Formula 1 has forever strived to be at the forefront of where speed and technology meet, with each distinct era of the F1 car being remarkable under different rules; we’ve seen some breathtakingly-beautiful and fast cars in our time.
From the crazy turbo cars of the 1980s with more horsepower than today’s machines to the screaming V10-powered cars made famous by the likes of Hakkinen, Schumacher, and Alonso, which era of F1 actually had the faster cars?
Formula 1 cars have continually gotten faster over the years, and despite rule changes and track layout tweaks designed to limit the cars to sensible speeds, the dominant Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas could be considered the fastest F1 car the world has ever seen, with Bottas clocking an unbelievable 231.461 mph during the Mexican Grand Prix in 2016, the highest official top speed of any F1 race.
From looking at the lap records for tracks that are still featured on the F1 calendar, it can be observed that some fastest laps still stand from 2004-2006! But despite many of the race circuits on the season calendar receiving minor layout changes since then (never with the intention of making the lap shorter), the majority of the lap records remain with F1 cars between 2018-2021.
A History of Speed
While it’s particularly difficult to pinpoint when “F1” as we know it officially started – one thing has always remained the same: the cars have always been purpose-built racecars with speed, grip, and agility of the highest standard within FIA rules.
That’s what has always made F1 so popular; with teams not being required to base the design of their car on a production vehicle, they could start afresh on the drawing board and truly build that maximized the potential of the specified guidelines.
Depending on the time, teams could have the opportunity to design, test, and develop new components for the car, hoping to legally extract more speed from the outfit, meaning there was just as much of a race for development in the workshop as there was for position out on track.
This desperate fight for the technical advantage led to teams doing whatever they could get away with, from spying on each other’s cars on the grid to devising cunning ways to manipulate the rules to work in their favor.
If one driver was dominating for a considerable time or by a large margin, it could be thought to be the result of their car being “illegal” in some way, either with a prohibited part or by manipulating elements of the fuel delivery or turbo boost systems.
Racing Within the Rules
The FIA has been responsible for all the interesting and sometimes less popular rule changes that give us the wildly different racecars we’ve seen over the years.
Often when a major rule change came about, it forced teams to effectively “ditch” the racecar they’d been developing for the last few years. However, these end-of-the-line F1 cars were, by that time, often the fastest and most sophisticated, such as the McLaren MP4/4 piloted by Senna and Prost, marking the end of the 1980s turbo era.
Formula 1 cars have been capable of reaching 200mph and beyond since the 1970s and ’80s, but the handling capabilities of the chassis never quite matched the enormous horsepower figures, meaning the cars were tricky to drive on the limit and sometimes with temperamental reliability.
Many times, we’ve seen the ban and subsequent resurrection of things like ground effects, slick tires, and traction control in a bid to improve the safety of the cars or to reduce the risk of them becoming dangerously fast, yet somehow the cars seemed to have gotten faster. Nonetheless, that is until the turn of the millennium.
F1 in the 21st Century
After many engine configurations being used and fettled with, from inline 4-cylinder turbo engines to 90° V8 engines and even V12s producing glorious sounds, the turn of the century saw the introduction of the engine that changed it all – a 3-liter naturally-aspirated V10 that could rev to almost 20k rpm, with cars capable of up to 230mph (370km/h).
Many lap records were set during this era, mainly in 2004 and 2005, and although their true potential was probably never seen due in part to the period of 4-groove tires that almost certainly slowed the cars down, several lap records from this time still remain, such as Michael Schumacher’s 1:24.125 at Albert Park, Australia and Rubens Barichello’s 1:21.046 at Monza, Italy. Was it that these cars were actually faster than the cars of today, or was it down to other factors that meant these records still stand?
Turbo F1 Cars Then vs. Now
To think that Formula 1 cars were using small 1.5-liter engines with turbochargers back in the 1980s pushing out 900-1400 horsepower, and yet after all the technical rule changes F1 has been through since then, we’ve landed pretty much back in the same place with 1.6-liter turbocharged engines, albeit with hybrid power and a few other differences.
But despite the lack of tight restrictions in the 1980s, the turbo cars, as advanced as they were for the time, were rather crude in the implementation of their technology, and as a result, the cars could not lap familiar circuits as fast as we see today. Drivers had to muscle the cars through the bends, dealing with horrendous turbo lag that made the cars exhausting to drive.
With one, or sometimes two big turbos strapped to the engine, drivers would put their foot down flat on the gas and have to wait for the desired power to arrive, only to be overwhelmed by the power arriving all at once at the worst possible time; what’s worse, to control the turbo boost level and other functions, drivers would have to take one hand off the steering wheel, the same went for the brake bias.
This meant you would be driving with one hand while simultaneously asking for more power!
The difference in today’s cars is, first of all they have an unrivaled level of mechanical grip thanks to much better tire compounds, aerodynamics, and suspension design.
Although the cars don’t have traction control to tame their power, issues from yesteryear, like heavy steering and tiresome turbo lag, are now non-existent. Everything from the engine rpm limit to the rate of fuel flow and level of turbo boost is restricted to create a fairer playing field.
Today’s F1 Cars are Fastest Ever
Although today’s F1 cars might sound lethargic in comparison to many of the historic cars that produced magnificent sights and sounds on full-chat, they have very similar horsepower figures and top speeds of cars from 15-20 years ago.
So while it’s possible the V10 cars from 2004 and 2005 were capable of higher top speeds due to running less downforce, the cars of today have much more grip through the turns, allowing them to carry cornering speeds of up to 170mph!
It’s final; they might not look or sound as fast as the iconic F1 cars did, spraying sparks and spitting flames as they blitzed around the racetrack – but today’s F1 cars are the fastest cars we have ever seen in the sport, and with another big rule shake-up taking effect for 2022, will the drivers be setting new records of their own with the new cars?
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