GRR

OPINION: Why F1 can and should bring back V10s for 2030

21st May 2024
Ethan Jupp

The last opinion I wrote will have yielded more than a few calls for my dismissal, deportation, and even execution. I stand by it. I stand by my stance that the modern F1 V6s sound more interesting than the screaming V8s they replaced. But the V10s? Not even remotely, in any way whatsoever.

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As the title will have revealed, I happen to think V10s, or at least multi-cylinder, naturally-aspirated engines are a format F1 not only should, but can go back to, both superficially for the sake of sound and the fans, but also technically and in the name of innovation - the main motivation behind any and all modern F1 power unit mandates. But why? Let me explain.

That such a move could even be possible has only become apparent following comments from F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, who reckons anything’s on the table for 2030 and beyond.

“If we can be effective in the study and production of sustainable fuel, we will be able to think about the next generation of power units, focusing on lightness,” Domenicali recently told Motorsport.com.

“We want a competitive engine, with many horsepower and also with a great sound. 99.9 per cent of people want to hear a Formula 1 sound on track again, and that's something we've put on the table. Today we are in a transition phase, where large manufacturers need to develop hybrid and electric technologies since they are part of their sales portfolio. But I believe if we do a good job with sustainable fuels, we will be able to have simplified engines in a few years with a lower impact on weight. It's something we'll soon start thinking about.”

This era has been a rollercoaster of development, of refinement, but once what is arguably the ultimate failure of this era, the MGU-H, is ejected in 2026, where else do we go? As above, back to natural aspiration, back to multiple cylinders, back to the noise.

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Obviously Domenicali has a vested interest in fans actually enjoying the series over which he presides and from which he profits. But what technically, other than the ability to run such engines ‘cleanly’, could motivate such a move? As mentioned, reducing weight and complexity. But there’s more to it than that. We live in strange, turbulent times when it comes to what powers our cars. Should cars be electric, or hybrid? Should they stay petrol-powered, or should some other zero-CO2 solution be pursued? Can we use new clean fuels in our existing cars with our existing infrastructure?

Likewise, full electrification isn’t seemingly turning out to be the solve-all it was forced on us as. Their expense, weight, range, and general issues around practicality and true environmental efficacy in all areas beyond the elimination of tailpipe emissions are all still largely unreconciled. Now more than ever, a new era for internal combustion looks possible on the road and as we know, and as F1 insists, road relevance is key to the sport.

Indeed, the idea of downsizing oil-burners has been ongoing for the past 15 years on the road and actually, the last 30 years in F1. We dropped from 3.5-litre engines to 3.0-litre engines, then down to 2.4-litre engines, before the 1.6-litre turbo hybrid era. But downsizing and especially turbocharging, aren’t where the most exciting innovations lay. We have electric, high-rpm turbochargers in production cars now that were born out of the last decade of racing innovation. And as for their continued use in F1? Forced induction – with the need for intercoolers and elaborate plumbing and the like – is heavy and bulky. As Domenicali said, excess weight and size are high-ranking undesirables in F1 at the moment.

If the latest great road cars are anything to go by, the real innovation is in revs: engine management, lightweighting, friction reduction.

Cosworth’s advancements in these areas have lead to a road car V12 that both passes global emissions and has a warranty, while revving to 12,100rpm. Stat for stat, it’s not far off the RA121 3.5-litre Honda V12 that powered Ayrton Senna’s 1991 McLaren MP4/6, and in sound too, given we had a direct comparison of both at our 78th Members’ Meeting. 

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Video: Ayrton Senna's championship winning car screams round Goodwood

15th October 2021

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Then we can look to Koenigsegg, who for the better part of a decade have been developing their free-valve engine that doesn’t use fixed cams to control its valves. Rather, the ‘cam profile’ is constantly variable by individual electronically-controlled actuators. The result? Koenigsegg’s initial claims were 20 per cent improvements across the board, from engine weight, to performance, to emissions. It’s not pie in the sky tech either. A mule version of this head was put to use on a Saab for many miles, before the tech being productionised in the Koenigsegg Gemera’s ‘tiny friendly giant’ three-cylinder, good for over 600PS.

Then there’s how these engines and hybrid electric power could be a match made in heaven. High-revving engines in theory suit the low-down instant grunt of an electrified element perfectly, culminating in a long, smooth, beautifully-variable power band. Dare I say you could even incorporate cylinder shutdown. Cars so-equipped would satisfy the fans noise-wise, the drivers in terms of drivability, and indeed, satisfy F1’s obsession with industry appeasement, relevance, and the pursuit of electrification. I’m seeing nothing but wins.

Finally, there’s the question of what fuels the engines. F1’s never going all-electric, at least not for a very long time. But we know it’s going sustainable, eradicating fossil fuels from the paddock. On the road, sustainable and alternative fuels are also being investigated, as a solution that could be easier to fit into the existing infrastructures of the world than a wholesale conversion to electric power.  Just look at Toyota’s experiments with hydrogen combustion, retrofitting the 2UR GSE V8 to burn hydrogen rather than petrol, as well as race versions of its GR Corolla and Yaris.

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Why haven’t these kinds of wholesale outside-the-box approaches to evolving the combustion engine as we know it been pioneered in F1? The truth lays in that industry uncertainty we cited before and in F1’s own development over these last few years, which has largely been focused on its commercial potential.

While the industry has been chasing its tail, F1 has been re-learning how to print money in the post-Bernie era. But the right path is becoming ever-clearer and dare I say it, I suspect even Stefano Domenicali knows it. Keep the cleaner hybrid power, but bring back the better sounding V10s that are more innovative, powerful, and efficient than ever.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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