Grand Prix timebombs

They were the world’s most powerful racing cars, explosively fast and notoriously difficult to drive. Adam Cooper recalls the short, glorious life of the turbo F1 cars

When Alain Prost pulled into the parc ferme after the 1988 Australian Grand Prix, he signalled a little bit of history. This was the last Formula One event to feature turbocharged engines, and, having 35 wins with Renault, Porsche and Honda power behind him, Prost seemed to be the right man to stand atop the podium.

Only nine starters that day were equipped with turbos, and when the circus gathered again in Brazil the following March, the entire field used new, 3.5-litre normally aspirated V8s, V10s and V12s. The turbo era was over, little more than 11 years after Renault started a revolution which would turn Grand Prix racing on its head. In the mid-’80s we saw the most powerful F1 cars of all time, and a whole generation of 40-something racing drivers now looks back on these brutal cars with fond memories.

“I’m glad to have gone through that period,” says Thierry Boutsen. “It was unreal! The cars are much better now, but it was fantastic then, something people will never know again.”

“It was very, very exciting to drive those cars,” adds Rene Amoux. “Now its much easier for the drivers, especially as they can change gears with a paddle on the steering wheel.” As F1 prepares itself for grooved tyres and narrow cars in ’98, Boutsen, Amoux and their contemporaries can perhaps count their blessings; they were in the right place at the right time. But what were these awesome machines really like to drive?

The man most closely associated with the birth of the turbo era is JeanPierre Jabouille, who gave the Renault RS01 its debut at Silverstone in July 1977. Despite its not inconsiderable experience with turbos in sportscars, the company had a lot to learn.

“The rust time I drove the 1.5-litre at Paul Ricard, the turbo kicked in only in a straight line,” Jean-Pierre recalls. “In the corners on the other parts of the track, I had nothing, just 200bhp! I can remember thinking, ‘This is not the right direction…’

“But afterwards Renault’s Bernard Dudot said, `Jean-Pierre, no problem. We’ll change the turbo for a smaller one, for less horsepower at the top but better response.’ It made a big difference, and I began to believe that after a lot of work a 1.5-litre turbo could compete with an aspirated engine.

‘And there was a lot of work! Many times I did just two or three laps and the engine blew. But I had tried it in Jarama just after the GP in 1977 and the times were getting better and better, so we decided to race it.”

At its Silverstone debut, the Renault was the subject of much curiosity.

“I remember at some time during practice, I arrived with the engine smoking. Ken Tyrrell laughed and said it was a teapot. That first race was not easy. It was not just the engine; we also brought in Michelin and radial tyres. I remember my problem was not the engine but the tyres, which had no grip! With turbo response and no grip it was rather difficult to drive.”

Just how bad was the throttle lag in those early days?

“With an aspirated engine you control everything with the throttle. With a turbo you controlled nothing. You touched it, nothing. You touched it some more, nothing. You touched it a little more and brrrrr… everything. And in the wet it was not easy. The solution came when we used two turbos on the car for the 1979 season.”

While lag remained a characteristic of all turbo cars, twin turbos helped hugely. In July ’79, just under two years after Renault’s first race Jabouille scored a historic victory at Dijon.

“At the end of ’78 I was sure that within six months or a year I’d win a race. But I wouldn’t put my victory down to just the engine the chassis was good too. There was a lot of downforce with the RS10 wing car. The handling was very good, and Michelin tyres were also better. With the turbo engine, you needed that traction.”

Rene Amoux was the second man to race a turbo car, joining Jabouille at Renault at the start of 1979.

“At first I found it difficult to drive, because of the lag,” Rene recalls.

“After two seconds you had a lot of torque and a lot of power, and it was difficult to use the chassis with that engine. But the people at Renault said to me, ‘Have confidence in this engine. We must work hard, and afterwards people from the other teams will want this engine.’ And it that is how it was. They worked at resolving problems together; temperature, the materials, the turbochargers…

“At the start you put your foot flat, and the engine reacted 10 or 15 metres later. But while power is important, to be able to use the engine is more important still. Renault knew the problem. If you had good grip on qualifiers it was OK, but when you lost grip it was, er, complicated. You had to adjust your driving. But after a year the engine was fantastic to drive.”

One thing drivers don’t enjoy now is an ‘overtaking’ button, one of many tweaks to emerge in the turbo era.

