Then and Now – Just how good are Ferrari engines?

When the Formula 1 world championship started in 1950, the sport was dominated by large manufacturers, and these were mostly Italian (Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari).  These manufacturers built the whole car, chassis, engine, gearbox, even the smaller less competitive ones (Talbot, Alta and ERA).  As the decade progressed, a number of smaller British based constructors (Connaught, Vanwall, Cooper, HWM and Lotus) started building cars to compete.  These smaller teams did not have the resources to build their own engines, and so used off the shelf units from bigger manufacturers (Francis, Ferrari, Bristol, Alta, Climax etc.).  Over time as the regulations regarding the engines to be used have changed, the number of engine manufacturers has changed as has the involvement of major motor manufacturers in the sport.  Throughout though, Ferrari has been the one constant and has largely built its own car completely (the exception being the Lancia Ferrari D50 – designed by Lancia at the end of 1954, and raced by the in 1955, before being sold to Ferrari and used in the 1956 and ’57 seasons).   In 1960 Enzo Ferrari famously stated that ‘Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines’, so I thought it would be interested to see how Ferrari have coped with changes in the Formula 1 engine regulations over the years.

When the World championship started in 1950 the regulations were much simpler, and as far as the engines were concerned they were written around what was available in the largely pre-war designed cars of the time.  These were 1.5 litre supercharged engines or 4.5 litre normally aspirated engines.  The fastest cars at the time used the 1.5 litre supercharged engines, but the French Talbot-Lago cars used the bigger normally aspirated engine.  These F1 regulations remained constant until 1954, however Ferrari had noticed that the Talbot’s could run the race without needing to refuel, so built a 4.5 litre normally aspirated engine to put in his car for 1952.  This was so good, that no-one else bothered to compete in F1, so the World Drivers Championship had to be held to Formula 2 regulations (2.0 litre normally aspirated) for 1952 and ’53.  For the F1 regulations the most powerful cars were producing 425bhp, while in F2 they were down to 175bhp.

In 1954 the F1 regulations were changed to 2.5 litre normally aspirated with an option of 750cc supercharged (which no-one took up), and these remained in place until the end of the 1960 season, by which time those annoying ‘garagistes’ (the small teams building their own chassis in a small garage and using someone else’s engine) had put the engine behind the driver.  Engine power was 280bhp for the Maserati 250F and slightly higher at 290bhp for the Mercedes W196 in 1955.  With the 1961 rules restricting the size of the engine to 1.5 litre normally aspirated,  all teams now put the engine behind the driver.  This period probably saw the greatest rate of engine development in F1, with power outputs going from 150bhp in 1961 to 225bhp by 1965 (an increase of 50% in four years).

By 1965 sports cars were in danger of becoming faster than Formula 1, so for 1966 the engines were increased in size, and the new regulations allowed for 3.0 litre normally aspirated engines with a re-introduction of forced induction engines limited to 1.5 litres.  It took until 1977 before anyone took up the forced induction option, with Renault introducing what at first was a hideously unreliable unit.  By 1980 though Ferrari had followed suit, and gradually all teams negotiated deals with motor manufacturers to help develop these turbocharged engines.  For 1987 the regulations allowed normally aspirated engines up to 3.5 litres, but everyone was using the 1.5 litre turbos.  The writing was on the wall and boost pressure and fuel restrictions came in which would see the end of this generation of turbocharged engines.  In 1987 the boost pressure was limited to 4 bar and 220 litres (approximately 162kg) of fuel for the race, while for 1988 this reduced to 2.5 bar and turbo fuel restrictions of 155 litres (approximately 114kg) for the race.  During this period the engine power rose from 390bhp for a 3.0 litre engine in 1966 to 500bhp for the last normally aspirated Ferrari in 1979.  The turbos developed from 500bhp for the first Renault to in excess of 1400bhp on qualifying boost.  With the capacity extended to 3.5 litres, the normally aspirated cars produced 575bhp initially rising to 590bhp in 1988, while the turbos dropped to 685bhp with the restricted boost pressure.

