By Stefan Kristensen
August 10, 2022

In Which Era are Formula 1 Cars the Most Powerful?

Newcomers to the Formula 1 racing fan base may be pretty excited about what the sport has to offer with their naturally aspirated, hybrid formulas. It might surprise most of them to know that today's Formula 1 race cars are not the monsters of yesteryear and, once upon a time, an even more powerful F1 car once existed.

To find out which Formula 1 era was the most powerful of all time, you would have to take a trip back in time to the 1980s. Otherwise known as the "turbo era," the 1980s produced the most staggeringly powerful F1 race cars ever, including the BMW M12.

The BMW M12 was a monstrous race car with 1,400HP. In 1986, naturally aspirated engines were banned in Formula 1 racing. Turbo was the name of the game and the horsepower was so high that test engines would often fail after only a single lap. 

History of the Most Powerful F1 Race Cars

The drive (pun intended) to produce some of the most outrageously insane powerhouse cars began in the 1970s and peaked in 1986. Renault led the way by introducing the sport to turbocharged machines that were unlike anything else before or after. 

Teams took to turbocharged engines pretty quickly and by the time the mid-1980s rolled around, every car on the track was turbocharged. The engines were known as forced induction engines and a smaller "displacement" engine to accompany it. 

Formula 1 didn't allow that to go on for long, however, outright banning most turbocharged engines in 1987. This change forced Formula 1 cars to switch over to an atmospheric engine.

Though several teams continued developing engines that were turbocharged (up to the highly restricted level in which they were allowed, until 1989 when it was eliminated. The powers that be at the Formula 1 level decided that turbo was getting out of hand, creating incredible variations on the track, with a lot of unknowns. 

Despite the fact that BMW is no longer a part of Formula 1 racing, leaving at the end of the 80s, they still own the record for having the most powerful race car to ever grace the track in a Formula 1 race. 

The Most Powerful F1 Car

Formula 1 has had a lot of cars come and go, with a lot of brands that are no longer a part of the sport. One of those brands is BMW, which happened to create the most well-known and powerful Formula 1 race car to participate in the sport.

The Formula 1 car was known as the BMW M12 and M13. There were three teams that were the lucky recipients of one of these cars—Benetton, Brabham, and Arrows. This particular BMW race car is also the most powerful engine ever created by BMW. 

Not even today, with all of the advancements in engine technology, has BMW created a more powerful engine than the one that took to the F1 tracks in the early to mid-1980s. That's a pretty significant accomplishment because they probably could or may have even tried. 

The car simply didn't last too long, as Formula 1 realized that some changes had to be made since the cars were clearly getting out of hand. The BMW M12 dominated the 1982 season and the engine produced the record for straight-line speed that is still unbroken today. 

This was accomplished by Gerhard Berger, driving the Benetton B186, which contained the BMW M12 engine that was mounted at a 72° incline to take advantage of aerodynamics. Ironically, Gerhard Berger really didn't like the new engines. Of course, that was before he drove one. 

Afterward, he proclaimed that the new engine was "pure F1."

The End of an Era

The era of the most powerful engines in F1 racing didn't last long, taking up the better part of a single decade and falling off rapidly as Formula 1 entered the 1990s. In fact, 1986 was the year that flaws began to crop up in the numerous advancements of the original M12. 

By the end of the 80s, Formula 1 racing embraced the naturally aspirated engines that they once denounced and F1 entered a period of digression before rising again at the turn of the millennium. 

The downfall actually began in 1987, following a season where the BMW M12/13 engines performed very poorly. In 1987, Formula 1 began a push towards the naturally aspirated engines that we are far more familiar with today. 

It is highly unlikely, given all of the restrictions and safety requirements that are imposed on the sport, that we will ever return to such an era of sheer power and speed on the race track. 

If you eliminate the brief stint of the BMW M12 engines in the early to mid-80s, there is another era that is considered to be the most powerful in F1 racing. 

  Formula 1 Racing Today

The current era of Formula 1 racing is largely considered to be the most powerful era of F1 racing. However, that is only if you wilfully exclude that brief history in the 1980s. Now, F1 cars use turbo-hybrid engines. 

Today, F1 cars use V6 engines, as opposed to the BMW 4-cylinder engine of 1980s fame. The Mercedes W11 is considered to be the one car that could potentially match the 1982 BMW M12. 

The power of the Mercedes doesn't even have much to do with the engine, but with the DAS system, which allows the driver to change the front-wheel alignment on the fly, creating beneficial heating of the tires.

As the 1980s BMW M12 was controversial for its engine, the 2022 Mercedes W11 is controversial for its DAS system. History is a magnificent circle and what goes around in the 1980s, comes around once again. 

Final Thoughts

A lot of professional F1 racing "admin types" like to ignore the 1980s and declare today's F1 race cars as the most powerful, ever. That might be true one day. However, the BMW M12s of the 1980s remain as they unbeaten, unrivaled champions of true power in F1 racing history. 

(Top photo: Gerhard Berger driving the Benetton B186 at the 1986 Detroit Grand Prix. Don France from Alamo, CA, USA Don France Photography, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Written by Stefan Kristensen
I have been passionate about motorsports ever since I was a little boy. Back then, I cheered on the racing cars simply based on their colors. Later I fell in love with the many technical features, strategic plays, humans and their stories that all together drives this amazing sport to make it as interesting as it is.
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