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Former engineer Knoors discusses past and present of F1 engineering: "Would opt for V10 engines with e-fuels"

Over the years, Formula 1 cars have become progressively safer and better performing with less power and more weight. F1's next pillar is sustainability, an area that is now being worked hard on. But where are the limits in these areas? On the occasion of the Historic Grand Prix at Zandvoort, former F1 engineer Ernest Knoors discussed the sustainability, performance and safety of Formula 1 then, now and already looks ahead to 2026: "If I were Stefano Domenicali, I would bring back the V10 engines and drive an e-fuel."

Keke Rosberg, Williams FW10 Honda

Circuit Park Zandvoort, now renamed the CM.com Circuit Zandvoort, was often the scene of the Dutch Grand Prix between 1952 and 1985. On 25 August 1985, it hosted - until its return in 2021 - the hitherto last F1 race. That same year, Keke Rosberg clocked the highest average speed over a lap in F1 in his Williams FW10 at Silverstone: 257.506 kph. That record would only be broken in 2004 by Juan Pablo Montoya in the Williams FW26, when he tore across Monza at an average speed of 262.242kph. Each time, Monza would again be the scene of this record, with the most recent record in the name of Lewis Hamilton in 2020: 264.362kph. 

F1 has not stood still in the years when Zandvoort was not on the calendar. Considerable progress has been made in many areas. For instance, today's Formula 1 cars are a lot safer, they manage to set faster lap times despite increased weight and decreased power, and durability has become one of the biggest pillars for the future. In two months, those modern F1 cars will reappear on the Zandvoort circuit, but during the Historic Grand Prix, it was precisely the roaring cars of the 1980s that were on display. 

To showcase Formula 1's progress over the years in terms of durability, performance and safety, former F1 engineer Ernest Knoors, who gained years of F1 experience as an engine engineer for Stewart, Jaguar and BMW, among others, discusses the progression at the Zandvoort circuit. Zandvoort is also the prime location for that, as this dune circuit suddenly had to move significantly with the times to bring in modern Formula 1. Not only was the circuit adapted to welcome Formula 1, the organisation also came up with a progressive mobility plan. Cars will not enter Zandvoort during the F1 weekend and public transport and cycling will instead be promoted.

Not all travelling by car, but rather by bike or public transport to Zandvoort: with this mobility plan, the Dutch GP proved progressive

Not all travelling by car, but rather by bike or public transport to Zandvoort: with this mobility plan, the Dutch GP proved progressive

Photo by: Erik Junius

Pioneering role Zandvoort

According to Knoors, the Zandvoort circuit therefore has a "nice pioneering role" in that area. "But I think Formula 1 should also start promoting that more, because it's obviously leaving you open to a huge commentary if you say your car is carbon neutral, but there are sixty trucks in the car park and 300,000 people coming there by plane. That doesn't rhyme either," Knoors says in conversation with Autosport sister site nl.motorsport.com. "The task for the FIA and promoters will also be to make those events around it a bit more sustainable. I think Zandvoort - not because it happens to be Dutch - is doing very well with that because they have chosen that concept."

Formula 1 announced in 2019 that it wants to be carbon neutral from 2030. The new 2026 engine formula will place more emphasis on the electric power of the hybrid engine, and teams will then use renewable fuels. Team factories and the events themselves must also become more sustainable. These are very different ambitions from the 1980s. Knoors explains that in 1985 Formula 1 saw "by far the most powerful internal combustion engines", and that combined with low weight and "weird fuel blends". "As a result, you could get up to 1,400hp out of a litre and a half, a fairly small engine volume," the former F1 engineer points out. The power-to-weight ratios have decreased over the years, but Knoors stresses, "In a race, you used to have a restriction of 220 litres on the tank capacity. Now you're at 110kg. So then you end up with a consumption that is almost half of what you had back then. In the process, you have a car that is - equally exaggerated - almost twice as heavy and lap times that are six to seven percent faster if you look at the average lap time. That's actually a phenomenal achievement when you consider how little petrol we use for that."

