Expert Blog

This season’s F1 cars are a triumph of efficiency

Nico Rosberg may have won the Bahrain Grand Prix with a brilliant drive back on Sunday 3rd April, but it was Lewis Hamilton who made a little bit of Formula 1 history the day before. In his final qualifying run, Hamilton clinched pole position with a lap of 1 minute and 29.493 seconds – the fastest ever lap of the Sakhir circuit.

The previous lap record – 0.034 seconds slower – was set by Mark Webber back in 2005, in a Williams powered by a 3-litre BMW V10 engine. That was the last year that F1 engines had ten cylinders. From 2006 to 2013 they were 2.4-litre V8s, and in 2014 they were replaced by 1.6-litre turbocharged V6s.

Hamilton captured the significance of his record-breaking lap perfectly: ‘It’s incredible to think that we are quicker now to the V10 days. It just shows how far the technology has come.’

Indeed. Not only are today’s engines smaller than the 3-litre V10s used from 1995 to 2005, but the sport’s regulations also restrict the fuel flow rate to a maximum of 100kg per hour, compared to rates of 194kg per hour in the V10 era. Yet Mercedes’ V6s are still able to generate 900 brake horsepower (670kW) – roughly matching the power of 2005’s best V10s.

As Mercedes engine chief Andy Cowell remarked at the end of the 2015 season, ‘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.’ Cowell has since said that Mercedes’ 2016 engine has a thermal efficiency of more than 45 per cent – that is, it turns more than 45 per cent of the potential energy in the fuel into kinetic energy in the crankshaft – compared to the 29 per cent efficiency of the V8s used before 2014.

When the car’s Energy Recovery System is at full power – two ‘Motor Generator Units’ that recycle the energy that would otherwise be lost as heat in the brakes and exhaust gases – efficiency is over 50 per cent. (For comparison, petrol road cars have a thermal efficiency of around 25 to 30 per cent. The new Prius is 40 per cent efficient, thanks to recycling of some of the exhaust gas.)

This is exactly what the powers-that-be hoped for when they made F1 engines smaller and restricted fuel usage in 2006 and 2014. The manufacturers have innovated, improving efficiency to the point where the engines are as powerful as they were in 2005 – and the cars faster, as Lewis Hamilton proved on Saturday.

Innovation on the racetrack is helping to both drive innovation on the road and combat climate change. The average 2015 petrol car in the UK emits 36 per cent less CO2 per kilometre than its 2007 equivalent.

There’s plenty more to come, too. As Andy Cowell said: ‘I don't think anybody here thinks we have reached the limit. Where we are at today with our thermal efficiency is mind-blowing when you look at it, and if we can apply that into the road car world without losing that high efficiency then it will be tremendous.’

- Guest Blogger Jonathan Jones, a political researcher and F1 fan who writes about US politics for the New Statesman.

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