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The technological marvel that is the F1 power unit

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Roar Guru
21st March, 2019
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A place on the podium for Max Verstappen at the Australian Grand Prix was not only significant for the Dutchman, claiming his first ever podium at the Albert Park circuit, but it was the first trip to the rostrum for a Honda-powered car in the turbo-hybrid era.

Having returned to Formula One in 2015, Honda’s progress and struggles have been well documented throughout their disastrous tenure with McLaren for the initial three years.

However now in their first race with Red Bull Racing, they’ve made it so that all the current power unit suppliers have been represented on the podium.

While Red Bull and Honda’s progress in 2019 is going to be a key narrative throughout the season and whether they’ll be able to contend for the championship, the result in Australia was a reminder of what an engineering marvel these power units are.

Little in the way of praise is given to these intricate and expensive pieces of internal combustion, fused together with class-leading energy recovery hybrid systems. Rather, the age-old adage of there being a lack of noise is what is brought to attention.

These 1.6-litre twin-turbocharged units, with two complex energy recovery systems, are now producing in excess of 1000 horsepower, which is almost the most powerful engine ever in Formula One.

The statistic which is most impressive, though, is that the power units in five years of development are churning out 50 per cent thermal efficiency, making them the greenest petrol-powered engine in the world.

Standard road cars in over 100 years of the combustion engine can only boast 30 per cent at best, highlighting the genius behind the power unit in Formula One and how it can very much play a positive role in lowering emissions globally.

Motorsport has the connotation that it isn’t environmentally friendly, and there is the classic argument between whether Formula One should stick to being strictly a sport for entertainment or for those geeking out at the power unit development as a technical exercise.

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The answer is that Formula One can easily be both, and at the moment, it is managing to find a balance between the two.

Entertaining racing, while also giving automotive manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Renault and indeed Honda a platform on which they can translate their racing technology over to their road cars.

Speaking at the Australian Grand Prix, the four team bosses that represent the current crop of manufacturers were all in agreement that the communication of Formula One’s technologies needs to be better to the general public.

Formula One

(Photo by Morgan Hancock/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“The efficiency of these engines is so understated,” said Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner.

“The fuel economy that these engines are achieving is mind-boggling so actually what Formula One is managing to do, in terms of furthering this technology, is truly impressive.”

“We’ve all come here [to Melbourne] on aeroplanes from across the world and been burning fuel at 38,000 feet which is obviously a far bigger carbon footprint than anything that’s going on in Melbourne.”

Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul concluded that “we need to make sure that Formula One remains a demonstration for game-changers,” suggesting that it should always be the pinnacle for automotive development.

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It would be remiss to not include the presence of the all-electric Formula E in all this and what it means for Formula One. Having been launched in 2014 and now in its fifth season of racing, many remain indifferent with the category which boasts great city locations and a talented roster of drivers.

Though it is difficult not attribute the appeal of Formula E to the infamous ‘Dieselgate’ scandal and the continual damage it is causing to the VW Audi Group, of which now marques such as Audi and Porsche have had to terminate their ultra-successful World Endurance Championship programmes and defect to racing all-electric in order to clean up their image.

As far as trumping Formula One as a spectacle is concerned, it is still not quite there and perhaps may never reach that level, given that it has taken five years to debut a car that can finally complete a race distance on a single battery.

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Top speed and agility are still compromised however, given the weight of the cars due to the batteries.

The question in hindsight could be asked as to whether if Dieselgate did not occur, would these manufacturers have flocked over to Formula E?

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If Formula One was to reduce costs and standardise certain power unit componentry, as part of their proposed 2021 overhaul, could the likes of Porsche or Audi have joined Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari?

Nevertheless, the current group of OEMs are continuing to pioneer and with the change in regulations looming for 2021, there is the potential for the gap in performance to close and allow closer competition.

Until then, Honda’s belated arrival to the podium celebrations is something for the sport to celebrate and to promote the technological marvel that is the intricate power-unit.