Turbo veterans give their take on 2014


Those of you who are members of the Goodwood Road Racing Club will be aware that we are getting close to what looks like being a very spectacular new event at Lord March’s historic circuit in Sussex.

There will be many of you who wish you were a member because, a wee bit controversially, the new event is open only to club members. You may have your own views on this…

The 72nd Goodwood Members Meeting – the 71st was held when the circuit was still active before its closure in 1966 – will feature demo laps by a collection of turbocharged F1 cars from the 1980s and Group B rally cars. Of course there will also be historic racing like we see at the Revival each September.

The reason I mention all this is because there is currently much discussion about the new era of turbo cars in Grand Prix racing. Testing is underway at Jerez this week and we will at least get a few clues as to how this 21st century turbo era will proceed. So, in the course of some research, I have been talking to some of those involved first time round in the 1980s.

The consensus of opinion seems to be that there will be plenty of surprises due to unreliability, cars running out of fuel, the complexities of a hybrid set-up and less experienced drivers struggling to get on top of all the technology. Certainly, when you look back at the early ‘80s, even the top teams battled with unreliable engines and even the best drivers took time to adapt to a new style of race driving. And this, remember, was without KERS and limited fuel.

Jackie Oliver, who ran the BMW turbo engine (later re-badged Megatron) at Arrows recalls the engineering and aerodynamic challenges of the era even though the 1984-88 seasons were some of the best years the team ever had.

Eddie Cheever in the Arrows A10B, 1988. That year the team finished fifth in the constructors’ standings

“This year you will see a very different Formula 1 from that which we have become used to these past years,” he told me, “and without doubt the smaller teams will find it tough and expensive. As with all turbo racing, the qualifying set-up will be totally different from the race set-up, two very different cars in performance terms. With no boost control, and no pop-off valves, as we had in the ‘80s, and limited fuel capacity they won’t be able to run flat out all the way in race conditions.

“The fuel formula will, I think, see some cars running out of fuel because some teams will take risks. But, as ever, the best drivers will get the most speed out of their cars and a top driver will make a difference, especially as there is no traction control this time round. I could be wrong but I think that’s what we’ll see in the early part of the season.”

Wins per engine in the original turbo era
Honda 40
TAG-Porsche 25
Renault 20
Ferrari 15

Veteran campaigner Patrick Head, who ran the Williams-Hondas to such good effect in the ‘80s, agrees. “Yes, I will be very surprised if we don’t see quite a few DNFs. The engine suppliers have pretty amazing capability and they can simulate true race conditions, with very good dyno facilities, but I’d be amazed if the engines are totally reliable in 2014.

“There are many complexities with a hybrid system, with energy recovery systems, and it will be demanding for the smaller teams, no doubt about that.”

Martin Brundle in the Renault turbo-powered Tyrrell 015, 1986

Sky TV expert and former Grand Prix driver Martin Brundle, who drove the turbo cars of the 1980s, envisages both challenges and excitement. “Yes, I’m sure some of the teams will struggle for reliability, there’s far more complex engineering than we have seen in recent years, and there may well be some surprise results early on. But at this level the drivers will adapt without too many problems. From a TV point of view, it will be an exciting and fascinating season, certainly in the opening races.”

There are few direct comparisons with the 1980s, save for the presence of a turbocharged engine, because the hybrid system involves a different kind of challenge for engineers. But there are parallels.

“Whenever an engine formula changes the mid to smaller teams will suffer,” says Oliver, “because they will always be catching up with the pace of development enjoyed by the teams who are supplied by, and supported by, the manufacturers. The less well supported teams have always struggled to sustain both the performance of the car and the engine, and one is bound to suffer at the expense of the other. I think you will see the same thing this year.

“The packaging of the engine and its ancillaries is far more complex in 2014 because you have energy recovery systems which are heat-sensitive and this is a minefield for the designers and engineers. They may be brutish to drive, the 1980s cars certainly were, but the top drivers will adapt very quickly.”

So far at Jerez, the Mercedes-engined cars appear to have the advantage

So, lots to look forward to, and the first part of the year is unpredictable. We may learn something from testing but, as ever, none of the top teams will show us all their cards as early as January and February. Many of you, like me, will be looking forward to see who gets it right when we go to Melbourne in March.

Let’s hope those horrid pointy ‘ant-eater’ noses have been massaged into something more aesthetic by then. Grand Prix cars should always look great, however fast, or slow, they are.

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