The Anatomy Of A 1980s Turbo F1 Car
evo India|July 2020
Formula 1 in the ’80s is remembered for the advent of turbochargers and ever‑increasing power figures, and one car more than any other typified the sport in that era – the Williams‑Honda FW11
Adam Towler

It’s impossible not to admire Renault’s sheer chutzpah. When France’s national car company decided to go motor racing in the ’70s, it threw itself headlong into the new and mysterious world of turbocharging rather than taking the conventional route. It began publicly in sportscar racing during 1976, and its 2-litre, V6-powered home-grown prototype would score an emotional win at Le Mans in 1978, but in 1977, at the British Grand Prix, it started arguably an even bigger challenge: to win in Formula 1.

The Renault RS01, with its little 1.5-litre, iron-block, single-turbo EF1 V6, was a staggeringly bold entry, for not only was Renault taking up the 1.5-litre forced induction option ignored by all and sundry, it was also building its own chassis and running its own team in-house (no buying a British-based team wholesale here), with a patriotic ensemble that included Elf fuel, French drivers and Michelin tyres, the last of those introducing radial construction to F1.

Many in F1 laughed when the RS01 first appeared. Ken Tyrrell called it a teapot because it frequently blew up in a cloud of white smoke. Turbo lag could be measured with a calendar, and the chassis, kept simple so there was less to worry about, was correspondingly unspectacular and overweight. The engine made around 500bhp: largely comparable with the outputs of the opposition’s 3-litre naturally aspirated V8s and V12s, but nowhere near enough to offset the disadvantages inherent to its design – yet.

The team scored its first points in 1978, and its first win in 1979 (with the twin-turbo RS10), and now nobody was laughing anymore. A naturally aspirated car won the world title for the last time for seven years in 1982, but only just, and from there on in a turbo engine was a must. Ferrari made the switch in 1981, BMW appeared during 1982, and Honda and TAG-Porsche, tentatively, part way through 1983. F1’s glorious, power-mad, excess-all-areas ’80s era was truly under way, lasting until the end of 1988 when the formula was outlawed for new regs with 3.5-litre naturally aspirated engines. Here we look at what made those larger-than-life turbo F1 cars what they were, with help from the ultimate of its type: the 1986 Williams-Honda FW11.

WILLIAMS-HONDA FW11-05

It’s become fashionable to decree the 1988 McLaren-Honda MP4/4 as the ultimate ’80s turbo F1 car; some claim it the greatest of all time. The MP4/4 was a very special car, but one also neutered to a degree by rule changes (more later). If you view ‘ultimate’ as being about raw performance, beating the best teams at the height of their powers, and maintaining that success over two extraordinary seasons, then it has to be the blistering Williams-Honda FW11.

Williams was the form team going into the 1986 season, and as Jonathan Williams (son of founder Frank) says today: ‘Nelson [Piquet] joining Williams was a big step for the team. Before then our champions [Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg] had been home-grown, but Nelson was the first world champion that said, “I want to go to Williams,” just as Honda was the first manufacturer to go racing with Williams.’ Retained for ’86 was a Brit who’d finally made his mark after four years at Lotus: Nigel Mansell. Few expected the moustachioed Brummie to mount a challenge to then double world champ Piquet, but no one told Mansell that…

Chassis 05 – the car in these pictures – was Piquet’s car. He won three times with it – in Germany, Hungary and Italy. It was during the race near Budapest that Piquet executed arguably the most spectacular overtaking move of all time, given its audacity and the quality of opposition. Having already duelled with Ayrton Senna’s Lotus-Renault, Piquet finally made it stick by taking the young Brazilian round the outside at the first corner, while simultaneously on wild opposite lock and flipping the bird. Enough said.

That year Mansell was on course to be champion until his rear tyre blew at V-max in Adelaide. Most of the UK swore, and Alain Prost and McLaren snatched the drivers’ crown.

BODY STRUCTURE AND AERODYNAMICS

The early ’80s was the era of ground effect. Ushered into F1 for 1978 with the beautiful Lotus 79, sealing off the underside of the cars with skirts turned them into upside-down wings, sucked to the track, and made conventional surface wings all but redundant when ground effect was at its peak in 1982. The result was cornering speeds and forces so high drivers struggled to cope and safety was becoming an issue. Skirts were banned the following year, and the F1 car of 1983 looked completely different. Downforce was dramatically reduced, despite the advent of large, bookcase-like wings, and it would be 1987 before aero was back to 1982 levels. Nevertheless, ’80s turbo cars could afford to run huge wings with lots of drag, as they weren’t exactly short on power.

The other big advance of the turbo era was in chassis construction. A carbonfibre tub was first raced by McLaren in 1981 with the revolutionary MP4/1, but until the last races in 1983 that car had run with a Cosworth V8 in the back. Williams was late to adopt the technology, sticking to aluminium honeycomb, but by 1985 it too had a carbon tub, while a rear diffuser boosted in effectiveness by exhaust gases had already been pioneered by Renault. It would take a low-budget car from a new designer by the name of Adrian Newey to move aerodynamics on again, his 1988 March-Cosworth 881 a trendsetter for so much that followed.

ENGINE, ELECTRONICS AND GEARBOX

Prost and Renault should have scooped both titles in 1983, but it was not to be. In fact, Renault, after all the effort and innovation, never would win a turbo-era world championship.

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