“The best thing was when you has to pass another car,” recalls Amoux. “It was very easy! You asked only for the boost in a straight line. But it was necessary to use it carefully, because it was not very good for the engine. You knew that if you used it for three laps like that, you’d break it.”

The new engines came hand in hand with other developments; there were huge steps forward in tyre, chassis and aerodynamic technology. One novelty was to have a lasting effect on F1, as Amoux remembers.

“I was the first driver to test the new carbon brakes in Paul Ricard in ’81. It was a disaster. After three laps there was nothing. They were destroyed. But the engineers worked very hard and eventually came up with good material. You could brake harder, for a shorter distance and it was useful on a turbo car because you didn’t have the engine braking power. Twice a year, in Detroit and Monaco, you’d have a really big problem until then.”

It took a surprisingly long time for the rest of the field to follow Renault’s lead. The Ferrari turbo V6, first shown in practice for the 1980 Italian GP, kept away until the following March. Of the major players, the next in line were BMW (race debut in January ’82), Alfa (March ’83), Honda (April ’83) and TAG/Porsche (August ’83). Although Renault’s experiences pointed them in the right direction, all went through teething troubles. Former Brabham designer Gordon Murray remembers well the early days of the BMW.

“We had one big turbo, a truck turbo. The power came in with such a bang. But it was so quick, if you had someone who hadn’t driven one, they were completely lost, particularly with the four-cylinder engine. It was the lack of engine braking and the way the power came in with the lag, and then with a much steeper curve than an atmospheric engine. You never quite knew when it was coming. The lag got better, but it never went away.”

The deluge of manufacturers saw development accelerate, particularly in fuel and electronic management. Even at quick tracks, cars ran huge rear wings, since they had more than enough grunt to pull them through the air. By 1985, outputs of well over 1000bhp were routinely quoted for engine in qualifying trim, though no one knew exactly how much. “The dynos went to about 1100bhp, so you couldn’t tell,” says Murray. “But extrapolating the output, Paul Rosche reckoned that in the end they had around 1300bhp in qualifying trim. It was like a time bomb. Nelson used to say that he didn’t drive it, he came out of the corner, aimed at the middle of the circuit, and floored it He then tried to keep it in the middle of the circuit…”

Turbos powered every car in 1986, normally aspirated engines having been written out of the rules. It was a highly competitive season. Prost’s McLaren-Porsche just pipped the Williams-Hondas of Mansell and Piquet to the title, but the true star was Ayrton Senna, who took eight poles with his Lotus-Renault.

However, the ultimate turbo F1 car was actually powered by a BMW. Teo Fabi clung to the wheel of his Benetton B186, and, with the boost off the clock, he stormed round to pole positions at Osterreichring and Monza, the quickest tracks on the schedule. There was no doubting the horsepower in those performances; in the same car the Italian qualified only 17th at Detroit, 16th at Monaco, and 13th in Adelaide. Boutsen, who handled a BMW powered Arrows that year, remembers the engine well. “It’s impossible to describe how hairy it was or just how difficult it was to drive a turbo car with 1200bhp with qualifiers at Monaco for instance. You simply jumped from one corner to the other, with no time to think. It was truly unreal, worse than a video game.

“The thing that I remember is at Monza, coming out of the Ascari chicane. When I went into fifth, I had wheelspin so I selected sixth: more wheelspin. I couldn’t believe it. We were snapping shut the wastegate, and gaining 300bhp. In qualifying you had to be careful not to go too close to the limit on revs; once you hit the limiter, that was it; it blew up.”

Of course, the fun couldn’t last. The FIA had already announced a move to the 3.5-litre, normally aspirated formula, and there followed two years of transition, when the new breed of atmospheric cars raced alongside the turbos. In 1986 teams were already restricted to 195 litres of fuel on race day, but the big change came in ’87, when a pop-off valve set to 4bar was introduced. In 1988, that was reduced further to 2.5-bar and the fuel limit for turbos was a mere 150 litres.

Honda waved two fingers at the authorities and made a mockery of the restrictions. In a McLaren chassis overseen by Gordon Murray, Prost and Senna dominated the season. But the emasculated turbo cars of ’88 were tame in comparison to what had gone before; Ayrton’s pole at Monza was 2.5s down on the previous year.

“The engines were much softer, and you couldn’t wind them up for qualifying,” says Murray now. “The telemetry got better and so did the engine management, so it was much more sophisticated not so different from a normally aspirated engine. But the earlier turbos were probably the most spectacular GP cars ever, if you look at the power to weight ratio. Including the Auto Unions…”