News and views on motorsports

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

On Engines

Back when I first started watching Formula 1 the engine to have was the turbocharged 1.5 litre TAG V6. These were designed exclusively for McLaren by Porsche with backing from Mansour Ojjeh's Techniques D'Avant Garde. Coupled with the superb John Barnard designed chassis, it was the class of the field in 1984 and much of 1985. The package took Niki Lauda and Alain Prost to the world title in both years.

Towards the end of the 1985 season, the situation changed. Suddenly it was Honda's V6 engines that were in the ascendency. Clearly the Patrick Head designed cars were much quicker than anyone else. Honda remained at the top of the pile from the end of 1985 till about 1991, winning the constructors championship every year in succession. Honda took Ayrton Senna to his first championship in 1988, the year being the last of the turbo era.

Still Honda's domination continued on at the start of the normally aspirated 3.5 litre formula taking Senna to world titles in 1990 with their V10 and 1991 with a V12. Of course, once in a while some other cars won. Ferrari, Williams-Renault and Benetton Ford being the interlopers during the Honda days but year on year, it was still the engine of choice. Apart from Williams in 1985-1986 and McLaren then on, Honda also supplied the now defunct Lotus team.

During the 1991 season, the writing was on the wall however that the Honda era was coming to an end. The Renault powered Williams clearly more than a match for McLaren-Honda. Some might say Honda made a mistake by switching from V10s to V12 engines in 1991. Ayrton Senna certainly wasn't happy with the V12s despite winning the first four races of that season. During the mid-season Mansell in the Williams was mounting a serious challenge to Senna's championship campaign. Had the Williams been more reliable at the early part of the season, he certainly could have been world champion that year.

On to 1992 and a combination of lighter and more frugal Renault V10 producing nearly as much power as the latest Honda V12 and the excellent FW14B Williams with active suspension saw Mansell winning his first and only world title. Now it was crystal clear. The Renault V10 had firmly established itself as the blue ribband powerplant. This situation persisted until the end of the 1997 season, despite a blip in 1994 when a Benetton Ford in the hands of Michael Schumacher won the title.

Schumacher also won in 1995 in a Benetton Renault. This was his finest season to me, winning in a car that wasn't as good as the similarly powered Williams. The Williams FW17 was clearly the best chassis around but Damon Hill and David Coulthard proved ineffective against Michael. Only when Schumacher left the following season for Ferrari could Damon Hill assert himself and win the title.

Renault left at the end of 1997 but even by then McLaren with their Ilmor designed and built Mercedes V10 was proving itself to be dominant at least in terms of pure speed. At the Italian and Austrian Grand Prix David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen proved uncatchable.

However, here's where the engine factor ended. From 1998 you couldn't really tell who's engine was superior. This was the year that it all depended on the entire package. Up until 1998, you could tell which were the engines to have and which ones were also rans.

Sure, there were exceptions. Honda engines in a Lotus or Tyrrell (with Mugen) were rubbish. Ligier powered Renaults similarly so. But stick either engine in a decent chassis like a McLaren MP4/4 or a Williams FW14 and they'd fly. Same when they put the Renault V10 in Michael Schumacher's Benetton. Decent chassis, great results.

But nowadays its hard to tell. 19,000 RPM BMW V10s were reputedly the most powerful in the business up until this year but apparently the Williams chassis did not make the best use of it. They say Ferrari's motor is pretty handy but its hard to tell how much is down to the chassis and how much is due to the engine. Toyota's V10s have always had a reputation of being quite useful in terms of horsepower but really how could one tell looking at how leisurely their cars have run. McLaren has the best car out there now but they say the engines a little limp. You wouldn't know it looking at the speed trap figures. In the past it was easy to tell. Nowadays I wouldn't know the difference unless I read it in a magazine somewhere.

The answer of course is that in these modern times its the entire package that counts. Back in the day, you had only one tyre, Goodyear. So that tyre factor was eliminated. But stick a Honda engine in a so-so McLaren chassis (MP4/5B and MP4/6) and get Senna to steer the thing and you'd have a better than even chance of winning some races if not championships.

These days everything counts. Right down to the nuts and bolts. From my outsiders perspective two cars changed it all. The Williams FW14B with its superb aerodynamics courtesy of Adrian Newey and active suspension and the 1998 Ferrari with its specially designed extra wide front Goodyears. Both were able to turn engine and in the case of Ferrari, aero disadvantages around. Nowadays, the whole package counts for more.

In addition, these days there is no one dominant engine as in previous years. There are no equivalents for the Renault in the mid 90s and the Honda in the 80s. All engines are just about there and thereabouts whereas in the past the difference between a superior engine and rubbish motor was just about 100 bhp or even more.

We discount Minardi's antiquated Cosworths from the discussion of course. We know they're giving away 100bhp off the top guys. So, you might say they're doing an excellent job whipping Toyota powered Jordans, who reputedly are running the best motor in the business.

Still you might say that as far as engines are concerned Formula 1 is incredibly competitive. Ferrari, Renault, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Mercedes and even Cosworth are producing power units that are all within shouting distance of one another. Only the package in which they are installed making all the difference.

I believe this situation has come about because of the heavy investment and technical facilities of the big manufacturers. Otherwise you'd have rubbish Judd engines trying to take on the might of Honda as did happen in the late 80s. With the availability of engines from the big boys, you eliminate engines as an all important factor. I suppose then if you had a single tyre manufacturer then you'd eliminate tyres as well leaving chassis and aero as the deciding factor. And of course the drivers.

So in the end, despite all of Max and Bernie's anti-manufacturer antics, they'd do well to pay them more respect. Their presence in the sport does have its good points.

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