Automotive

The new F1 power plants – you can't call them engines anymore

The new F1 power plants – you ...
No longer are the most technologically advanced racing cars on the planet powered by a simple reciprocating, internal combustion engine (Photo: Natursports / Shutterstock.com)
No longer are the most technologically advanced racing cars on the planet powered by a simple reciprocating, internal combustion engine (Photo: Natursports / Shutterstock.com)
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No longer are the most technologically advanced racing cars on the planet powered by a simple reciprocating, internal combustion engine (Photo: Natursports / Shutterstock.com)
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No longer are the most technologically advanced racing cars on the planet powered by a simple reciprocating, internal combustion engine (Photo: Natursports / Shutterstock.com)
Mercedes AMG Petronas will be looking to repeat its success with the F1 W06 Hybrid (Photo: Mercedes)
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Mercedes AMG Petronas will be looking to repeat its success with the F1 W06 Hybrid (Photo: Mercedes)

Formula 1 racing is the most technologically driven sport in the world, and last season provided firm evidence of that fact. A sea change swept through the sport in 2014, rendering what once was known as an engine into an insanely high-tech contraption called a "power unit." In preparation for the coming season, here's a quick primer on what motivates the fastest road course cars in the world.

Make no mistake, back in 2013 the engines in Formula 1 cars were exceedingly high tech. Components that are made of simple metal or alloys for civilian cars were made out of materials imbedded with ceramics or cast using processes taken from aerospace manufacturing. The engines and drivetrains were festooned with computers controlling various systems by the millisecond; computer controlled electronic differential torque splits, throttle position over-mapping to artificially blow diffusers, fuel richness maps tweaked moment to moment to squeeze the last gram of performance out of what was in the tank.

If you take a close look at what the Formula 1 engines of 2015 are supposed to do however, the V8 engines of 2013 look about as high tech as something out of Gottlieb Daimler 's workshop.

No longer are the most technologically advanced racing cars on the planet powered by a simple reciprocating, internal combustion engine (ICE). In addition to the ICE (internal combustion engine) portion of the power unit, there are not one, but two separate and interconnected hybrid systems and three additional power producing components.

The power unit breaks down into these components:

  • The internal combustion engine (ICE);
  • The turbocharger (TC);
  • The Motor Generator Unit-Kinetic (MGU-K), which harvests wasted energy normally lost under braking;
  • The Motor Generator Unit-Heat (MGU-H), which collects energy in the form of heat as it was expelled through the exhaust system;
  • The Energy Store (ES), which is effectively a bank of batteries that hold the all of the energy gathered by the Motor Generator Units (that would be the ICE, the TC, the MGU-K and the MGU-H);
  • Lastly, but somehow most importantly, there is the Control Electronics (CE), which includes the Electronic Control Unit (ECU) and its software that is used to manage the entire power unit.

Seriously, the last time I saw something this complex launched, it was fired out of a silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Mercedes AMG Petronas will be looking to repeat its success with the F1 W06 Hybrid (Photo: Mercedes)
Mercedes AMG Petronas will be looking to repeat its success with the F1 W06 Hybrid (Photo: Mercedes)

So why are the CE and the ECU the most important here? In short, they function like the conductor at an orchestra. It is through the CE/ECU that various and often times conflicting powers must be dealt with.

Consider this scenario:

You're coming into a tight-ish, right hand corner. You stand on the brakes, down shift, down shift, down shift, blip the throttle a little to adjust the car's cornering attitude, down shift, down shift, ease back onto the gas, realize things are looking good now, attitude-wise, and stand on it hard, accelerating down the straight as fast as you can to the next corner.

In a normal car, that's all pretty mechanically direct and easy to accomplish. But in a modern Formula 1 car, the CE/ECU is coping with a flood of data. It needs to monitor how much heat energy is coming off the Turbocharger (TC) as it spools down, decide when and how much of that energy to valve off into the Energy Store (ES), how to combine that with the recovered energy using the Motor Generator Unit-Kinetic (MGU-K), how to turn the flow around from the ES and get it back into the driving wheels when the throttle is blipped.

