compromise that.

The most suitable method is to limit capacity (for a fuller analysis of engines and their regulation, see the chapter on the subject in my recently published book: Formula 1 Technology, available from www.sae.org). It is now well established that the optimum swept volume for a 4-stroke, petrol-burning cylinder is between 250cc and 300cc, representing 12-cylinder and 10-cylinder 3-liter engines respectively. Manufacturers have invested a great deal in optimizing cylinders of 300cc and in understanding and mastering the dynamics of V10's. In the current economic climate they were naturally reluctant to start on anything radically different.

For a short while, the discussions covered the possibilities of changing the engine cycle, taking the opportunity to push Formula 1 to the front of emerging technologies for pollution control and energy efficiency. The possibilities included turbo-diesels (the sound would probably knock this one out - it would be just like truck racing) and hybrids. The inventive and adventurous would fancy a go at this wide ranging and fascinating technology, but hybrid road cars would appear to offer only a stopgap until fuel-cell technology arrives in the marketplace. A racing hybrid would probably race with a constant speed engine and sound awful, while fuel-cell cars would be almost silent. The manufacturers are some way off being ready to sell these technologies in large numbers, and so there is little interest from their Marketing Departments in funding a racing series that promotes them. Unfortunately it is the Marketing Departments that provide most of the budgets for Formula 1, not the R&D Departments.

So, what is likely to happen? The engine suppliers have an agreement that leaves things as they are until the end on 2007, and they seem to want to stick by it. At the moment there is some uncertainty as to what will happen when the current Concorde Agreement ends at the same date, and the issue of TV rights, alternative championships, and generally who runs the show must be resolved. One problem is that a study of arrangements of the individual engine suppliers shows that each one is in Formula 1 with a different agenda:

Ferrari: FIAT backed to promote Italian cars; in-house engine and Team; 2 customer Teams for previous year's engine.

Mercedes: DaimlerChrysler backed and part-owned independent engine manufacturer; single, part-owned Team.

BMW: In house engine; single, independent Team.

Ford/Jaguar: Ford backed and wholly owned engine manufacturer, but not "in-house"; wholly owned Team; single customer Team for current engine in 2002.

Renault: In-house engine; wholly owned Team.

Honda: In-house engine (in Japan); two independent Teams for current engine.

Toyota: Toyota backed and wholly owned engine manufacturer, but not "in-house" (in Germany); wholly owned Team.

Asiatech: In-house engine; single independent Team.

A wonderfully healthy situation for Formula 1, but why should they ever agree on changes for the future. For instance, if the formula was radically changed, Ferrari would not be able to supply the previous year's engines to its two customers, and so would loose around $50m income. Renault has just come back to Formula 1 and is struggling to exploit some radical ideas in its engine. They need a number of years of stability to achieve a return on that risk and investment. Honda have always stated that they are in Formula 1 for the technical challenge for their engineers. They love change and a new challenge. Ford is seeking to repeat the low-investment return they achieved with the Cosworth DFV, and to help Jaguar compete with Mercedes and BMW. BMW wants to beat Mercedes and visa versa. Toyota and Honda want to beat BMW and Mercedes, proving that Japanese cars are every bit as good as German ones; and they want to beat each other. Ferrari just want to win. Even within the suppliers who wish to achieve technical supremacy there are differences. Some make racing central to their engineers' development, while others are content to farm out the design, manufacture and racing while they contribute R&D for selected, road car relevant technologies.

Technical supremacy .v. lowest-possible-cost marketing .v. sporting spectacle = difficult to reconcile differences.

Probably the only possible solution to reducing power and avoiding the major objections to a change of formula would be to reduce the current swept volume from 3 liters to 2.5 liters, leaving all other engine regulations the same. Cylinder size would drop to the lower end of the optimum range, i.e. 250cc, and the V10 arrangement would be retained. Power would, at today's state-of-the-art, be in the range 670-700PS, and might migrate up to 750PS at the technology level that would theoretically have resulted in 3-liter engines of 900PS. RPM would increase a small amount, due to the lower reciprocating masses, and the new engines would sound just as superb as the current ones. The transition to the new formula would be orderly, in the same way that the transition from 3.5-liter to 3-liter was made in 1995. At that time the change was made by unanimous agreement in the aftermath of Senna's death, and with very little time to prepare new engines. Most existing engines were modified for the first year, with all-new designs appearing in 1996. A change to 2.5-liters would not necessarily result in a shortage of available engines as existing 3-liter ones could be reduced in capacity for customer Teams in the first year of a new formula.

If the FIA decides that something must be done about speeds from a safety perspective, it is always possible that it may insist that the entrants in the World Championship, who are more and more being represented by manufacturers, come up with a way or ways of slowing the cars. The safety issue bypasses the stability clauses in the Technical Regulations, and can be used to push through changes.

There may be uncertainty about various aspects of Formula 1 at the moment, but that pales into insignificance compared to the uncertainty in the world since the terrorist attacks in the USA. As President Bush stated: "Nothing will be the same again". World economics have received a serious blow on top of recessive trends, and among the first things to suffer are marketing and advertising budgets. The motor industry will inevitably experience a major contraction in sales, and shareholders tend to question the wisdom of Formula 1 scale expenditures at such times. Manufacturer influence in Formula 1 may wane as their attentions are diverted to more pressing issues. Customers for their products may look at the world in a different way once the crisis has run its course and the full implications of September 11th become clear. Power and performance in road cars may become less important as sale features, and environmental technologies may take on a new urgency, as customers demand a better world to live in. Motorsport would still have an influential role to play in marketing these technologies.

Over 20 years ago Keith Duckworth, cofounder of Cosworth Engineering and designer of the Ford-Cosworth DFV, suggested an engine formula based on the use of a fuel flow-rate valve. The valve would control the regulated maximum rate of fuel consumption, and the engine that most efficiently turned that fuel into power would succeed. The chassis designer and the driver would strive to use as much of that power as much of the time as possible. The proposal had none of the disadvantages of a total fuel consumption formula, as it did not discourage drivers from racing as hard as possible all the time. It also provided the regulating body with a simple means of controlling maximum power: as new technology emerged, the maximum rate of fuel flow could be lowered to maintain the peak power. It also made no differentiation between different engine cycles, thereby encouraging the most efficient technology. If the concept was extended so that, by analyzing and calibrating the valve according to the energy content of fuels it becomes a rate of energy consumption valve, any type of thermal engine could be used. The formula would encourage the most efficient means of turning transportable energy into work.

It is now possible to build such a valve that would, with closed-loop flow control, impose a flow limit to better than 0.5%, i.e. 4bhp on an 800bhp engine.

Duckworth's concept was too far ahead of its time but, like any idea that is fundamentally sound, its time will probably come.