Why Formula One Needs 4-Cylinder Turbos

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Many of us are aware of the dripping wet bleeding edge technology that has always been present in motorsport's top rung: Formula One. This has been the case since the beginning of time, roughly 60 years ago.

One of the wonderful effects of full-on race development is the eventual trickle-down of many of these technologies to road cars. Ten years ago there was no such thing as carbon brakes on a road car, now they are available on sub-six-figure street machines. Witness also the paddle-shift gearbox, long the realm of Formula cars are now practically ubiquitous in road going kit. Not to mention the less obvious developments in terms of aerodynamics, materials (read: reciprocating mass), and structural designs like the monocoque. Of course there's the occasional fumble, like when McLaren used beryllium in their brake calipers and pistons/cylinder liners.. turns out the stuff is carcinogenic. In general, however, F1 is a big laboratory for manufacturers involved.

Let's move to the topic of powerplants. The glorious "turbo era" began with Renault introducing their first turbo engine in 1977. It didn't take long for these bad boys to peak. In the early 1980s the BMW M10-based 4-banger turbo was producing over 1000hp to the wheels. In fact, they weren't exactly sure how much power it was making. Paul Rosche (engine designer) said the dynamometer was maxed out as 1200hp(!) Alas, 1989 spelled the end of turbochargers in F1 and the era of normally aspirated rev-happy shenanigans was upon us. First 3.5L V12s were all the rage and then it was 3.0L V10s and finally, the current iteration, the 2.4L V8.


It is now time for F1 to revert back to the turbo. I submit that all that can possibly be learned from stratospheric RPM engine designs has been learned. We have seen a constant increase in RPMs over the years. Just a decade ago the V10s were spinning 14 and 15,000 RPM and we all watched with slackened jaws. Today, the V8 powerplants are idling at 9,000 RPM (in order to maintain hydraulic pressure) and maxing out at 18,000RPM. This is only because the FIA has mandated such a limit. The actual capability is at least 20,000RPM as evidenced by Cosworth's dyno test.

Initially, there were technologies that had some application in the realm of road manufacturers. Witness the ever-increasing RPM of road cars from some of the same marques involved in F1. Honda with their S2000 and ever-higher-revving Si models. BMW with its spin-happy M3 V8. Ferrari and their silly revving flat-crank V8s. I'm not saying that the technology to do so is a direct transfer from F1, but it makes sense that some of the materials development was, in fact, relevant. Just look at BMW's first round of S54 engines in the E46 M3; after reducing the width of the rod bearings by 3mm they were suddenly witnessing failures from SMG-equipped cars, which, technically, couldn't be overreved. These problems were fixed via a revised bearing alloy. It's not a leap of faith to believe that the knowledge taken from bearing alloys that survive in 18,000RPM environments might at least be worth looking at to revise a road design.


Today, the automotive industry is a completely different animal. Manufacturers are beset by ever-increasing exogenous pressures. Increased fuel performance is the primary driver outside of unit costs. This requirement is not only due to the long-run supply constraints of petroleum fuels but also to the long run demand growth as emerging economies purchase more vehicles and, thus, more fuel. Last month China purchased more cars than the US for the first time ever. This trend will only grow. In addition, manufacturers are under pressure from regulation that limits CO2 output. The only way to improve the latter is through higher efficiency designs. Enter the turbocharger.

According to the SAE, a turbocharged engine is 5-15% more efficient than a normally-aspirated gasoline engine. It is no surprise that manufacturers are beginning to use turbos in their designs in order to reduce fuel consumption and improve efficiency. Who would have guessed BMW Motorsport would use anything but high-revving normally-aspirated engines in their M cars for years to come? It is all changing now. Almost every single model in their line-up uses a turbocharged engine.


Now is the time to change up the dated Formula One formula. We've been employing high-revving normally-aspirated engines for almost 20 years! Not only is the formula irrelevant on main street, but F1 is that perfect laboratory where you can perfect designs. By utilizing turbocharged engines in F1 we would instantly have several manufacturers (Mercedes, Ferrari (ie, Fiat), Renault, Cosworth) doing ultra-advanced R&D in the field. Granted, their focus would be on performance, but according to the FIA proposals, the formula would include a maximum fuel flow rate. This would force the designers to get the most out of a fixed unit of fuel. In other words: maximizing fuel efficiency. Just like all the technologies that have trickled down in the past, from high-revving engines to carbon brake systems, it is inevitable that the manufacturers involved would benefit in the long run. Besides, who doesn't want to see pizza sized turbos spooling up at white hot temperatures?

This piece was written and submitted by a Jalopnik reader and may not express views held by Jalopnik or its staff. But maybe they will become our views. It all depends on whether or not this person wins by whit of your eyeballs in our reality show, "Who Wants to be America's Next Top Car Blogger?"