Niki Lauda won the 1985 Dutch Grand Prix in the McLaren MP4-2B TAG

Niki Lauda won the 1985 Dutch Grand Prix in the McLaren MP4-2B TAG

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Electrification

Still, according to Knoors, that is no reason for Formula 1 to pat itself on the back. "If you look at sustainability, so where you started and where you are now, that is huge progression. If you look at how sustainable a Formula 1 car is now... 30kg of petrol per 100km is still not... it's not a Toyota Prius, shall I say. That's still not something you're going to beat yourself up about, unless you bring the story of 'we were there then, now we're here and we're going there'. That is also somewhat the line chosen by Formula 1. The dot on the horizon is the 2026 regulations, where you get 350 kilowatts from your combustion engine and 350 kilowatts from your electric engine. That is a shift in the inter-relationships, the hybrid drive will be pulled much more to the electric side. As a result, you will see that they will burn even less fuel, and eventually that fuel will also be made carbon-neutral by making synthetic or biofuel. With that, Formula 1 does bet on staying relevant to what is happening in the world."

In that world, the focus seems to be precisely on the electrification of cars. After all, the EU wants to ban the sale of new combustion-engine street cars from 2035. However, according to Knoors, Formula 1 does not need to become electric to remain relevant. "This is really my personal opinion: I don't think Formula 1 is ever going to be all-electric. Because, on the one hand, you already have a class that does that and, on the other hand, you've already seen in that series that the level of performance and audience interest there is not at the same level as Formula 1 anyway. But I think the goal in itself doesn't have to be to go purely electric, the goal in itself should be to engage in motorsport in a responsible way."

If Knoors had been in Formula 1 boss Stefano Domenicali's shoes, he would have known what he would change in this area. "Then I would bring back the V10 engines and drive an e-fuel, because sound is also important," laughs the former BMW MTEK team boss. "If he wants to go in this direction of hybrid-powertrains, he should indeed start looking at making the cars smaller and lighter. Smaller and lighter would lead to more opportunities to overtake on the track anyway. You will have to put more mechanical grip in those cars and a little less aero grip. Then you can think about tyre dimensions. If you build a smaller and lighter car, you will have less aero anyway. Then I think those are the directions you need to go in: more mechanical grip, smaller and lighter cars and a little less dependence on aerodynamics."

If it were up to Knoors, F1 would go back to the V10, like this Honda 3.5 V10 engine in the Tyrrell 020, with e-fuels

If it were up to Knoors, F1 would go back to the V10, like this Honda 3.5 V10 engine in the Tyrrell 020, with e-fuels

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Emphasis on aero

With those last suggestions, Knoors makes the leap to performance. After all, over the years Formula 1 cars have become bigger and heavier, but have improved in terms of speed. He explains that Formula 1 used to have a lift coefficient - the coefficient of how much vertical force you get out of your aero - of three, where it is now at seven or eight. "The cars have become slightly bigger. You would say: a bigger car, how can that be faster? You just have a bigger surface area where you can make your wings work more efficiently."

Whether that emphasis on aerodynamics in recent years has benefited Formula 1 racing? "Well, until last year, or until 2021 you could actually say no, not really," Knoors argues. "Because short-chasing was difficult, overtaking was difficult and we went to DRS. That's inherent when you have a formula where so much performance comes from aerodynamics."

In 2022, Formula 1 introduced new technical regulations to improve that. It marked the return of a concept that was just so popular in the early 1980s: the ground effect. The FIA hoped this would create more exciting races, as the cars would generate less dirty air and should therefore be able to follow each other more easily, including in corners. Last year it also seemed a lot easier, but this year the teams have made a move on aerodynamics and drivers seem to have a harder time really overtaking again - without the help of DRS.

Nevertheless, Knoors believes it was the right move by Formula 1 to change the rules. "I think so, because if you hadn't done anything, it would have become increasingly difficult. Then you would have become more and more dependent on adjusting the DRS rules. Then you only get overtaking with DRS," said the former engine engineer of BMW and Ferrari, among others, who is clearly not in favour of artificial interventions such as opening the wing. "The purest racing is when you can overtake the other car without tricks on one car, when you have two equal cars and you can't press a button to flatten a wing. I think in terms of racing, that is the purest form. It's a pipe dream to say that that will come back very soon, unless you really start doing radically different things, so reducing the effectiveness of aero in general."

