From Revolutionary Ideas to Victories on the Track: Exploring the Role of Turbochargers in Grand Prix History

The history of the turbocharger and how it ended up in the Grand Prix is long and fascinating. The first turbochargers were introduced in 1905 and applied to large diesel engines around the 1920s.

They would make their way into commercial vehicles in 1938, but it would be a few more decades before they ended up on racetracks.

Early Experiments

A turbocharger is a device that increases a combustion engine’s power by introducing more air into the combustion chambers. By doing this, they help the engine burn more fuel efficiently, leading to better performance. This basic premise means a turbocharger helps the driver get the most out of their car, whether they want faster speed or better fuel economy.

The first application of a turbocharger in a race car was in 1952. The driver was Fred Agabashian driving a diesel-powered Cummins Special. The side-lying engine had a unique design and sat only two feet off the ground, and the drivetrain was less than four inches from the ground.

The main problem with this engine design is that it could pick up debris easily, which led to it being killed by rubber and debris build-up in the turbocharger.

The introduction of the  Offenhauser turbocharger in 1968 changed things because the engines it was installed on could push over 1000 horsepower. Turbocharged cars would continue to dominate the racetracks with this rather rudimentary design until 1977 when Renault developed their supercharged engine for the Renault RS01.

With the first engine suffering failures due to turbo lag, the Renault development team came up with a twin turbocharger concept. These turbos ran in parallel to give their engines additional boost and unprecedented acceleration that surprised the likes of Ford and Porsche.

Impressed by this, Ferrari would develop their turbocharger in 1981 and use it to win the F1 championship in 1982. By the following year, everyone was using a turbocharger, with each team making small tweaks to their design to make theirs more performant.

This competition would catch the eye of the FIA, which would ban the turbocharger in F1 Racing in 1988, citing their insanely high speeds and acceleration as the reasons for the ban.

Introduction to Modern Race Cars

Each major race adopted turbochargers differently and at different times, but the underlying fact is that they were all racing them by the 1980s. The first modern race cars to get turbochargers were those racing in Indycar racing in the 1960s. Turbocharging in this race, as in other races, became more common in the 1970s and 1980s, with the Cosworth DFX turbo engine becoming a popular option for teams fighting for pole position.

Porsche would introduce a turbocharger in their 917/10 and 917/20 Can-Am cars in the early 1970s, Audi raced the Audi Quattro in the rally in 1980, and other sports series like the IMSA and World SportsCar Championship adopted it in the 1980s.

The Impact of Turbochargers on Race Results

The immediate result of adding turbochargers to any race car in any race was faster lap times and increased competition. The increased power output afforded by a turbocharger meant these cars could achieve faster speeds and better acceleration, both of which impacted race results.

We saw this clearly in 1952 with the Cummins engine when Agabashian qualified with pole position in the Indy 500 after leading for more than 282 kilometres. Turbocharged cars also dominated the Can-Am series in the 1970s and the 24 Hours of Le Mans race from 1976 to 1988.

The introduction of turbochargers also allowed for additional overtaking opportunities. For any car not using a turbocharger when others were—especially in the F1 in the 1980s—they were dominated by other cars that would overtake them on crucial points of the race. The reason is that these cars could accelerate out of turns faster, speed through corners, and accelerate on straight faster.

Another notable effect has to do with fuel efficiency. A team with a higher fuel efficiency requires fewer refuelling pit stops than one with a lower one, which could make a difference of tens of seconds throughout a race.

Turbochargers remain one of the most consequential additions to vehicles on and off the racetrack. They provide drivers with more power and fuel economy. Their use in all races by all teams in the modern era is just another testament to how impactful they have been in the world of Grand Prix.

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