After eight seasons, 2.4-litre V8 F1 ended as it began, with a Renault-engined car taking the title. Renault Sport linchpins Rob White and Rémi Taffin discuss the passing of an era
Writer Simon Arron
The sonic cocktail is almost 37 years old, but remains distinct. When first I attended a Grand Prix, at Silverstone in 1977, a significant proportion of the field could be identified by ear alone. Between the barking hordes of Cosworth DFVs, the crisp note of flat 12s (from Ferrari and Alfa Romeo) provided variety, as did the novel whistle of Renault’s V6 turbo and – best of the lot – the metallic symphony of a Matra V12. BRM’s V12, of course, had failed to get beyond pre-qualifying.
Then as before, the sound was an essential part of a Formula 1 weekend – and it remains so, even though architectural variety has more recently been forbidden as a result of tighter regulation. Even so, there were ways to tell engines apart… but only in the most specific of circumstances. During the V10 era, for instance, you could identify an approaching McLaren-Mercedes because it created a different level of vibration: you just had to be standing in the Monaco tunnel to appreciate as much. And subtle mapping variations have sometimes given certain V8s a different timbre.
The V10s were phased out at the end of 2005 (although some raced on for a season in rev-limited form) to make way for a fresh generation of 2.4-litre V8s. These were supposed to reduce average lap speeds, although the engines’ more compact dimensions allowed for more efficient aerodynamics that simply made cars quicker through high-speed sweeps. The familiar motor racing law of unintended consequences…
The new era began with a Renault win, courtesy of Fernando Alonso in Bahrain 2006, and ended 147 races later in Brazil 2013, when Sebastian Vettel completed a run of nine straight victories in his Renault-powered Red Bull RB9. Renault engines scored more race wins than any other during that period (60, 14 ahead of Mercedes) and also powered most world champions (five, against two for Mercedes and one for Ferrari). Despite its sustained success (only in 2007 did it fail to record at least one victory), it wasn’t necessarily as well prepared as it might have been, as Rob White – Renault Sport’s deputy managing director (technical) – recalls.
“There was no testing ban in 2005,” he says, “so teams completed lots of mileage away from the race weekends. It was an absolute no-brainer to run a prototype V8, or a V10 with a couple of cylinders blanked off, but we didn’t do any of that because we were busy fighting for a world title. Ours didn’t hit the track until mid-January – and it felt like a real achievement to come up with a winning engine [the RS26] in the wake of a successful but tense campaign. Winning the opening race of 2006 was definitely one of the highlights of the V8 era, as was Fernando Alonso’s title that year. I watched the Brazilian finale from the factory in Paris and when he clinched the championship the outpouring of emotion was absolutely fantastic.”
Head of track operations Rémi Taffin concurs. “The first one stands out for me,” he says. “We’d won the title with Fernando in the last year of the V10s and it was important to maintain that momentum with a new breed of engine. We came up with a good V8, but it was tough because Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were on such good form. I particularly remember Monza, when Fernando had an engine failure that looked potentially costly, but then the same thing happened to Michael at Suzuka and we went on to take the championship. There were several ups and downs that underlined what a tricky campaign it was.
“I think 2013 was very important, too, because it was nice to close the V8 chapter as it began, with another title, but there have been many highlights in between. I consider 2011 to be particularly memorable, because exhaust-blowing was at its most extreme and it showed that we were able to react to different demands, as we have done many times over the years.”
For all that Renault changed the face of F1 by pioneering turbos in the late 1970s, and then shifted the goalposts again with a 3.5-litre V10 that collected a string of world titles during the early 1990s, a high-output V8 represented a step into the unknown.
“The RS26 characterised the close relationship within Renault Sport,” White says, “and we drove each other very hard. The V8 development programme was quite difficult, because we were engaged on other fronts, and although V8s might have been familiar technology they weren’t part of Renault’s culture. All our F1 work had been with turbos and V10s, although we had looked at building a V12 before they were banned. We had a lot of learning to do.
“We knew it was possible to develop an effective engine, because we had good people. It was a bit complicated, though, because we had to proof-check the concept – vibrations, acoustics, firing order and so on – without an older design to fall back on. We had to knife and fork a V8 together as quickly as possible. We tried a V10 with a couple of cylinders removed, but didn’t have the correct bank angle, so we had to take a 90-degree V10 bottom end from 2004 and mate it to a V8 top end with the correct bank angle. It was a big juggling act, but that prototype enabled us to check fundamentals on the dyno and then finalise the design for the real thing. It was a challenge, particularly when the engines were initially destined to rev to about 20,000rpm, much higher than the usual envelope for a racing V8 – remember that the classic Cosworth DFV originally ran at 11,000-12,000rpm.”
