With Formula 1 increasing its focus on hybrid engine technology, fossil fuels might still play a relevant role in consumer cars in the years to come.
The 2014 Formula One season opened with a bang the previous weekend, with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne resulting in a handful of upsets for various teams.
While the Renault-powered Red Bull team had dominated both drivers’ and constructors’ championships for the past three seasons, changes in engine technology and configuration have proven disastrous for the team, so far. First, defending champion Sebastian Vettel retired early in the race due to engine trouble. Then, podium-finisher Daniel Riccardio was disqualified from placing second due to fuel-flow restriction non-compliance.
In particular, regulation changes have resulted in drastically re-designed engines starting this season: from naturally-aspirated 2.4-liter V8 engines to turbo-charged 1.6-liter V6 engine in hybrid configurations.
A clear focus starting this season is the hybrid technology used in 2014 engines, which incorporate a mix of turbochargers, kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS), exhaust-recovery systems, and, of course, the electrical system. This is coupled with changes in aerodynamic regulations, which ensure safety whilst still ensuring maximum downforce and cornering ability. Racing becomes even more relevant with respect to the rest of the automotive industry with the new fuel-flow restrictions, which limit fuel load to just 100 Kg per race, and usage or flow to 100 Kg per hour at full throttle.
While the inner workings of the new hybrid turbo V6 engines might deserve several feature articles in itself, in summary this will become relevant in automotive development, given today’s clamor to reduce fossil fuel usage and carbon consumption. True enough, market hits like the Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are powered solely by electricity, but there’s more to carbon footprint reduction than going all electric. Firstly, EVs do have range issues, and given that these also result in carbon consumption from the grid, development will require even more refinements in both electric and hybrid tech if cars are to become greener.
Hybrid on the racetrack and on the street
In gist, the V6 internal combustion engine itself — at least Renault’s Energy F1-2014 — will produce 600 horsepower at 15,000 RPM. Meanwhile, its turbocharger and energy recovery systems will produce an additional 160 horsepower at optimal level. Kinetic ERS, which in the case of Renault is called the MGU-K, will recover energy from heat and friction during braking and deceleration, and will act as a motor during acceleration to either deliver additional power or save on fuel. The Turbo ERS or heat recovery system — MGU-H in Renault’s parlance — will recover energy from exhaust heat and either pass it on to the MGU-K for more power, or to recharge the battery.
To some extent, current hybrids and EVs already employ similar energy recovery systems, although racing will push the limit in terms of performance, squeezing the most power from each drop of fuel.
In racing, of course, the driver and engineers will have to make judgment calls, as regards the optimum usage of these systems, particularly given limited fuel. But the bigger implication is in auto and fuel use outside the racetrack. Once the technologies — or the refinements thereto — eventually find their way to consumer use, this will ideally mean cost-savings, reduced carbon footprint and lower levels of pollution. It might even mean cheaper pump prices for the rest of us.
Mercedes-powered cars seem to be the best-performing ones, so far, with Mercedes AMG Petronas’ Nico Rosberg clinching the maiden victory this season, and with six out of 10 points-finishers running on Mercedes engines. However, it’s still not smooth sailing for the German car company, as crowd favorite Lewis Hamilton, who was all set to dominate the race from pole position, had to retire from the race early due to mis-firing cylinders. Even if the 2008 world champion is considered to have the best chances in winning the championship — even ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso — it’s still anybody’s game at this point.
Engine breakdowns aside, this increased focus on hybrid technology signals that Formula One is now truly returning to a leadership position in automotive technology development. Not everyone might have the chance to drive a Formula car — or a race car for that matter — but with the rise of EVs and hybrids, the cars we drive to work everyday might soon be deriving technology from these technical innovations from the racetrack and paddock.
For those who still do not appreciate hybrids or the un-inspired low-grumbling sound that the new turbo engines make, there’s always the new all-electric Formula E.
Image credits: Renault, Sky Sports