The pinnacle of automotive engineering, and easily its most expensive pursuit, is to be seen in the sometimes crazy world of Formula One racing. The 2014 season just concluded, and it was no exception to that "crazy" rule. Mercedes-Benz took the title, its drivers finishing one-two, winning 15 of the year's 18 races. Total dominance like never before.
In most eyes, the other newsworthy aspect of the season was the rigidly regulated engine formula, which left the previous 2.4-liter V-8 behind in favor of a tiny 1.6-liter V-6. Gone was the screaming of 18,000 rpm, in came the oddly low rumble of 12,000 rpm. Fans -- and many drivers -- hated it. Too quiet, they said.
Yet the new engine is a technological marvel, a turbocharged gas/electric hybrid that will be used again in 2015. F1 engines have actually been hybrids of a sort since 2009 when they added the KERS system -- 'kinetic energy recovery system' -- that harvested braking energy, stored it in batteries, and gave some 82 hp back to the driver at the touch of a button. But only for 6.6 seconds per lap. The new engine essentially doubles that gift of power and makes it available for five times longer.
With 160 horses added to the 600 already made by the little V-6, today's F1 cars easily hit speeds of 300 km/h. Yet they use just over half as much fuel as they did last year. Remarkable by any standard.
THE MOST INTERESTING THING about these new engines is that there are now two points of waste-energy recovery by way of two "motor generator units" (MGU). There's the MGU-K, which recovers energy from braking, and the MGU-H that recovers energy from the exhaust via the turbo.
Specifically, the MGU-H grabs power from the turbocharger’s spinning shaft, turning it into a generator and converting heat from the exhaust gases into power that's either used immediately to propel the car or it’s stored for future use. Essentially it replaces a wastegate, which would dump excess exhaust.
Remarkably, the MGU-H also runs in reverse and thus controls and boosts the speed of the turbocharger, which compensates for turbo lag. There's no waiting for the turbo to spool up. In essence, the turbo turns itself into a supercharger for a very brief moment until the exhaust power takes charge again.
And the coolest thing about this is that we're bound to see it in cars and hopefully trucks before long, because it does what hybrids haven't yet been able to do -- recover waste energy while cruising. No longer dependent solely on braking as a power source, the hybrid package becomes far more useful. And promising.
Rolf Lockwood is vice president of editorial and editor in chief for the award-winning Canadian trucking magazine Today's Trucking. This is excerpted from his biweekly e-mail newsletter, "The Lockwood Report." You can subscribe here.