Profiles: Turbo: Just the boost F1 needs

This month, Andrew Noakes looks at F1's turbocharged past.

Turbo engines take over in F1 next year thanks to a regulation change that takes the sport back to the future. It's exactly 30 years since the world championship was first claimed by a turbo-powered driver.

Turbos first appeared in F1 in 1977. It was Renault who first realised the potential of an exhaust-driven turbocharger to take on normally-aspirated engines. Renault won Le Mans in 1978 with a V6 turbo sports car, and powered Jean-Pierre Jabouille to the first turbo F1 win at Dijon in France in 1979. The Frenchman was chased home by an epic battle between Gilles Villeneuve's 3.0-litre Ferrari and Renault teammate René Arnoux.

By then the Cosworth DFV engine used by most F1 teams was 12 years old, and it didn't take a Newey-esque brain to work out that the turbo engines offered more potential. Established teams Ferrari and Alfa Romeo started developing turbo V6s, while British specialists Hart and BMW in Germany both worked on in-line fours.

BMW's M12 engine was unusual in that it was based on a road-car block -- the same iron block that went into the BMW 1500 in 1962, had a successful Formula 2 career, powered the then-current 318 and 518, and later formed the basis for the E30 M3 engine. The F1 version was supplied to Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham team and went into the Gordon Murray-designed BT50, which appeared briefly in 1981, though it was the Cosworth-engined BT49C that team leader Nelson Piquet used to win his first world championship that year.

The BT50 raced throughout 1982 but was dogged by engine problems, while Piquet and Brabham team-mate Riccardo Patrese struggled with poor handling and monumental turbo lag. The team's issues were thrown into focus in North America, where Piquet failed to qualify around the twisty Detroit circuit and then won by 14 seconds a week later in Montreal. At the Austrian Grand Prix the team introduced planned pitstops for fuel and tyres, but the cars were again eliminated by engine trouble.

BMW fixed its reliability problems with the aid of a sophisticated engine management system developed by Bosch, and new fuels produced by German chemical company BASF. In 1983 Piquet won the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix in Rio, followed a string of mid-season points finishes and two more wins, at Monza and Brands Hatch. Another podium place in the final race in South Africa -- where Patrese won in the sister Brabham -- gave Piquet the title by two points from Renault's Alain Prost.

BMW never found out the ultimate potential of the M12 engine in max-boost, qualifying trim -- because the Munich dyno only registered up to 1500bhp, and the M12 could run it off the clock. Turbo cars were racing with 1000bhp. It was an extraordinary, scary, lairy era that lasted just five more seasons before boost was banned, and 3.5-litre naturally aspirated engines returned F1 to some semblance of sanity.

Will the new F1 turbo era be as crazy as the '80s? We'll soon see...

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About the author

Andrew Noakes studied automotive engineering before deciding that writing about cars was more fun. He was technical editor of Fast Car magazine in the 1990s and then founded the award-winning classic car mag Classics. Since then he has written more than a dozen car books, and alongside that lectures in automotive journalism at Coventry University. Obsessed with fine engineering, he drives a car with what he says is "one of the greatest engines of its time, or any other": a BMW E46 M3.

 

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