5 times F1 technology made a huge leap forward

5 times F1 technology made a huge leap forward
Formula One engineers are always looking for ways they can improve the performance of their cars. In a sport of such tight margins, even a gain of a hundredth of a second can make the difference between first and second place.

For every small incremental improvement, sometimes an F1 engineer has an idea that's something more - one that changes the sport forever. Here are five of the biggest that changed the way we think about the sport, and went from just a bright idea to being standard equipment.

the move to mid-engined layouts

Back in the sport's infancy, regulations were few and far between, and there was a huge range of engine designs on display. However, one thing they all had in common was a layout going back to the earliest days of motoring - engine at the front, driver in the middle, power going through the rear.

That wasn't to last. In 1957, the Cooper team turned up with the T43, F1's first ever mid-engined car - positioned behind the driver and ahead of the rear axle - and by the early 60s, everyone wanted one. Placing the engine rearwards gave cars a much better weight distribution, eliminating the huge understeer that plagued early designs.

These days, we take this layout for granted, but back then, it was something truly revolutionary, and the sport has never looked back.

the arrival of aerodynamics

Enzo Ferrari is reputed to have once said: "Aerodynamics are for people who can't build engines." However, by the late 1960s, it was obvious that power alone was no longer enough to get to the front of the grid. The introduction of aero to the F1 paddock was a fairly gradual process as teams experimented with different sizes and shapes of wings, and explored factors like ground effect. By the late 70s, a formula emerged - skinny front wing, bigger rear wing to push the tyres into the ground and allow higher cornering speeds.

There were a few misses along the way. McLaren, for example, experimented with a front wing held up high above the car. It was nicknamed "the guillotine" and was unsurprisingly banned after just one outing, while a range of spectacular accidents caused by disintegrating wings led to more restrictions being brought in.

As a result, today's aerodynamics look a lot more homogenised - but any engineer will tell you getting them right is one of the most important factors in getting an F1 car to go fast, regardless of what Enzo Ferrari may have thought.

the time of the turbos

In the 1980s, with aerodynamics better understood, teams were turning their attention back towards power. In this period, everyone was looking for new ways of squeezing more speed out of their - by now more regulated - engines, and the answer was turbocharging. First introduced on the 1977 Renault RS01, early turbos gave a huge power boost, though they did suffer from lag that hindered their initial acceleration.

Over the next decade or so, engineers found ways to improve the output, so by the late 80s, they were regularly pushing out 1,000 horsepower. However, this was as far as they were allowed to go before the FIA, concerned by the power and danger of these engines, as well as their spiralling costs that threatened to put smaller teams out of business, banned them in 1988.

The turbo era may have been relatively short, but many of F1's most iconic cars come from it because it was a showcase that really pushed the limits of what an engine is capable of.

the rise (and fall) of traction control

A consequence of the huge power generated by the turbos meant cars were increasingly difficult to control, and this is where technology stepped in. Engineers, by now supported by more advanced electronics, responded with a new era of gadgets that moved the focus from power to control.

Marrying electronics and mechanical engineering to control acceleration and eliminate wheelspin became a must-have for teams in the early 90s, but was never without its controversy. Amid claims it takes away from driver skill, it was first banned in 1994, before being allowed again in 2001 after concerns teams were exploiting various loopholes to avoid the rules.

It was banned for the second time in 2008 - a rule that remains in force today - but remains a great example of how F1 adapts to cope with new challenges - and one that has had a direct impact on road car technology development.

the hybrid era

One of the most recent overhauls was the move from full-blooded V8 monsters to smaller, greener and infinitely more complex hybrid powertrains in 2014. Interestingly, this innovation wasn't so much led by the teams themselves, but grew from a desire to increase F1's relevance to road cars and respond to a changing world which efficiency was a greater concern than ever before.

Working out how to fit in technology such as Energy Recovery Systems and electric components into the tight confines of an F1 car has proven a huge challenge for engineers, even as the engines themselves have shrunk from V8s to V6s - although turbos are back to give the power an additional kick.

While not everyone has been happy with the new, quieter engines, it is a change that is set to shape F1 for years to come - and one that will have a knock-on effect on the car you drive in the future.

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Posted: Thursday, 23 February 2017 - 2:30 PM