The Turbo Era

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The relatively brief reign of turbocharged engines in F1 witnessed some of greatest raw horsepower ever unleashed on the famous circuits, coupled with personal rivalries among champions that continue to affect the sport today.

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Lotus Gold Leaf

Copyright © 1997, 2015 Glenn B. Manishin.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can now say confidently that ground effects were less important to the long-run development of F1 technology than turbocharging — although both were introduced initially in the 1977 season, and both eventually banned. While Lotus was developing the ground-effect principle, Renault re-entered Formula One with the turbo RS01, Renault 81driven by Jean-Pierre Jabouille. The first turbo engine was remarkably quick, although suffering from “turbo lag” under acceleration, but very unreliable, and it would be a year before the Renault finished a Grand Prix. (The 1977 season also saw the introduction of radial tires, first by Michelin, then followed by Goodyear and Pirelli.)

Turbo development progressed quite slowly. After the Lotus onslaught of 1978, the normally-aspirated Ferrari 312T4, driven by South African Jody Scheckter, captured the F1 title in 1979. Gilles Villeneuve — described as “perhaps the most tenacious fighter seen in racing for years” — took 2nd place in the World Championship by a narrow three points. Renault won the ’79 French Grand Prix with Jabouille, while Villeneuve and René Arnoux waged a fantastic duel behind, with Villeneuve crossing the line 0.3 seconds ahead. After this race, however, the tide turned and the new Williams car took the lead, winning five of the last seven races including a stretch of four in a row, and the turbo Renault recorded six poles, making this a very diverse season. It was the reliability of the Ferrari that had won the title but to the F1 fraternity, it was evident that Williams F1 was the team in the ascendent.

That happened the very next season. Indeed, the turning point for turbocharging came in 1980, a year in which Alan Jones in the Williams achieved almost complete domination. While Ferrari had a terrible season, the Scuderia introduced their own turbocharged car at Imola, and Renault won at Interlagos, Kyalami and the Österreichring. (Another highlight of 1980 was the power struggle between FISA and FOCA, the latter now chaired by Ecclestone, which came to a head with a boycott of the Spanish GP and was resolved only with the Gilles—Long Beach 81first Concorde Agreement in 1981.) Although Cosworth-powered teams would win the championship in 1981 and 1982, Grand Prix was increasingly dominated by the turbos from now onwards. The 1981 season also saw the first win for John Barnard’s composite, carbon fiber McLaren MP4 chassis, a car that boldly pioneered a technology that was to transform the sport — and ultimately make it a lot safer, albeit vastly more expensive for constructors.

Still, despite the turbo advances there were 11 teams in 1982 using the Cosworth engine, including (for several races) Brabham, for whom Nelson Piquet had won the 1981 championship by one point with a victory at the U.S Grand Prix, held in the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. And while the turbos continued to improve, with wins in one-half of 14 races, the 1982 season was dominated by a rift between Villeneuve and Didier Pironi at Ferrari that would lead to tragedy for both men. After the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, in which Pironi passed Villeneuve, against team orders, while the Ferraris were easily running 1-2 under turbo power, Gilles vowed he would never again speak to his teammate.

QuoteGilles has gone, and with him the light of genius in Grand Prix racing. In time, of course, another star will emerge, but it will never twinkle with the same intensity again. We are back to normality once more. The impossible cannot happen.Quote

Autocourse 1982-83 — Nigel Roebuck

He never did, as two weeks later Villeneuve — affectionately called the “Prince of Destruction” by the commendatore Enzo Ferrari — was killed while trying to improve his grid position late in qualifying for the Dutch GP at Zolder, in a severe accident in which the Ferrari cartwheeled across the track, nose in the sand, flinging the driver out of the cockpit. Four weeks later Ricardo Paletti was killed in his Osala at the start of the Canadian GP at Montréal (now named Circuit Gilles Villeneuve). Pironi himself suffered terrible leg injuries in practice for the German GP at Hockenheim two months after that, never to race in F1 again.

