Analysis: Can F1's new turbos break the 1000bhp barrier?

Could the current V6 engines reach the magical 1000bhp many in F1 dream of? It's not out of the question, as Jonathan Noble explains.

Analysis: Can F1's new turbos break the 1000bhp barrier?
2004 BMW F1 engine
Mercedes AMG F1 Team engine
Keke Rosberg, Williams
2006 Renault F1 engine
Andy Cowell, Mercedes-Benz High Performance Powertrains Managing Director om the FIA Press Conference
Niki Lauda, Mercedes Non-Executive Chairman in the McLaren MP4/2 at the Legends Parade
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W06 sends sparks flying
The 2015 Renault Energy F1 engine
Marcus Ericsson, Sauber C34 sends sparks flying
The 2015 Renault Energy F1 engine
The 2015 Renault Energy F1 engine
The 2015 Renault Energy F1 engine
Andy Cowell, Mercedes-Benz High Performance Powertrains Managing Director in the FIA Press Conference
Details of the power unit of the Mercedes AMG F1 W06
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB11 sends sparks flying

Formula 1's latest turbo engines have come in for a fair bit of bashing since their arrival on the grand prix scene in 2014, being lambasted as both too slow and too quiet.

But while the noise complaints were justified – and changes have been made to exhausts for 2016 to address this – on the power stakes, the reality of just how many horses these units are pumping out is quite different to how many have perceived it.

For while the turbos are in the back of cars which are lapping much slower than the speed peaks we saw in the mid-2000s, these engines are producing more power than F1 has witnessed apart from a few qualifying laps in the mid-1980s.

You will not get any of the current manufacturers to give you a definitive figure, but estimates suggest that engines will be delivering more than 900bhp in 2016.

Indeed, it is heavy cars, restricted aerodynamics and narrower tyres that are more to blame for F1's lack of speed than engine performance – which is why those areas are the focus of changes set to come on board for 2017.

Comparing V8/V10 era

With F1's V10s having delivered peaks around 900bhp, and V8s around 750bhp, the best engines are now already clear of both those figures, and sights have been set on the magical 1000bhp figure that is great for headlines.

At a briefing at the end of last season, Mercedes engine chief Andy Cowell was adamant that anyone suggesting the current turbos were lacking in power compared to V8s and V10s was incorrect.

"If I look at today's internal combustion engine (ICE), today's V6 1.6-litre turbo charged engine is approximately the same power as the V8 engine was," explained Cowell.

"Both the V8 and the current V6 ran a hybrid system. If you add the KERS on to the V8 and the ERS on to the V6, and look at maximum power values, then today's V6 with ERS is 10 percent more powerful than we had with V8 and KERS.

"But ERS is available for a majority of the lap, while KERS was only available for 6.6 seconds of the lap – so in terms of lap-time impact, it is significantly greater than we had with V8 and KERS."

More than V10

Going further back to the V10 era – which fans often highlight as a peak for engine performance in F1 – Cowell says the current V6s are outstripping them too.

"If you compare it with the V10, so the last few races of the V10 era – we have more power than we had at the end of the V10 era," he said.

"But if you look at fuel flow rates it was over 190kg an hour – 194kg per hour to be precise. Now we are at 100kg per hour.

"So it is the same power – but about half the fuel flow rate. That is a phenomenal change in terms of efficiency of the power unit."

He added: "There have been incredible improvements in the efficiency, and incredible absolute power levels. But the incredible diminutive ICE is kicking out an awful lot of power."

The 1000bhp target

F1's ultimate peak power was in the mid-1980s when the first generation of turbos were unlimited, and drivers could run with full boost in qualifying.

Some estimates said that engines were pumping out more than 1200bhp on occasion, although how much of that could be used effectively remains open to some debate.

While Cowell is well aware the current turbo V6s are not getting near that power figure yet, what can be said is that what is available to drivers now is there for an entire weekend.

"I don't know how long those engines from the 1.5-litre turbo era lasted at that power level, I don't know how many straights they could do," he said. "But I don't think they were ever at full throttle!

"We are in the position of having four power units per driver per championship, so how does that factor into it too? The V10 era, there were restrictions right at the end, in terms of how long they needed to last – and we now have uncomfortable grid penalties.

"I think it [the current turbo V6) is the most powerful power unit that we [Mercedes] have produced."

They may already then be the most powerful F1 race engines there have been, but there still seems a long way to go before that leap to 1000bhp can be achieved under current restrictions.

However, F1 has always proved to be a great breeding ground for technology and innovation, and with the quality of engineers at teams' disposal, you can never rule anything out in this business.

And that it is even possible to speculate on the 1000bhp figure is enough of a pat on the back for the performance of the current engines, even if they will never be as loud as those old V10 screamers.

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