The Rise, Fall And Rise Of The Turbocharged Engine


Turbo technology has finally come of age in the modern era of car manufacturing. Turbos have a long history of suffering from lag and designs that required a lot of spooling in order for the rotating blades to harness the waste gases. Since the days of the turbo era in Formula 1 coming to an end in the early 90s, there seemed no need for forced induction packages to be manufactured for the consumer market. If history has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t keep a hungry dog down, and manufacturers are proving that a good idea, no matter the initial discrepancies, will prosper if given time. There’s a long history of changing moods within the car industry regarding engine design, with many aims for the road and the chase of perfection in racing terms being ever present. But which side will win? After all, if one design can falter, and eat the dust of another for so long, yet leapfrog its opposite suddenly, who’s to say it can’t happen vice versa?


Credit – sconosciuto

The rise

The turbo era in Formula One was truly one of a kind, something that may never ever be seen again. For the first time in Grand Prix racing, drivers had more power than they could cope with. Manufacturers, working with the rules and regulatory board, worked together to transform the sport into a rollercoaster experience. The tyres widened, the rubber used evolved into giving drivers a stickier tyre, the chassis widened and increased in length, and the wings both front and rear became exaggerated. And yet the power plant remained relatively small with most teams sticking to a V6 1.5-liter setup. But of all the engines, one stood out as an untamable, frightening beast that took no prisoners.

BMW M12/13

Unquestionably the most powerful engine to ever grace the Formula One calendar was the BMW M12/13 which supplied teams with unrivaled performance in the holy grail of turbocharged racing. Surprisingly, the German manufacturer chose to stick to an inline 4-cylinder block and fitted with a KKK turbocharger, a Bosch electronic management system; it didn’t lack the power to match or surpass its contemporaries. The block itself was first introduced in 1961 and lasted all the up to some BMW cars in 2002, such as the three series. The 1982 Brabham team ran the unit at 850 horsepower, but only in qualifying trim, while it had to be detuned to around 650 bhp for race conditions. In 1986 the engine was upgraded, with new turbochargers, increased pressurized cylinders and was able to be enhanced up to an amazing 5.5 bars of boost. This incredible achieved, for a 4-cylinder engine, uprated the power output to an astonishing 1400 bhp. When it was being tested, it surpassed the dyno’s measuring capability that it was placed on. Because the race fuel limitation was 195 liters per race for the season, the engine was detuned to around 800 bhp the Grand Prix. Gerhard Berger drove the machine and said it was ‘’very, very exciting for the driver and for sure, you needed big balls.’’


Image by – Will ainsworth

Transition to the road

The late 90s saw the turbocharged engine transition to the road in supercar form, as many manufacturers tried their hand at making the most powerful engine they could manage. The Porsche 959 had a flat-6 twin turbocharged engine, that was designed to be the first production model in the world to break the 200mph barrier. It wasn’t alone in this quest, as Ferrari wasn’t going to let their German rival take an easy win. The Ferrari F40 boasted a twin turbocharged V8 which had enough power to finally get just short of the target number to 199 mph. The 959 didn’t fair any better with its top speed being 198mph. The two cars were hyped in the press to be the first cars in the world to ever reach top speeds that are similar to those on the Formula One circuit; alas, both failed to serve their purpose.

Cometh the hour, cometh the car; the Jaguar XJ220, powered by a twin turbocharged V6 finally broke the record. The quest to break through the perimeter of what was thought of as possible, came to an end when Jaguar’s road-going version of their Le Mans car, the XJ220 achieved a top speed of 217mph. Born around the same era as the aforementioned supercars, it was clear that although the Jaguar had the similar horsepower to its rivals, the streamlined profile it possessed, helped significantly to become superior. Just as the naturally aspirated racing cars began to dominate, it seems like the turbocharged engine didn’t want to pass the torch, and manufacturers attested to this by showing that consumers could go as fast if not faster than professional racing drivers, on public roads.


Photo credit – RadioActive

The Fall

The 80s turbocharged engines came into direct on-track competition against naturally aspirated engines, where they had higher top speeds, but around slow corners, were dominated. They were beginning to show their age, as the philosophy was looking rather old-fashioned, pertaining to straight line speed, and sloppy low and medium-speed maneuvering. The lap times of teams using turbos began to be beaten quite regularly to the point where everyone agreed that, turbocharged engines in Formula One become obsolete to the naturally aspirated engines, which eventually led to the FIA making them outlawed in 1995.

The Mclaren F1 was a production car which was powered by a naturally aspirated 6.0-liter V12, producing 627 bhp. Not only was the car lightweight, but it used modern aerodynamic research to produce a low drag coefficient. The media went into a frenzy when the car actually achieved what it set out to, by breaking all previously held records and topping at 240mph. With the birth of the Ferrari Enzo, which had a top speed around 226mph, it also had a naturally aspirated engine. The F1 and the Enzo both fought for track supremacy, elbowing out the rest of the competition which was mainly turbocharged. With the pinnacle of motorsport and supercars shunning the turbocharger, and not only performing better but breaking records in the process, the turbo became obsolete, clumsy, technologically inferior and slipped away into the pages of history.


Source – wpaphotomotorsport

Rising again

The World Rally Championship always had a place for the turbo, because the engines were small, light and produced a lot of torque. For dirt racing, all those factors were the overriding task for teams to aim for as torque is what accelerates the car at low speed at low revs. Group B became one of the most hotly contested racing styles in motorsport as all the previous stage and overall country rally finish times began to tumble. The 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engines produced 300bhp and 300-foot pounds of torque. Manufacturers like Mitsubishi, Subaru, Ford, Toyota, Hyundai, Citroen, Peugeot, and Skoda, thundered down the African plains and snow-banked forests of Scandinavia with flair, courage and scary speed.

Manufacturers saw an opportunity to make civilian models of their racing cars, with the same idea of a small car, with a small engine that punched miles above its weight. And so, the market became a sensory overload for consumers as new subaru cars offered customers 0-60 mph times of less than 5 seconds. The engines were simply detuned variations of the designs used in rally, and customers loved them across the board. Nowadays, the WRX engines come with semi-automatic gearboxes, five-star safety NCAP ratings, five seats, a high capacity trunk, fuel economy of up to 30 mpg and 300 bhp with 290-foot pounds of torque. Turbo engines finally found a stable home, both for racing and the free market where customers would buy the 4-cylinder engines in droves; it has never looked back.


Image credit – Morio

The future

Surprisingly and much to the arguing of fans worldwide, turbocharged engines have made a comeback to Formula 1. The rising demand to be more efficient, stronger, and better-designed engines for power to fuel consumption ratios, the naturally aspirated engines have been given the boot. As of 2014, teams are now restricted to 1.6-liter V6 hybrid engines that must work in tandem with an electric motor. Engines produce around 600 to 650 horsepower and are supplemented with an electric motor that stores kinetic energy, as is able to unleash a helping hand of equivalent 150 bhp. The turbos now being used have turbines that boast 120,000 revolutions per minute, thus limiting the lack of boost pressure at slow speeds, not the mention the electric motors pick up the slack and lack of torque. It’s become clear now that turbos are here to stay, and no matter how hard the naturally aspirated engine lovers want to fight it, history has shown you can’t keep a hungry dog down. Turbos have the ability to juggle power and efficiency, which is great for consumers who want to have the thrill of a high-power car, but able to do the grocery shopping and school run without having to worry about constantly filling up the gas tank. Who knows where the future will take turbo engines, but supercars are already utilizing high-revolution turbines to create monstrous power while keeping the displacement small.

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