The turbo era really began to flower in 1983, when Piquet won his second World Championship by two points — this time using a turbocharged BMW powerplant — and McLaren introduced the TAG-Porsche engine, driven to four checkered flags by runner-up Prost. (Lotus as well brought out a turbo Renault, piloted by 4th-year driver Nigel Mansell to his first Lauda-Prost 84podium finish at Brands Hatch.) In the 1984 season, with a new MP4/2 car designed by John Barnard, McLaren and the TAG turbo won 12 of 16 races and took the constructors’ championship with record points. Niki Lauda secured five of those to seven for Prost, winning the F1 drivers’ title by 1/2 point — the strange total arising because the ’84 Monaco GP was halted in a thunderstorm after 31 laps and only half points awarded. (That was also the race, by now legendary, in which Ayrton Senna, driving for Toleman in his first F1 season, passed Prost on the last lap in the rain, and forever accused the Formula One establishment of stealing the win.)

While many observers felt McLaren’s dominance was a one-time fluke, in reality it was a harbinger of things to come. Whether with the TAG or, in 1988, Honda turbos, Ron Dennis’ team stamped its mark on the late 1980s like no team before. Prost won the World Championship in 1985 and 1986 (the latter after Nigel Mansell, now with Williams, suffered a dramatic rear tire explosion at 180 mph at Adelaide in the season’s last race), which was a remarkable season. The story of the year had been the intense rivalry between Mansell and Piquet. Together they would take nine wins out of sixteen races, Mansell edging the Brazilian five to four. However, while the Williams duo was slogging it out for team supremacy, Prost was quietly racking up the points too, winning in San Marino, Monaco and Austria. At the 14th round in Portugal he finished second behind Mansell to move within a point of Piquet in the standings, winning in a dramatic Adelaide season ending Australian Grand Prix. In 1987, a WIlliams year, the British Grand Prix was one of those Formula One fairytales. A gritty drive from a local hero, overcoming the odds to fight back for an unlikely win in front of an adoring home crowd. Nigel Mansell was the man who brought Silverstone, quite literally, to its feet that season.

QuoteWith some irony, Senna pointed to the sky each time he passed the line, reminding officials, and anybody else, that in Monaco in 1984 when the situation was the other way round, they had stopped the race. He won it the hard way, juggling his fuel consumption, his lead and the weather perfectly. Ayrton Senna, the boy from Brazil, was World Champion, and he had done it in some style.Quote

Ayrton Senna: A Tribute — Ivan Rendell

Then Senna, who had won his first Grand Prix with a brilliant drive in the rain at the 1985 Portuguese GP, France 88joined McLaren and convincingly won the F1 title in 1988, taking the championship deciding race in Japan at Suzuka, after stalling on the grid, with an inspired drive to catch and pass Prost and then draw away in the rain. Each of Prost and BGP 89Senna was eventually to win three drivers’ titles with Dennis and Team McLaren. And as a season, 1988 was like no other, with Senna and Prost finishing 1-2, combining for 167 points while winning 15 of the 16 GPs, and McLaren cruising to the constructors’ title (shattering 1984’s total). Yet it was also the swan song for both the turbo era, as normally aspirated engines were mandated beginning in the 1989 season, and for cooperation between Prost and Senna, as their rivalry would boil over into thinly disguised disdain and dramatic on-track clashes in the coming seasons. But while things would be very different within Team McLaren and in its Barnard-designed cars as F1 moved toward the 1990s, their almost complete dominance of the series — judged by many fans as boring to watch — would continue into Formula One’s 5th decade.







One Reply to “The Turbo Era”

  1. Some inaccuracies:
    1. Piquet didn’t win the Caesar’s Palace GP. He was fifth, just enough to win the title by one point in 81 from Reutemann.
    2. Prost was the runner-up in 1983 driving for Renault, not McLaren.

    Also, Piquet won the 1987 championship but only Mansell is mentioned. Disrespectful.

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