AUGUST 26, 2008

IRL to go turbo. F1 to follow?

The Indy Racing League is set to switch away from normally-aspirated engines in 2011, and intends to adopt rules with small displacement turbo engines.

IndyCar officials told the Indianapolis Star that they will write rules for such power units, although it is not yet clear how big these engines will be.

Such a move will be popular with the automobile manufacturers as they work with four conflicting demands: customers want good performance, fuel efficiency, low emissions and value for money. A year ago researchers at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed a new engine configuration that can match the performance of the modern hybrids, at a fraction of the development cost. This was achieved by using small turbocharged engines fitted with direct fuel injection, using an ethanol-gasoline mixture. With direct injection into each cylinder fuel economy improves dramatically, while the turbochargers use wasted energy from the exhaust gases to produce more power. The smaller engines not only lower emissions, but also improve fuel consumption because they reduce the weight of the cars and thus the amount of fuel needed to move them.

There are a number of manufacturers in Europe who are keen to add models with these kind of engines, in order to reduce the fleet average CO2 emission by 2012, when new European Union rules are adopted. The IRL says that there are several automobile companies interested in getting involved with the new engines, in addition to the current supplier Honda.

There is little doubt that some of the engine manufacturers in F1 want to move in the same direction and there are going to be a lot of talks about engines in the months ahead as the FIA and the F1 teams try to find the right long term solution. Frozen engines achieve little for the manufacturers in terms of development or publicity and the small capacity turbocharged engines would create a new challenge, better perceptions about the sport and perhaps better racing.

Formula 1 gave up turbocharging back in the late 1980s, by which point there were 1.5-litre turbos producing around 1500hp in qualifying trim.

The decision was made to improve safety and to cut costs, which had escalated because of research into advanced electronics and fuel.

Modern scrutineering techniques can easily control both electronics and fuel and thus costs can be contained to some extent.

The key point, however, is that if the sport can be useful to the industry both for publicity and technology, the car manufacturers are going to be much more willing to spend the kind of money that F1 eats up.