Why did F1 ditch fan-favorite V8 engines?
The year was 2014 and F1 had moved on to a new engine formula. The naturally aspirated V8s that made a beautiful sound (and burst a few eardrums in the paddock) were replaced by these demure-sounding V6 Turbos that were so quiet you could hear the sound of F1 cars locking up their tires.
An ecosystem was turned on its head when a sport that was recognized for its ability to sound the cars approaching before they could be seen no longer did so.
An engine formula that was reluctantly accepted by some of the racing purists (like Sebastian Vettel, who hated the sound of the new engines), has grown through leaps and bounds. In 2023, we are in the 10th year of these engines (now termed power units) and they are here to stay. So how did this change happen? What forced F1 to ditch those beautiful-sounding V8s with these V6s that had an MGU-H and MGU-K recovery unit? Well, let's find out!
An outdated technology
Any innovation or new experiment performed on an F1 car often finds its way into a road car one day. These groundbreaking technologies are one of the most important objectives for any constructor participating in F1, which in turn will eventually provide an added revenue stream.
For example, today's power steering on road cars is just an extrapolation of developments in F1 in the 1990s. Similarly, the seamless gearbox was initially pioneered by Ferrari and then found its way to a segment of road cars.
The issue with the naturally aspirated V8s was that it was an outdated technology. Ecosystems and automotive manufacturers all across the globe had already started moving towards electric energy. Consequently, this engine formula seemed outdated at best and needed to be upgraded. This is where the V6 Turbos came into the picture.
An inefficient engine formula
One of the most nagging issues bothering the F1 fraternity was the lack of efficiency in the engine formula. The V8s were spectacular when it came to the sound that they produced. However, that sound, in scientific terms, is energy dissipation: energy that could be used to produce more power.
For instance, during the heyday of the V8 engine formula, peak power was something in the range of 750-800 BHP. When the V6 Turbos were introduced, the demure-sounding engine was able to utilize a bigger chunk of power from the fuel, potentially maxing out at around 1000 BHP. That's an approximate 25% jump from the previous engine formula and proved to be the logical thing to do at the time.
F1's move toward sustainability
The sport's move towards sustainability has been an ongoing one. In 2014, the move to electric vehicles was already in full swing, with endurance racing seeing Porsche and Audi experiment with it.
To add to this, the V6 Turbos were starting to become a more favorable alternative to the old-school naturally aspirated V8s due to their efficiency. As a result, it made all the sense in the world for F1 to switch to a more efficient V6 Turbo than the V8s we had at the time.
Who made the most of this switch?
Well, no prizes for guessing this one as it was Mercedes that rose to the top of the sport. The team was the first to crack the code when it came to the V6 Turbos, while both Ferrari and Renault were not even in the same league in 2014. The advantage was such that Mercedes went on an eight-year run of being the best constructor on the grid. Not only that, a Mercedes driver won every driver's title from 2014 to 2020, with the only exception being Lewis Hamilton's title loss against Max Verstappen on the last lap of the 2021 F1 season.
The 2022 F1 season has seen the power unit performance plateau to an extent as there isn't a significant difference in the power output of all four power units on the grid. The next set of changes in 2026 will see a new engine formula introduced that would have 50% power generation from the electric motor while the other 50% will come from the power unit. The ever-complex MGU-K, which focussed on kinetic energy recovery, will no longer be a part of the power unit. As the sport takes its next step towards a more sustainable future, it appears attractive to more automotive giants like Audi.