Then and Now – Competitive Engines in Formula 1


Throughout the nearly seven decades that the Formula 1 World Drivers Championship has been in existance, there have been many different regulation.  Different manufacturers have always tried to produce suitable engines for the series.  Initially these teneded to come from the Italian racing car manufacturers, with a small number of French and British manufacturers joining them for the occasional race.  The development race to provide more power reliably lead some manufacturers to produce multiple different configurations of engine as they attempted to outdevelop the competition.  Such changes are particularly obvious when the regulations change (they introduction of the 1.5 litre formula in 1961, and again with the return to 3 litre engines in 1966.  What followed was an increase in the number of different engine types as racing teams wanted to compete, but there were insufficient engines to go around, so older smaller engines were called into service.

With stability in the engine regulations, the number of different types fell in the early 1970s, that is until Renault exploited the forced induction option that had been in the regulations (unused) since the larger engines were introduced in 1966. Once the 1.5 litre turbo engine won its first race, there was a scramble for manufacturers to develop suitable units for F1, and the number of engine types rose from a low of 3 I 1974 to 11 in 1985.  While this was some way off the peak of 17 types in 1967, it has to be considered that many of these were small engines pressed into service to allow teams to race. The number of different engine types stayed boyant between 8 and 12 until the financial crash that saw many major motor manufacturers pull out of the sport.  By 2010, there were only four different engine types left in Formula 1, and this dropped to 3 for one year on the introduction of the new hybrid regulations, before recovering back to four.  The red line on the graph shows the number of different engine types used in each season (this graph discounts the Inpianapolis 500 which was included in the championship for the first eleven years, but ran to completely different engine regulations).

The green line in the graph above shows how many of the engine types were competitive enough to win a grand prix in each year.  Note that on four occasions (1950, 1952, 1969 and 1973) only a single type of engine managed to win.  That works out at an avegae of 2.86 engine types winning per season through the championship to date.  The highest number of engine types winning (five in a season) can usually be traced to chnges in engines:

  • 1966 and 1967 when 3 litre enges were introduced;
  • 1985 as turbo engines were introduced en masse;
  • 2003 is the odd one out, with no change in the engine regulations to drive this competitiveness.

For the last two seasons (2017 and 2018) the competitiveness of the current power units compares favourably with the average, with 3 different types winning each year compared to 2.86 average.  That this has been achieved despite the number of available engine types being close to the all time low, shows that statistically speaking the current power units are more competitive than at any time in Formula 1 history.

The red line in the graph below show the percentage of all the available engine types that managed to win a race per season.  Generally this percentage improved through the first twenty years before stabalising during the 1970s, falling slightly through the 1980s and 1990s before improving to the current high point of 75% of all available engine types winning at least one race during the year.

This doesn’t take account of the perceived dominance that Mercedes has had recently.  However let us not forget those three year where a single engine type won every single race that season.  The green line shows the percentage of wins by the dominant engine type per season.  There are only nine years where the dominant engine won less than 50% of the racees in that season. (1962, 1967, 1983, 1985, 1990, 1999, 2010, 2012 and 2018).  This is a significant improvement from Mercedes 90% wins in 2016.

While in the 1950s, dominance was by one team (Alfa Romeo in 1950 and Ferrari in 1952), in the period of Ford Cosworth DFV dominance (1969 and 1973) multiple teams won with that engine.  Unfortunately, we are no longer in a situation where small engine builders can afford to develop a Formula 1 engine.  The big motor manufacturers will always be able to outspend them. We cannot go back to the 1960s or 1970s for engine or aerodynamic regulations.  However, after a short period of stability of these current Power Unit regulations, we have reached a time when the power units are close enough to allow 75% of the manufacturers to be able to win, these currently supply 90% of the grid.  The lack of competitiveness is not down to the Power Units, but the ability of the teams to devlop their aerodynamics.  Red Bull are winning where the works Renault team look nowhere near. Mercedes are leading the championship, yet their customer Williams are struggling at the very back.  If the current Power Unit regulations are frozen (re-introduce the tokens) then there will be no more development costs for these units, so the costs to the customer teams should fall.  Yes, the FIA may need to allow some limited performance development to equalise performance as they did for Renault in the last V8 frozen engine period.  Changing the Power Unit regulations now, will only open the floodgates for development, and the team who spends most (or wisest) is likely to become dominant again. We are unlikely to attract the 17 different engine types that came along to the series in 1967.

What is your view, do the current power regulations need changing, or should they remain frozen?

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Fast Freddy

Good article with some interesting data. I like the technical/engineering side of racing. The more variety in technologies the more I like it. NASCAR and Indy are probably the worst in that regard, yet it provides the most exciting racing. So how do we get both, good competition and exciting racing all at a cost that attracts investors? I have no idea :)