Turbochargers have been known in the world of motorsports for many years. They were used in various series during the 60s and 70s, but for several reasons, this technology did not appear in Formula 1 until 1977.
The Renault RS01 is the first turbocharged car and one of the cars that forever changed this sport.
This is the story of the RS01 and the first turbocharger in the world of Formula 1.
How it all started…
Renault got the idea for this project while working on its 2.0 turbocharged engine used in Le Mans racing. This provided them with enough knowledge and experience to attempt to transfer that technology to Formula 1. At that time, the turbocharger had the characteristics of a very powerful system but was simultaneously heavy and unreliable.
Formula 1 rules at the time allowed teams to use 3.0 naturally-aspirated engines or 1.5 turbocharged engines. Since this technology was not yet developed to a sufficiently high level, all teams opted for the first and more reliable option. That is until the RS01 came along.
In 1977, at the British Grand Prix, the RS01 debuted with a revolutionary 1.5 turbocharged engine, but the results were disappointing. The engine head was made of cast iron to withstand the immense pressures within the engine cylinder. This led to the entire power unit being too heavy, and consequently, the car itself.
That year, the RS01 was far from a competitive car. Due to frequent failures, it earned the nickname “The Yellow Teapot” because the engine usually failed with a large white smoke cloud behind it.
It took the Renault team a lot of time to solve all the problems and finally create a reliable and powerful engine.
How does a turbocharger actually work?
A turbocharger operates on a simple principle – it uses energy from the engine’s exhaust gases to bring in more fresh air into the cylinders. More fresh air means more fuel can be burned, resulting in more power.
A turbocharger consists of two main parts – the turbo and the compressor. They are connected on one shaft so that the rotation speed of these two components is always the same.
The turbo is directly connected to the engine’s exhaust manifold and operates on the principle of a turbine – it uses the energy of gases to rotate the turbine. The rotation of the turbo part also leads to the rotation of the compressor, which has a different task.
How A Turbocharger Works pic.twitter.com/PuqmgYfGtT
— LienhardBildwerke © (@LienhardRacing) November 16, 2016
But before the air travels from the compressor to the engine cylinder, it must be cooled.
There are several ways to do this, but the main idea is to cool the air as much as possible so that its density increases, and consequently, the same amount of air occupies less space.
This further helps in the task of getting as much air as possible into the engine cylinder.
In addition to making the engine more powerful and efficient, a turbocharger has its drawbacks. The one that most affects the performance of the car on the track is known as the “turbo lag” phenomenon.
We mentioned that the rotation speed of the compressor depends on the speed of the turbo, or the amount of exhaust air.
During acceleration from low speeds, the engine takes some time to reach the appropriate RPM that would provide enough energy to rotate the turbocharger. This drawback mostly affects the speed when exiting slow corners.
However, since this was a relatively new technology, it provided a tremendous performance boost when the turbocharger was reliable.
From “The Yellow Teapot” to F1 race winner
Renault knew that the turbocharger was the right thing for Formula 1, which is why they did not give up on this project even after a poor start. The heavy and unreliable RS01 recorded even worse results in the next 1978 season, with many more failures.
— Paul McGinnes 🏁 (@PaulMcG92) February 3, 2023
It took engineers two years to identify and eliminate all the problems. The engine’s weight was significantly reduced, and, most importantly, reliability was greatly improved.
Finally, in 1979, Renault achieved its long-awaited victory, right on its home track in France. It was a French victory on multiple levels, as the team’s car was driven by French driver Jean-Pierre Jabouille, while the main sponsor was the French oil company Elf.
Soon after, other teams recognised the great potential hidden in the turbocharger, including Ferrari, BMW, and Honda, and immediately began developing their versions of turbocharged engines.
Thus began an era that continues to this day.
Turbochargers are now used not only in Formula 1 but also in almost every racing series and everyday cars. They significantly increase the efficiency of engines, using energy that would otherwise be wasted.
With their help, during the 80s, teams managed to create cars with up to 1000 horsepower, which was incredible at that time. However, exactly 10 years after the first victory of turbocharged cars, the FIA decided to ban their use.
The cars were simply too fast and unsafe, while significant financial resources were being allocated to developing turbo systems.
This brought us back to the era of naturally-aspirated engines, which lasted until 2014 when, for ecological reasons, a hybrid system was introduced.
The engines then adopted a different way of functioning with turbochargers, namely the MGU-H.
But it seems that history is repeating itself because, as we already know, new rules are being introduced from 2026, banning the use of the MGU-H system. This time, financial reasons are cited, considering that developing such a system requires enormous investment.
However, turbochargers will remain in our everyday cars for sure, making our cars more efficient and environmentally friendly.