By on May 19, 2016

2014 Red Bull F1

The complaint most often tossed at Formula 1 is that despite being the (alleged) pinnacle of motorsports, its relevancy to road cars has disappeared.

That same feeling is what brought us to the current formula of tiny 1.6-liter turbocharged six-cylinder engines, all coupled to a complex hybrid system. Since that move, the racing series has focused more on engine development that in almost any era before, and with that comes a breakthrough in the way we look at thermal efficiency. 

Even with current technology, internal combustion engines are still wholly inefficient. We’ve come a long way, but the average thermal efficiency rating still stands at about  25 percent. This means three-quarters of the energy produced by combustion is lost as heat rather than power.

It comes down (mostly) to how fuel is burned in the combustion chamber. If you could produce a more even burn in the chamber, you would be able to have massive gains in terms of efficiency.

This is where we get to Formula 1. During the renewed drive to provide teams with the best power units possible, Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault, and Honda have all been scrambling to find new solutions to the waste heat problem. From the way that brakes harvest heat under braking, to the trick turbocharger that sends heat energy to the battery system, the new formula is all about capturing energy that was previously wasted.

When Mercedes started coming out on top in almost every race in the 2014 season, it was clear they had a technical advantage the others missed. The new invention is called turbulent jet ignition, which boosts the efficiency of an F1 engine to 47 percent — a figure once thought impossible.

In this engine, the tried-and-true spark plug system is scrapped in favor of a TJI chamber. Here, 97 percent of the fuel is injected into the cylinder when the piston 60 degrees from the top-dead-center position, with remaining three percent dumped in a small pre-chamber that does have a spark plug. Once ignited, the pre-chamber’s contents become a hot pressure jet that ignites the rest of the fuel-air mixture.

Using this system allows F1 teams to meet their efficiency targets, using tiny amounts of fuel to create amazing power gains. Technology like this is why engine manufacturers are continually drawn back to F1, hoping for a tech breakthrough to deliver back to our lowly road cars.

[Source: ArtsTechnica, F1Technical]

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26 Comments on “Formula 1 Claws its Way Back to Roadgoing Relevancy...”

  • avatar

    isn’t that more or less what CVCC was?

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, that’s what popped into my head as well. ” Man Honda did this year’s ago! “. They just didn’t have the advantage of the digital controls and processing power we have today available for engine management or the development tools available as well.

      • 0 avatar

        I also have to wonder what this does for NOx formation.

        • 0 avatar

          Yes a lot of technologies proclaim fuel efficiency and power but stumble on emission regs.

          A lot of smart boys and girls have been grinding on IC engines for over 100 yrs now.

          It’s sort of like the old design snark. fast, cheap, reliable: pick any two.

  • avatar

    “It comes down (mostly) to how fuel is burned in the combustion chamber. If you could produce a more even burn in the chamber, you would be able to have massive gains in terms of efficiency.”

    Totally FALSE. Look up ‘thermal bottleneck.’

    • 0 avatar

      Can you explain how thermal bottleneck disproves the quoted statement? The bottleneck imposes an upper limit on efficiency, but a 25% thermally efficient engine is nowhere near that limit.
      As an engineer that’s worked with brilliant engine designers on compression & spark ignited, as well as gas turbine, engines- I’ve never heard anyone say “nope! thermal bottleneck!” Flame propagation in the chamber is the real-world challenge that we were talking about. There’s still a lot we can get out of current engine designs.

  • avatar

    Cool beans on the better ignition, but Benzo’s big innovation in the V6 formula is a long-shaft turbo set in the block’s valley. Compressor at the front, turbine at the back, keeps hot-cold sides far away (instead of a couple bearings away like in conventional turbo), makes exhaust packaging much simpler while minimizing associated pumping losses, etc.

    I also don’t think there is way to get 47% real-world thermal efficiency in any heat cycle motor without magic near-frictionless bearings and a really high delta between hot and cold. That number must derive from some ideal situation with the KERS system for marketing purposes.

    • 0 avatar

      Even more important that the split turbo is the fact they can uncouple the compressor from the turbine allowing the motor generator unit to spin up the compressor quicker without the drag of the turbine at low exhaust pressures. The other motor manufacturers don’t think splitting the turbo itself gives much of any gain because the long shaft brings other issues.

  • avatar

    From a sporting perspective it’s difficult to get excited about these gains when they’re only allowed to be squeezed through the ludicrous pinhole aperture of crippling FIA regulations intended to make everyone perform exactly the same. It may be relevant to the road, but it’s been achieved at the cost of irrelevance to anyone who actually cares about the spirit of F1.

  • avatar

    MGU-H systems will make it to production cars one day IMHO. It allows excess heat from the exhaust to generate electricity through an electric motor on the turbo shaft but then also has the ability to spin up the turbo to take away lag at lower rpms. It might even allow for much smaller alternators that are mostly necessary for idling.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    Comparing the maximum efficiency of an F1 engine with the typical efficiency of a car engine is a pretty silly comparison. FWIW the peak efficiency of some car engines is 42.5%. Some big engines are at 54%, so ‘impossible’ just sounds like an attempt to insert excitment.

    Mind you I’m not knocking a 5% bump in efficiency, just the silly hype.

    • 0 avatar

      it’s silly because the efficiency numbers quoted are *peak.* as in, it’s the engine’s thermal efficiency when it’s operating at wide-open-throttle and running at the RPM where it makes peak torque. the engines in street cars are almost never running like that so it’s nonsense to quote those efficiency numbers. street cars are almost always puttering around with the throttle barely cracked open, so the pumping losses just torpedo their efficiency.

  • avatar

    As a lowly business major, this talk is way above my pay grade, but I am curious as to whether CVCC was the same as what they’re using now in F1? As described in this article, it seems like the questions are relevant and deserve an answer. If my memory is right, didn’t Honda call it stratified charge? What did CVCC stand for?

  • avatar

    Good things happen when you build a challenging box for manufacturers to fit into. Exorbitant costs…yes, but F1 is not a wholly inefficient R&D mechanism. The aero stuff is orders of magnitude from applicability at highway speeds and counteracts distance/fuel unit efficiency but the engine technology is quite interesting.

    The FIA is pretty much a dictatorship with input from team owners/managers. Getting a tight efficiency box for production vehicles to fit into will be a bit harder….like diverting an avalanche.

    • 0 avatar

      “engine technology is quite interesting.”

      no it’s not, it’s nonsense. F1 hasn’t had any applicability to road cars for a long time. For them to claim they’re the “Pinnacle of Motorsport” is just Bernie the Muppet peacocking as usual, and the only people who believe it are some Eurotrash and a handful of American wannabe tryhards.

      IMSA and WEC endurance racing has far more relevance to road cars than F1.

      • 0 avatar
        Snail Kite

        Comments that F1 cars have no applicability to road cars on article pointing out applicability of F1 technology to road cars. TTAC Champion here!

  • avatar

    To use a biological analogy, F1 cars might have a similar heart and lungs (as with all mammals), but they’d be classified under a different genus.

    Based on this, comparing an F1 car to a volume model in any way is essentially comparing a lion to a dog.

  • avatar

    I’ve lost touch with the F1 constraints and how they evolved. I was hoping they’d try to disrupt a little more and push the envelope with six stroke engines and what not. The issues around those are not trivial in a production car but F1 cars do not have to comply with emissions regs. Lucky for them, not so much for an OEM.

  • avatar

    Cool article because, even though I watch pretty much every F1 race I can, I have never heard of turbulent jet ignition before.

  • avatar

    Arstechnica had a good rundown on the tech used here.

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