1989 saw turbos banned, and just the 3.5 litre normally aspirated engines, the power of the V12 Ferrari was 660bhp at 13,000rpm while the V10 Honda was producing 675bhp at the same speed.  By the end of these regulations in 1994, Ferrari had improved its power output to 820bhp and the maximum speed to 15,800rpm.

The FIA saw the need to control speeds, and so for 1995 reduced the maximum capacity back to 3.0 litres (still no forced induction allowed), engine power ranged from 650bhp to 950bhp, with the maximum speeds reaching 19,200rpm in 2003.  Ferrari finally followed others lead in 1996 and dropped the V12 in favour of the more efficient V10.  For 2004 the engines had to last an entire race weekend while in 2005 the engines had to last for two race weekends.  This limited the power to 900bhp.

In 2006 the capacity was reduced to 2.4 litres and a 90°V8 mandated, the power dropped to around 750bhp.  In 2007 the engine specification was frozen, so no more development with the maximum speed limited to 19,000rpm, for 2009 this was further reduced to 18,000rpm.

In 2014 the current power unit regulations were introduced, with 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged engines with two motor generator units feeding an energy recovery system.  Maximum fuel flow rate of 100kg/hour and a maximum fuel use of 100kg for the race.  Maximum engine speed of 15,00rpm, although the fuel flow rate means that this is rarely seen.

Over this time, the results for the top Ferrari driver and the team in the World Championship look like this:

Ferrari Championship Positions

The different bands of colour in the background indicate the changes in engine regulations.  There are a couple of exclusions that have skewed the results, in 1997 Michael Schumacher was excluded from second place in the drivers championship, which is why the drivers graph akes a dip at that point, while in 2007, McLaren were excluded from the constructors championship, elevation Ferrari from what was second spot.

In the early years (when the Red cars of Italy were dominant) the Ferrari did well when the engine formula changed.  Aside from forcing everyone to go to F2 by building a superior F1 car (a truly dominant performance that makes Mercedes look second rate by comparison) they also had a leading F2 car to fall back on.  Even in the 1950s though they took time to respond when the rules changed in 1954, with two years required before they won again in 1956.

In 1961 Ferrari were able to respond faster than others to the new 1.5 litre formula, although once the smaller teams had sourced suitable engines they dropped off the pace for a further two years.  Again with the 3.0 litre formula in 1966, Ferrari responded faster than most (able to take second in the championship), but once the Cosworth DFV was available they started to drop behind.   It took Ferrari until 1975 before they couldwin either championship again, and then held that position for several years.

The team certainly paid the price for being an early adopter of turbo engines in 1980, possibly driven by the fact they couldn’t compete with the aerodynamics being developed by the smaller teams.  It took two years for them to again get back to the front with this configuration of engine.  They then fell back through the longest period of poor performance the team has experienced.  With the death of the team’s founder in 1988, the British teams were very concerned that Ferrari’s vast resources would now be spent in a focussed manner, but it took until the dream team of Todt, Brawn, Byrne and Schumacher arrived in 1996-97 before this truly happened.  By this time the F1 engines had seen the 3.5 litre normally aspirated engines come and go (with Ferrari sticking to a V12), this started to look up in 1996 once they adopted the V10 used by everyone else and by 1999 they were dominant (the driver’s title going elsewhere only because Schumacher broke his leg).

Ferrari’s six years of dominance had to come to an end, and the team lost first place a year before the engine rules changed to the 2.4 litre V8s.  A messy 2007 season for McLaren saw them excluded from the constructors championship and failing to win the drivers title, which allowed Ferrari through to take both, they continued to be front runners in 2008, taking another constructors title, but since then have once again dropped back.  The frozen engine regulations perhaps highlighting the deficiencies in the chassis and aerodynamics.  With the introduction of the new power unit regulations in 2014, once again the sport has become reliant on the major manufacturers for its motive power, there are no more independent engine tuners able to compete.  Ferrari has again failed to deliver, and while it continues to spend all of its available development tokens, it is being out developed by Renualt who are using very few of theirs.  Perhaps next season will be better, without any token limits to restrict them Ferrari can make far more of the small changes that they have made to date in an attempt to catch Mercedes.