A development freeze was imposed during the V8 era to contain costs and revs were limited to 19,000 and then 18,000 as drivers were restricted to eight engines per year. “Reliability levels became quite remarkable,” White says, “but I guess it’s a consequence of how important it is to finish every race. That’s ‘job one’ at every level. It’s a completely different world from the one we knew before. We used to run special qualifying engines – and sometimes put in a fresh race motor after the old Sunday morning warm-ups, if we were a bit nervous. We’ve definitely had to up our game.”
Stasis, though, did not mean there were armies of F1 engine designers sitting around playing cards or watching YouTube clips in Viry-Châtillon, Brixworth or Maranello. Legitimate gains were made in several areas.
“The numbers are quite interesting,” Taffin says. “In 2006 we had to make each engine last one Grand Prix weekend, but eventually they had to complete a much greater mileage. During that first V8 season, our engines probably lost seven or eight bhp while covering 800km over the course of a weekend, but since then we’ve got that down to a loss of six or seven bhp after about 3500km. It’s been a matter of tightening things up, making parts more accurately and benefiting from reduced frictional losses thanks to continued improvements in lubricant technology.”
White adds: “From an engineer’s standpoint the development freeze was a little frustrating, but it was just part of a wider set of constraints and didn’t mean we had no work to do. It was essential to redress the spending race – a necessary evil, if you like – but we learned stuff along the way and they were good lessons that will serve us well in the future. The degree of optimisation became astonishing.
“With a blanket ban on specification changes, it was very hard to switch on extra performance just like that. Development work revolved around exhausts, fuel, oil and improved mapping for better driveability. We had to do lots of defensive development, too, because extra downforce meant improved lap times so the engines’ necks were being wrung that little bit more. Everybody used to build qualifying engines that made no visible difference to the outside world. What we’ve been doing lately is more useful, if a little frustrating in pure engineering terms.”
Renault received due kudos in 2006, when Alonso took the title with the full factory team, but in recent years the company’s F1 profile has perhaps dipped as it stepped back to become a supplier only, a breed that rarely hogs the headlines. “I think it’s fair to conclude that most TV viewers probably focus on Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull,” Taffin says, “but if you ask around the F1 paddock I think most people respect what we do. For us, the whole point of being involved is to take on companies such as Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari, then try to beat them. It doesn’t matter whether that’s with Red Bull, Lotus, Caterham or whoever, so long as it has a Renault in the back.”
And for all Red Bull’s sustained success, it’s undeniable that the past few seasons have been something of a competitive zenith, with the top 16 cars often covered by 1.5sec – or less – during Q2. That kind of gap sometimes separated the Williams-Renaults from everything else during the early 1990s.
“Things change, don’t they?” Taffin says. “People always think, ‘F1 used to be better’, but I hope one day people will look back fondly at this era – just as I tend to at the 1990s.”
Is now a good time to make the move to V6 turbos? “It always takes a while to adapt.” Taffin says. “It really doesn’t feel as though we’re suddenly changing from one engine to another because the regulations were decided about three years ago and we’ve been working in that direction ever since.”
White adds: “The 2.4 V8s proved to be very impressive pieces of kit and shouldn’t be underestimated, but in some ways they’d reached the end of their natural cycle. The rule change will help make F1 more relevant.”
If either party could choose their ideal F1 engine, what would it be? Taffin chuckles. “Something the drivers are not easily able to control when they put their foot flat down,” he says, “but that takes us back to V10s…”
White ponders a moment, then says: “I relish the challenge of getting the very best from a set of constrained regulations – it’s a chance to identify a better solution than our rivals. I don’t want the game to be skewed and I’d be happy with any framework, be it naturally aspirated, turbocharged, hybrid or whatever. When it works, it’s very rewarding, whether the engine has one cylinder or 16 and whether it runs on carrot juice or rocket fuel. Those things are less important than identifying the right targets.
“There’s a part of all of us that would enjoy a free for all, but real-world considerations can’t be overlooked and we have a collective responsibility to deliver good racing. If you opened things up completely, one party might gain a significant advantage that made the sport less appealing. We have to find the right level of technical freedom while ensuring the racing remains good. It’s a difficult balance.
“We enjoyed fantastic reliability while racing the 2.4 V8s, but beneath the surface we were never too far away from some kind of problem. The engine regulations were quite restrictive and bred the impression that the V8s were old knackers that looked after themselves, but they always operated on the very edge…”