When the driver does blip the throttle, the equation gets even messier. What sort of energy does the CE/ECU apply to the rear wheels? Does it need to come from the ICE? From the MGU-K? From the MGU-H? From all three? In what percentages? Should those percentages be varied over time to help with torque delivery and optimize acceleration?

Now the driver's back on the brakes again. How should the energy build up be handled? Should some be shunted back into the ES? Is the ES starting to get overloaded and nearing the thermal limits of what it can take before it catches fire?

And on it goes.

That little scenario takes place over the course of a blink of an eye. And it's like that, moment-to-moment, down straights, up hills into corners out of corners, during panic braking and avoidance maneuvers, all race long for up to a two-hour stretch.

From the standpoint of a hardware geek, it's all pretty fascinating stuff. And now, with the start of the second season running the new power units just weeks away, all the existing teams have enough experience to start squeezing even more grunt and efficiency.

We can't wait to see what this season brings.

12 comments
zevulon
its simple. the next generation of tanks , semi-autonomous in nature , will use this technology.
next generation tanks will be faster, stronger, longer range, and have much much greater electronics packages with anti-electronic warfare packages like jamming as well , possibly even armed with small mini drones that can be deployed form the tank like a mother ship.
CadJack
Nice observation, well written!
Bob Flint
It's humans who program the electronic control limits, and till further notice it will be humans breaking records, that the original programmers thought would never be attainable.
A.I. is not here yet, and as long as humans thrive on adrenalin, it will be humans in control.
Stan Sieler
Could have used a photo or two :)
NotRocketSurgery
That makes two of us ...
Ashton Gardner
Nice, but electric motors are yawning at this..
vblancer
For the first time in years they LOOK like race cars again instead of some beaky awkward bird.
Unfortunately these are least racy cars since the computer controlled cars. They sound flatulent and the drivers driver for efficiency rather than speed due to fuel limitation.
Last year the most common radio call to many drivers was "You have to slow down as you are past your fuel map!!" Are you KIDDING ME?!?
This is not racy this is a high speed econo run. I have have roadraced myself and the idea of a F1 driver doing anything other than driving flat out is so silly I do not even know what to say. The crowds HATED the sound of the cars last year. I said the cars sound flatulent and that was the most common description last year.
Last year the cars were so ugly the FIA mandated the dropped noses this year just to make them look more like the cars of 10 years ago and that is the only good things about the new cars.
This is not racing. This is high speed tree hugging. Suddenly many of the fast guys are slow because of using too much fuel and some of the slow guys are fast because they were not using all the car to begin with and that style now fits these cars.
Very sad time for F1
BZD
@vblancer - you are fooling yourself if you think that racing hasn't always been limited by other than just going full blast every lap. Racing has always been about balancing downright speed vs. longevity of the tires, the mechanical bits and the fuel consumption (and especially in endurance also the drivers). That is why qualifying laps are faster than race laps (with the exception of weather changing the conditions and the like). What it new is really that now the efficiency of the cars is now monitored more closely and that is why there are more calls on the radios about the subject. Apart from Mercedes being the only team to really fight for the championship and some inconsistent rulings regarding penalties the last year was a great one with regards to the racing. Chances are this year could be even better - the tests performed so far certainly shows potential.
BZD
I am not so sure that F1 can really claim to be "the most technologically driven sport in the world". For instance it's not like there isn't some very advanced things going on in sailing, just look at the America's Cup, and then there is sports car endurance racing where there certainly is a lot going on (that's Le Mans and all the other races which share the same rules).
F1 is very advanced no doubt about that, but there are also some very strict rules that limits the use of technology in many ways. If one looks at Le Mans and the LMP1 class then what Audi, Toyota, Porsche, Nissan, Mazda and others are doing it is certainly worth looking into. Not only are they all running hybrids they do it in very different ways just as they also bring some very different aerodynamic solutions.
I like F1, but sports car racing is just so much more exciting with regards to both racing and technology.
dchall8
I would be surprised if much of this technology has not already been embedded in the railroad industry. They have always been quietly ahead of the auto industry. For example hybrid power and wheel slide protection (aka antilock brakes) has been around the rail industry for 60 years.