Formula One’s last turbo era was a spectacular and vividly colourful time in the sport’s history.
The brutal power delivery of this flame-spitting generation of cars made for one of the most dramatic and memorable periods of F1 racing.
As F1 prepares to return to turbo power, here’s a look back on the thrilling turbo era in pictures.
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When the engine rules were changed in 1966 to allow capacities of up to three litres – twice the previous capacity – F1 designers all went down the same route of taking advantage of the bigger engines.
The new rules also allowed teams to run turbocharged engines of up to 1.5 litres in capacity. But for over a decade no one bothered to take advantage of the rule.
That changed in 1977 when the Renault works team showed up at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix with a single entry for Jean-Pierre Jabouille and his RS01, which featured a turbocharged engine.
Progress was slow – the engine suffered badly from lag as the turbo took time to spin up at the exit of corners. The car struggled on slower corners, but with time it became a force to be reckoned with on quicker track – when it didn’t blow up.
Finally in 1979 came the breakthrough – Jabouille won the French Grand Prix at Dijon. Three races into 1980 Rene Arnoux was leading the championship in his Renault courtesy of wins in Brazil and South Africa. The potential of turbo power could no longer be ignored by rival teams and by the end of the year the first team to follow Renault – Ferrari – ran an early turbo car during practice for the Italian Grand Prix.
Four V6 turbo cars were on the grid for the first race of the year at Long Beach, two Ferraris joining the two Renaults.
A third pair arrived at Imola: the two Tolemans running Brian Hart’s four-cylinder turbocharged engine. It took ten races for either of them to get on the grid, Brian Henton finishing tenth at Monza.
Alain Prost scored his breakthrough victory for Renault at Dijon and won twice more before the end of the year. Meanwhile Gilles Villeneuve took two inspired, unlikely victories at Monaco and Jarama – two tracks where turbo cars were not expected to shine.
Another engine manufacturer joined the fray with a turbo – BMW joined forces with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team, supplying its four-cylinder engines. World champion Nelson Piquet enthusiastically backed the project and conducted countless testing miles with the Munich engine.
But it was Ferrari who became the first team to win a championship with a turbo-powered car. They clinched the constructors’ title thanks to the combined efforts of four drivers, though the year took a terrible toll on the team. Villeneuve was killed in a crash at Zolder, and Didier Pironi sustained career-ending injuries at Hockenheim.
F1’s destiny was settled: if you wanted to be competitive, you had to have a turbo. Cosworth’s venerable DFV scored its final win around the twists and turns of Detroit (indeed it filled all the podium spots). But by the end of the year Williams and McLaren had brought their first turbo-powered cars to races powered by V6s from Honda and Porsche (with TAG financing) respectively. Honda had dipped a toe in the water earlier in the year with the tiny Spirit team.
Alfa Romeo’s first turbo-powered car also made its first appearance following a long gestation. Unlike their rivals, they opted for the V8 route. Andrea de Cesaris took pole position with the car at Spa-Francorchamps and led convincingly early on, and claimed two podiums later in the year.
The drivers of three different turbo-powered cars went into the final race with chance of the title: Prost’s Renault, Piquet’s Brabham-BMW and Arnoux’s Ferrari. Piquet prevailed after his other two rivals fell by the wayside, but the constructors’ championship stayed at Maranello.
The contrast couldn’t have been more stark the following year. Five different teams had won the first five races of 1983, but in 1984 12 of the 16 rounds fell to the same team – McLaren, with their standard-setting TAG-Porsche engines. Niki Lauda edged team mate Prost to the championship by half a point.
By now F1 had effectively become a turbo formula. Once Arrows traded their Cosworth-powered A6s for BMW-powered A7s, Tyrrell was the only team left using normally aspirated engines.
