We all know F1 cars are blazingly fast, and regardless of whether you are on the stands or in front of your TV, you can miss them in the blink of an eye.
So the F1 car horsepower levels must surely be pushed to the limit to make these engineering marvels enthral us during a Grand Prix weekend?
We unravel the mystery behind the F1 engines below!
How Much Horsepower Do F1 Cars Have?
The F1 engine power generation currently adds up to about 1050 horsepower, which is very impressive for a power unit of its size and configuration as it is a 4-stroke 1.6 L V6 turbo hybrid design with a combustion engine and electric power-generating modules.
By comparison, the fastest sports car today—the SSC Tuatara—uses a much larger 5.9 L twin-turbo V8 engine that produces 1750 hp to be slightly faster than an F1 car.
The efficiency of the F1 engine, which spins at an extreme 15,000 rpm setup, coupled with a lightweight chassis, advanced power components, and cutting-edge aerodynamic properties, turns Formula 1 cars into the fastest racing machinery in the world.
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F1 Engine Horsepower Development Over the Years
Since F1’s inaugural season in 1950, much has changed in terms of engine regulations, types, sizes, and power levels to arrive to today’s Formula 1 car spec that produces 1,000 bhp.
But, is the current generation of engines the most powerful ever built or did past F1 engineers disregard driver safety in search of as much horsepower as possible?
Well, let’s look at the dramatic development of horsepower in Formula 1 throughout the years as investigated by the over at the Driver61 YouTube channel.
Despite being allowed a maximum displacement of 4.5 L of naturally-aspirated engines or 1.5 L if they used any sort of turbo technology, teams exhibited significant differences in performance due to the lack of engine regulations.
However, while cars started with 425 hp, manufacturers had to switch to smaller 2.0 L (upgraded to 2.5 L in 1954) engines without turbo that produced around 175 hp to fill up the racing grid, which eventually rose up to 300 hp.
During the next decade, the organisation introduced engine power restrictions as speeds were getting out of hand (almost 290 kph) without any meaningful safety regulations, so the F1 car hp numbers dropped again at around 200 for several years.
In 1966, 3.5 L engines were introduced, which again boosted the engine power to over 420 hp before regulations established relative stability over the following years, in spite of which, the decade recorded 14 unfortunate deaths resulting from racing incidents.
At the start of the 70s, engine builders made minor incremental upgrades to the power units to arrive at 500 hp by 1977, the year the F1 turbo era started with Renault’s innovative yet unreliable 1.5 L turbocharged RS–01.
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The 1980s started with Renault trying to perfect their turbo engine, and ultimately got it up to 700 hp by 1983, which prompted a response from every team to follow suit.
What followed was an engine engineering tendency to crank up the car’s power units to the maximum with reckless abandon of safety or driveability (note the spike in the graph), and only F1’s greatest drivers of that era could handle them well.
Thus, teams developed what was known among pundits as ‘qualifying grenades’ i.e., engines so powerful they only lasted one lap, which were then replaced with boosted down new units for the main event, which still produced over 850 F1 engine horsepower.
The most powerful engine to see the light of day during this decade and throughout F1’s history was the BMW M12/13/1, which ran above 1,400 hp and became the first turbocharged engine to win an F1 World Championship thanks to Nelson Piquet and his Brabham car.
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Since the dangerous turbo-powered engines of the 80s coupled with the incredible downforce caused many life-threatening crashes, the FIA banned turbocharged units altogether and returned to naturally-aspirated engines before the start of the 90s.
At this point, engine manufacturers moved back to 3.5 L normally-aspirated units that generated almost 700 hp that steadily increased before a steep power incline in 1995.
With the introduction of computer technology and better manufacturing tools, engineers built units that could rev much higher with either V12 (Ferrari) or V10 (Honda, Renault) design, which helped push the F1 engine power to 800 hp yet again.
Until 2006, the FIA mandated that teams use a V10 engine, which in its ultimate form was a 950 hp fast and loud monstrous power unit put in cars weighing only 600 kg.
However, the organisation once again limited the engine rpm and standardised a new 2.4 L V8 engine for the 2006 season, which resulted in a considerable drop in power to 750 hp.
The V8 reigned supreme at a similar f1 engine power level until the introduction of the current generation of 1.6 L V6 engines in 2014 and the return of the turbocharger.
Suddenly, F1 engines started regaining the horsepower they had during the peak 80s (up to 1,000 hp) thanks to their new and modern hybrid technology that also incorporates separate motor generator units that harvest lost energy to produce additional power.
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Were Older F1 Cars Faster?
As you can see, instead of a steady incline in f1 engine horsepower, the sport has witnessed drops in power on occasion due to reg changes, like the 1989 ban on the most powerful, yet also unpredictable, expensive, and unreliable turbochargers.
However, speed was never truly affected as car engineers compensated for the loss of power in other design aspects, such as better aerodynamics and reducing the overall car weight.
So older cars were not truly faster as modern innovation goes beyond pure engine power, as proved by Valtteri Bottas and his Williams with a 1.6 L V6 hybrid engine when he set the standing top speed record of 372.5 kph at the 2016 Mexican GP.
Who Supplies the Current F1 Engines?
As of the 2022 F1 season, the grid hosts four engine manufacturers, with Audi set to join F1 in 2026, bringing that number up to five. For now, however, we revel in the innovations of:
- Ferrari—the Italian outfit is the most successful chassis and engine manufacturer in F1’s history with 16 WCC (Constructors’ Champion) and 15 WDC (Drivers’ Champion) wins;
- Mercedes—a UK-based builder that built engines during two seasons in the 50s, returned to the field in 1994, and dominated the 2010s with 8 consecutive WCCs;
- Renault—this French F1 engine factory is the second-most successful outfit in the sport’s history with 12 WCC and 11 WDC victories;
- Red Bull Powertrains—the evolution of the Honda team that has won 6 WDCs and 6 WCCs, but pulled out of the sport at the end of 2021 and converted into RBR.
Since manufacturers have to follow FIA’s stringent rules as to the engine specifications, components, and the power they deliver, the different power units do not vary greatly, and they are all 4-stroke 1.6 L V6 turbo hybrid power units of the same size and style.
Moreover, some components are standardised and remain identical across teams.
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The Finish Line
So now that you know where the roar of an F1 engine comes from as it dashes across the world’s racing circuits, you surely have a better appreciation for the ingenuity needed to reach such high F1 car horsepower levels.
Hopefully, the upcoming 2026 regulations will not rob the Formula 1 racing spectacle from the characteristic scream of its engines and the breakneck speeds they help set, as no fan will ask for anything less.