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Power unit / gearbox

The Renault Sport Energy F1-2014 Power Unit. Mercedes-Benz power unit, the PU106A Hybrid Gearbox detail.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Preparations, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 6 May 2010 Gearbox and rear end detail.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Preparations, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 6 May 2010 Williams FW32 gearbox detail.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Preparations, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 6 May 2010 2014 Mercedes-Benz engine The Renault Sport Energy F1-2014 Power Unit.

The power unit and transmission of a modern Formula One car are some of the most highly stressed pieces of machinery on the planet, and the competition to have the most power on the grid is still intense.

Traditionally, the development of racing engines has always held to the dictum of the great automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche that the perfect race car crosses the finish line in first place and then falls to pieces. Although this is no longer strictly true - regulations now require powertrains to last for several races - designing modern Formula One engines remains a balancing act between the power that can be extracted and the need for just enough durability.

Engine power outputs in Formula One racing are also a fascinating insight into how far the sport has moved on. In the 1950s Formula One cars were managing specific power outputs of around 100 bhp / litre (about what a modern 'performance' road car can manage now). That figure rose steadily until the arrival of the 'turbo age' of 1.5 litre turbo engines, some of which were producing anything up to 750 bhp / litre. Then, once the sport returned to normal aspiration in 1989 that figure fell back, before steadily rising again. The 'power battle' saw outputs creep back towards the 1000 bhp barrier, some teams producing more than 300 bhp / litre in 2005, the final year of 3 litre V10 engines. From 2006 to 2013, the regulations required the use of 2.4 litre V8 engines limited to 18,000rpm, with power outputs falling around 20 percent.

From 2014 onwards, a Formula One car’s power is provided by a 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 engine which produces around 600bhp, though this represents just one component of an F1 car’s power unit. An additional 160bhp or so comes from an advanced Energy Recovery System (ERS) which utilises two clever motor generator units (MGU) that convert mechanical and heat energy to electrical energy and vice versa.

The engine itself is a stressed component within the car, bolting to the carbon fibre 'tub' and having the transmission and rear suspension bolted to it in turn. Therefore it has to be enormously strong. A conflicting demand is that it should be light, compact and with its mass in as low a position as possible, to help lower the car's centre of gravity and to enable the height of rear bodywork to be minimised.

The gearboxes of modern Formula One cars are now highly automated with drivers selecting gears ‘seamlessly’ via paddles fitted behind the steering wheel. The 'sequential' gearboxes used are very similar in principle to those of motorbikes, allowing gear changes to be made far faster than with the traditional ‘H’ gate selector, with the gearbox selectors operated electrically. Despite such high levels of technology, fully automatic transmission systems, and gearbox-related wizardry such as launch control, are illegal - a measure designed to keep costs down and place more emphasis on driver skill. Transmissions - which must have eight forward gears, the ratios having been chosen before the season - bolt directly to the back of the engine.

Mindful of the massive cost of these ultra high-tech powertrains, the FIA introduced new regulations in 2005 mandating the use of engines in multiple races and, in 2008, a similar policy with gearboxes. From 2014, each car must use the same gearbox for six consecutive events, but the rules for engines were changed slightly to reflect the multiple components that make up each car’s power unit.

The power unit is deemed to consist of six separate elements, of which five of each are available to each driver per season before they are penalised. The elements are the engine, the motor generator unit-kinetic (MGU-K), the motor generator unit-heat (MGU-H), the energy store (ES), turbocharger (TC) and control electronics (CE). Should a driver use more than five of any one component he faces a penalty ranging from a five-place grid drop, a 10-place grid drop, or (if the entire power unit has to be changed) starting the race from the pit lane.

Gearbox ratios are fixed for the season (for 2014 only they may be changed once), but teams may change gears or dog rings at any time during an event providing that the FIA technical delegate is satisfied that there is physical damage to the parts in question.