Of course, it is impossible to separate the engine performance from that of the rest of the car, but one thing is for sure, with the exception of 1952 and 1961, Ferrari have not responded well when the engine regulations have changed.  What do you think, is Ferrari’s relative lack of performance down to chassis, aerodynamics or engine, and how do they get back to the front?

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Fred Talmadge

If it was just engines then the F powered cars would show something, maybe. I think it’s a combination of everything including management and that MB is just that good.

Richard Piers

Minor historical correction, the Vanwall engine was not an off the shelf unit but off the top of my head can’t remember its basis. Almost laughably one of its biggest problems was throttle linkage that caused numerous DNFs, and certainly cost Stirling Moss at least one title.


Was it a modified Ferrari unit, or was that just the chassis?

Richard Piers

I subsequently checked, and it was as Peter Hinitt says above, based on the Norton motor cycle engine allied to a block from, maybe Rolls Royce. In essence a “bastard”. Amal carburettors were initially used but then adapted for fuel injection with the throttle linkage problems caused by vibration. Ultimately the chassis was designed by Colin Chapman with aerodynamics by Frank Costin. The whole assembly was very much British, absolutely nothing to do with Ferrari. Changing tack a bit, the sophistication in ICEs starting in the early ’60s was largely due to Keith Duckworth. Although multiple valves had been explored… Read more »


I was thinking of the Thinwall Special, but that never raced in a championship grand prix. Thanks for the information.

Peter Hinitt

I believe the 4 cyli der Vanwall engine was based on the single cylinder Norton 500cc racing engine.
But of course initially running at 2000cc, on Amal carburetors.
Then enlarged to 2.3L with Bosch Fuel injection.
Then enlarged again to a full 2.5L.


Tokens system is going to dissapear but it won’t make any difference because next season drivers will have only three power units for the whole season.
Engine manufacturers can develop the engines throughout the season but they will have only two power units to put these changes in the track.


For 2017 each driver will have four complete power units to last the season. It is a proposal for 2018 that reduces the number down to three ICE, TC and MGU-H, with only two MGU-K, ES and CE.
In the past Ferrari haven’t worried about penalties later in the season when introducing their updates, if they are to mount a serious championship challenge, then they would need to.

Gaetano Colosi

Ferrari should sack the aerodynamicists. In 2014 engine layout was compromised to suit the chassis. In 2015 a marked improvement and aerodynamics was not the driving force, engine efficiency was. 2016 has seen some engine improvement, but not nearly enough. Why, IMO the layout was compromised again to suit chassis changes.
Hopefully 2017 can show what Ferrari can do in the power department. Even if they do need to carry a little more wing they will be far more competitive than this year.

charlie white

It’s not just the engine but the whole package and aerodynamics is a very big part of that equation. I think they don’t push more emphasis into the aero parts believing their engine is superior to everything else on the grid. Obviously, that’s not the case. It may take a giant management re-organization to change that mind-set and that has happened to some extent recently. 2017 will bring many changes to F1 and new engine specs is not one of them.

Gaetano Colosi

Precisely the thinking behind the Ferrari 2014 & 2016 spec cars. The PU in the 2014 spec car was compromised badly, almost as badly as the ‘size zero’ concept compromised the Honda in the 2015 McLaren. You are not going to do a better job than RedBull on the chassis or aero, and the Mercs are also very strong on aero and had a huge head start on the PU. But in the PU stakes … Ferrari can be king as they have been on so many previous occasions. What do you think the issues between Marchionne and Allison were… Read more »