Team principal Ken Tyrrell had persistently made a nuisance of himself as far as the rule makers were concerned, lobbing protests against the turbo-powered teams on various technicalities which were invariably dismissed. Yet the manner in which the FIA seized on an infringement of the ballast rules by his team during 1984, and the swingeing nature of their punishment by way of exclusion from the championship, reeked of ulterior motives. Forcing him aside allowed for the passage of more turbo-friendly rules.
At any rate Tyrrell’s cars were hopelessly outgunned. When the field visited the dauntingly fast Osterreichring Stefan Johansson’s car failed to make the cut and Stefan Bellof’s was excluded for being underweight. For the first time, the grid was filled with turbo cars.
A year of change. Tyrrell finally surrendered to the inevitable and by the end of the year they were using Renault turbo engines. So too were Lotus, and the prodigous talent of Ayrton Senna used them to take wins at Estoril and Spa-Francorchamps.
This was much to the embarrassment of the works Renault team who had introduced turbo engines to Formula One eight years earlier, yet now pulled out of the series having failed to convert their pioneering technology into championship success.
Alfa Romeo also canned their factory team after two years of hideous under-performance. In this disastrous season they scored as many points as their own engine customers Osella did: zero. Toleman’s giant-killing days were over as well – the Hart-powered team were bought by Benetton.
Zakspeed arrived with their own four-cylinder engine and fellow newcomers Minardi switched to Italian manufacturer Motori Moderni’s V6 after beginning their inaugural campaign with a DFV. Late in the year Lola returned to F1 using Hart engines as a precursor to a full attack on the 1986 championship using a new turbocharged Ford-Cosworth V6.
The championship was a McLaren benefit once more, Prost claiming an overdue first championship, though Ferrari and Michele Alboreto kept them honest.
A scintillating championship saw Piquet, Prost and Nigel Mansell dispute the title until the last race, with Senna also in the hunt until the latter stages of the year.
Although Honda had clearly usurped TAG-Porsche as the power plant of choice, Prost pulled off a remarkable second title win in his McLaren. But behind the scenes concerns were growing over rising costs and the withdrawal of several manufacturers. Another example of which was the Lola-Ford projected, abandoned after a single full season.
Honda tightened their grip on the championship. Now powering Lotus – which meant Senna – as well as Williams, the contest for the drivers championship was exclusively between Mansell and Piquet. Senna’s active suspension 99T was usually outclassed.
Renault now scrapped its engine programme completely, and with other manufacturers scaling back their turbo plans several teams were forced to revert to normally aspirated power.
Fearing how badly they would be outclassed by their turbo-powered rivals, the FIA instituted parallel drivers’ and constructors’ championship trophies for those not using turbos, respectively named the Jim Clark Cup and Colin Chapman Cup. For 1988 the power of the turbo engines was further cut and they would be replaced in 1989 by a new 3.5-litre normally-aspirated engine formula.
Ferrari ended 1987 with two consecutive wins and it seemed they might be in good shape for the new season. But everyone was stunned by the performance of McLaren.
Having lured Honda away from Williams, McLaren’s combination of the powerful and economical RA168E engines plus the efficient MP4-4 chassis proved unstoppable. And in Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost they had one of the most formidable teams ever to grace a race track.
The result was near-total domination. Had Senna not stumbled over a backmarker two laps from home in Italy they would have won every race.
But the turbo era was coming to an end. Of the 31 cars entered for the season opener at Jacarepagua, just 11 had turbos. They included Osella, still plugging away with their antiquated Alfa Romeo V8s, and Zakspeed’s generally uncompetitive cars. It was not unusual to see them fail to qualify, squeezed out by the resurgent Ford-Cosworths and Honda-derived Judds.
Senna took the title at the penultimate round in Japan but two weeks later in Adelaide it was Prost who claimed the final victory for a turbo-powered F1 car.
That is, until the chequered flag falls in Melbourne next month.
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Images © Anthony Fosh, Martin Lee, Cor van Veen, Williams/LAT, Porsche, Pirelli, Ford