The out-going V8 engines used in F1 since 2006 could have been tweaked almost infinitely had it not been for the FIA-imposed freeze on development, according to Renault Sport's Rob White.
With the V8 era now consigned to the history books by the introduction of a supposedly greener turbocharged 1.6-litre V6 unit, F1 is about to embark on a new technical direction, but White is confident that, without rev limits and the like, the old engines could have been even more potent than they became in their eight-year life.
“Without the rev limit, we would have continued to pursue greater rpm until we became limited by the physics of the combustion process and diminishing returns due to increased friction with increasing rotational speed,” he explained, “Without any other new regulatory constraint, I imagine we would have reached over 22,000 rpm by now and would have found a further 75 horsepower (ie +10%), equivalent to a lap time gain of around 2secs at Monza.
“Without doing the development work, it is difficult to judge the level at which engine performance would have converged at the limit of the technical regulations. The same effects that have been pursued in the frozen era (exhausts, mapping etc) would have been of interest, but the priorities may have been different.”
Freezing the development of engine technology, essentially as a cost containment measure, actually ensured that there were differences between the motors provided to teams by Renault, Ferrari, Mercedes and Cosworth throughout the 2006-13 period.
“Many people assume that the engines are similar since the specification has been frozen, however they are all very different as the specifications were frozen at a point in time where the V8 was relatively immature,” White revealed, “The technical regulations are strict and there are some common characteristics, including the bore size and rpm limit, but there are many thousands of design decisions that are not fixed in the regulations.
“Perhaps it is not obvious but, in an unfrozen environment, there is more opportunity to converge on common solutions between engine suppliers. The engine contribution to car performance is just as important now; even if frozen in performance, the impact on the car remains as important as it ever has been.
“With F1 being what it is, the challenge has been to produce the best car performance under each new set of constraints. In parallel, we have had to adapt to a much more complicated engine lifecycle and longer engine life.
“In previous times, it was possible to fit engines at will - you could fit a new engine for a race and then replace it for the next round. This meant you could push it to the absolute limits without taking account of any future usage. The limit of eight engines per season, means some engines must be used for three races. We have therefore learned a lot about increasing engine and component life, without any major technology change or performance penalty. As a result, engines can now run for up to 2,500km without any significant power drop off. In the past engine life was just over 350km, so we are running to more than seven times the distance of twelve years ago.”