According to Knoors, it is not crazy that Formula 1 has plunged into the ground effect, but it is important that the rules are continuously tightened to maintain the desired effect. "What I said before: if you had not chosen to move towards downforce now, your potential for overtaking would certainly not have improved and probably worsened a bit every year. At the moment, under the current rules, I would say it's not a crazy concept. It works in principle, because a ground-effect car has the ability to throw out much less turbulent air. That is theoretically a step forward and we have seen that in practice, but you have to keep tightening those rules continuously to make sure that effect is not lost."

Max Verstappen's Red Bull Racing RB19 shows that aerodynamic efficiency is crucial for success in today's Formula 1

Max Verstappen's Red Bull Racing RB19 shows that aerodynamic efficiency is crucial for success in today's Formula 1

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Luck the dominant factor

With the arrival of the new 2022 technical rules, it was feared that Formula 1 cars would become a lot slower. Those fears soon proved unfounded, as lap times came close to those of previous years. That improved performance does bring the safety of the cars back into the picture. Knoors sees a "gradual process" of safety improvements over the years, with the crash test in 1985 being the first big step. Next came tests for side impacts and more head protection for drivers. Those improvements often resulted in far fewer fatal crashes. "In the end, though, there is now a car that is still a huge step forward in terms of safety, with which you don't actually have any more fatal accidents," he says.

"That's also where the big danger lies: you can never completely reduce it to zero," he adds immediately. "There are still accidents where luck is the dominant factor and not the technology that saves lives." As examples, Knoors cites the crashes of Romain Grosjean in Bahrain and Zhou Guanyu at Silverstone. "If Grosjean slides through the crash barrier a little less and the opening he came out of is blocked, yes then it's a completely different story. The same goes for Zhou's crash." The latter crash prompted stricter tests for the roll hoop.

Thus, Knoors sees that Formula 1 safety is constantly evolving, but the question is when a ceiling is reached. "Indeed, at some point you get into a bit of a vicious circle: you can never make it completely safe," he points out. "Street car or race car: you can never rule out an accident. If you keep increasing the demands on the car's safety, at some point you create your own problems too. A heavier structure of safety systems leads to a heavier car. So at some point there is a point where it no longer pays off or where it deviates too much from the essence of Formula 1... But then I still think you have to adjust the rules, not at the expense of safety. But the rules in general that you made to make a car so heavy, that should be looked at."

Zhou Guanyu's Alfa Romeo C42 after his crash at Silverstone

Zhou Guanyu's Alfa Romeo C42 after his crash at Silverstone

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Safety issue for circuits

Increasingly fast cars are not only posing the safety issue for Formula 1 itself, but circuits also increasingly need to be able to guarantee safety. Circuits are not allowed to welcome F1 until they have the Grade 1 licence from the FIA, but those requirements may change as F1 cars get faster. "That includes the development of Tecpro barriers and other run-offs... You also see that is constantly changing," Knoors explained. "We had a whole time when using gravel was out of the question and then we went to asphalt run-off strips. That may not always be better for racing either. Sometimes it's not better for safety either. That whole infrastructure on such a circuit, it does keep evolving."

Still, a circuit like Zandvoort will not have to worry about the safety aspect any time soon, Knoors argues. Indeed, he believes that it is up to Formula 1 itself to impose restrictions on speed and therefore not the circuits to keep developing in this area. "It is just not physically feasible to adapt most of the circuits to cars that would drive 10kph faster on average. Then a lot of circuits will become unsafe, even in places where you can no longer do anything about it. You will see that F1 is going to adjust the regulations so that you don't shoot extremely above, but you don't fall below either. You won't get an F1 car that is suddenly 10 or 15 seconds slower from one year to the next. That's not part of the sport either."

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