F1’S 10-YEAR RACE TOWARDS ULTIMATE ENERGY EFFICIENCY
In celebration of the UN World Environment Day earlier this month , we look back over a decade of innovation in F1 hybrid power, a period in which superlative technological advances have led to the creation of some of the most efficient engines ever seen on road or track ..
Two years ago, just four seasons into Formula 1’s hybrid era, the sport’s champion team, Mercedes, issued a statement that in a dynamometer test at its High Performance Powertrains factory in Brixworth, UK, its M08 EQ Power+ F1 power unit had recorded a thermal efficiency level of greater than 50%.
For the uninitiated the measurement was somewhat obscure, a by-product of the labyrinthine technological war being waged by manufacturers of the sport’s highly complex new hybrid engines. For those in the know, however, it was a landmark moment. For the first time a racing engine had produced more useful energy than waste energy. And following an almost decade-long regulatory quest, the FIA’s vision of motor sport innovation driving road relevant, sustainable technology had succeeded beyond expectation.
While the achievement could be directly traced to the 2014 introduction of 1.6-litre turbocharged, hybrid power units, the genesis of the quest for sustainable power in Formula 1 stretches back further, to 2009 and the introduction of the first hybrid systems to the sport.
Seeking to increase the environmental credentials of the sport, the FIA’s Technical Regulations for the 2009 F1 season provided for the use of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) that would harness energy released during the braking phase of a lap. The recovered energy, limited to 60 kW and with no more then 400 kJ of energy allowed, could then be deployed as a power boost of around 80 hp extra for about 6.7 seconds each lap. Future plans for the system allowed for storage capacity to be increased to 100 kW in 2011 and 200 kW in 2013.
Initial results with the technology were not encouraging. Heavy, complex to package and in many cases unreliable, KERS-equipped cars were routinely overshadowed by their less advanced rivals as the gains in performance were severely offset by weight distribution and cooling issues. Indeed, thanks to an aerodynamic innovation, the double diffuser, the non-KERS Brawn GP dominated the first half of the season.
By mid-season, however, the energy recovery systems were beginning to yield rewards and in race 10 of the 2009 season, the Hungarian Grand Prix, F1’s first hybrid victory was achieved, with the KERS-equipped McLaren-Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton finishing ahead of the also KERS-assisted Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen and the non-hybrid Red Bull of Mark Webber.
At the following round, the European Grand Prix in Valencia, McLaren locked out the front row of the grid and a month later, in Belgium, the system was again victorious, with Räikkönen handing Ferrari its first hybrid win. The future of the technology looked bright and though 2010 saw the sport back away from KERS, the systems returned in 2011 bringing further performance gains and greater acceptance. For the 2012 season, only two teams raced without KERS, and in 2013 every team on the F1 grid used the system.
Formula 1’s first steps towards true hybridisation are often viewed with mild cynicism, with the early systems being regarded as unwieldy, but for Mercedes HPP Managing Director Andy Cowell, there was real merit in the FIA’s pursuit of the technology.
“When we look at the journey we had with KERS after it was introduced in 2009, that development – done by several manufacturers driving battery companies – turned lithium-ion batteries from a pure energy storage device into a power delivery device,” he told the FIA’s AUTO magazine in 2017. “And it’s that technology development now that is yielding all these great results that we’re seeing in high-performance EV cars.”
The FIA, though, under new President Jean Todt, was already targeting even greater gains. Responding to automotive industry trends towards more economical, downsized engines, the FIA took a position at the cutting edge of technology and for the 2014 season placed innovation and creative thinking with regard to energy efficiency at the heart of racing development.
The result was perhaps the biggest technical revolution in Formula 1’s long history as the sport moved to the 1.6-litre, V6, turbocharged, hybrid power units still in use today.
Far in advance of the technology being employed in road cars at the time, F1’s hybrid powerplants not only employed a tiny internal combustion outputting as much power as the 2.4-litre V8s that preceded them, but also two energy recovery systems – a hugely more efficient kinetic energy recovery system and a turbocharger featuring a motor generator unit to recover heat energy from exhaust gases.
“The very simple message from the FIA was that they wanted us to work on energy efficiency and how to get Formula One technology development to genuinely help what was going on in the road car world,” Cowell explained.
“So, instead of it being focused on the capacity of the engine and the speed at which you can run it, focus on the amount of fuel you’re permitted to put in, because then you get your performance by that conversion efficiency. Prowess on conversion efficiency wins you races. And prowess in conversion efficiency is useful in every single industry that converts fossil fuel into useful work.”
Over the past six seasons the efficiency gains achieved in the current phase of F1’s hybrid era have been staggering – across every area of development.
In terms of energy storage alone, Mercedes estimate that in the 12 years since it began initial research into the KERS systems employed in 2009 it has succeeded in reducing weight by 81 per cent. Storage efficiency has improved by 56 per cent while power density, the amount of energy that can be output from the storage mass, is 12 times as great as 12 years ago.
The exceptional improvements in energy recovery and storage are highly transferrable technologies, but it is refinement of the tiny internal combustion engine that has yielded the biggest gains.
“The naturally-aspirated engines [V8s that preceded the current generation] started at about 29 per cent thermal efficient,” Cowell added in 2017. “Where are we now? We’re at 50 per cent thermal efficiency. That simply translates to being able to go further on the same tank of fuel. So there has been a 20 per cent gain in just a few years.”
And for Renault F1 team boss Cyril Abiteboul the advances made are having a direct impact on road car research.
“As far as Renault is concerned it has enabled us to create more synergies between road car engineering and racing engineering. And we’ve got a dialogue that is happening.
“It happened in one direction at the start of the current regulations in the sense that Renault was leading in the deployment of electric vehicles and the people who developed the Zoe [electric vehicle], helped the people in Formula One. Now it’s Formula One people offering solutions to the people from the road car programmes. So there’s a great synergy happening.”
And the synergy is set to develop further. New Formula 1 regulations for 2021 are set to be outlined later this month and the hybrid era is likely to continue. Beyond that, Renault’s Abiteboul recently offered an intriguing further avenue of innovation for F1’s brilliant engineers.
“One thing that might be interesting to discuss is not necessarily the next generation of engine but the next generation of fuel,” he said at the Monaco Grand Prix. “We still believe that Formula One is about hybrid technology, and we need more power and sustainable power, so there will be new forms of fuel coming up in the next few years, whether you are talking about more bio-fuel, different compositions, even synthesised fuels, coming from non-fossil sources, that could be attractive and that would require new development. So, that is probably the way forward if we want to be relevant, not just to car makers, but to society.”
For the past decade that has been the FIA’s mission, to utilise motor sport’s unrivalled ability to turn test-bench concept into real-world victory in stunningly swift timeframes to drive innovation that can influence the automotive industry and make the world we live in a more advanced, more efficient and more sustainable place.