Mercedes M196: 1954-1955
© Oli Pendry

These are the immortal engines that shaped Formula One

Discover the power units that brought the vroom to generations of motor racing.
Written by Matt Youson
5 min readPublished on
Formula One is an aerodynamic sport, it’s a chassis sport, it’s a tyre sport – but most of all it’s a horsepower sport. Here are six engines that have shaped Formula One – but we could quite easily have featured 20…

Mercedes M196: 1954-1955

Eight-cylinder inline normally-aspirated engine of 2.5l with direct fuel injection
A blueprint-style illustration of the Mercedes M196 engine.
Mercedes M196
Across 1954 and 1955, Mercedes entered 12 grands prix and won nine of them. While the W196 was an advanced chassis and had Juan Manuel Fangio behind the wheel, much of its success came down to the power delivered by the revolutionary M196 engine. The M196 was lightyears ahead of the competition. It featured the first use of desmodromic valves (operated by cams and levers rather than springs) and a mechanical direct injection system (adapted from the DB 601 aero engine of Messerschmitt Me109 fame). The legacy of the M196 is that it made advanced engine technology the preeminent performance differentiator in F1. A position it still occupies today.

Coventry-Climax FPF: 1957-1963

Four-cylinder inline normally-aspirated engine of 1.5l, 2.0l 2.2l, 2.5l displacement
The Coventry-Climax FPF, one of F1’s most celebrated engines, started out in life as a water pump.
Coventry-Climax FPF
One of F1’s most celebrated engines started out in life as a… water pump. Coventry Climax made engines for all sorts of things – but the origins of the FPF engine lies with the Coventry Climax FW (for FeatherWeight) engine, which was designed in response to a British Government call for a portable fire pump. The motor racing fraternity were suitably impressed with the lightweight engine, and thus the FWA (FeatherWeight – Automotive) was born. The FPF was a mainstay of the rear-engined revolution that propelled the British ‘garagistas’, to the forefront of F1. Stirling Moss, driving a Cooper T43, gave the FPF engine its first win, and by the time it was superseded by a V8 in 1961/62 it had won 18 grands prix for Cooper, Lotus and their customers, and powered Cooper to the 1959 and 1960 World Championships for Constructors.

Cosworth DFV: 1967-1985 (and beyond)

90° normally-aspirated 3.0l V8
No engine has done more to shape F1 than Cosworth’s DFV.
Cosworth DFV
No engine has done more to shape F1 than Cosworth’s DFV. It won 155 times over 15 years. It powered 10 Constructors’ and 12 Drivers’ Championship titles and, at times, would be propelling three-quarters of the field. Lotus, Tyrrell, McLaren, Brabham and Williams all took DFV-powered titles. Hesketh, March, Penske, Shadow, Wolf and Ligier all won races. Many of F1’s most illustrious teams exist because the DFV allowed them to. The original cost of a DFV was £7,500, then fell to £6,500. Not pocket-change, but affordable enough to democratise F1. F1 driver and chassis builder Howden Ganley sums it up best. “It changed the sport because anybody – and I did – could go and buy a couple of DFVs, build themselves a chassis and become a Formula One team.” It is, quite simply, the Daddy.

Renault-Gordini EF1: 1977-1983

90° turbocharged 1.5l V6
While there were better turbos than the Renault EF1, it was the pioneer that made everything that followed possible.
Renault-Gordini EF1
While there were better turbos than the Renault EF1, it was the pioneer that made everything that followed possible. The original 1977 engine is best looked at as a mobile laboratory. It failed to finish four of its five races in 1977 and failed to qualify for the other – but Renault persevered. The RS01 ‘yellow teapot’ continued to blow-up regularly and but the EF1 shed some weight and became more manageable. It scored points at the end of the 1978 season, and driver/engineer Jean-Pierre Jabouille was rewarded for his perseverance in 1979 with the first victory in F1 for a turbocharged car. In France! When it held together the EF1 was ferociously powerful, and by the time it was retired, had earned 15 grand prix victories – and kickstarted a revolution.

Honda RA121E: 1991-1992

60° normally-aspirated 3.5l V12
The Honda RA121E engine enjoyed a golden period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Honda could do no wrong.
Honda RA121E
Honda enjoyed a golden period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it could do no wrong. Honda power won six consecutive Constructors’ and five consecutive Drivers’ World Champions across the Williams and McLaren teams and with three very different engines. The 1986-88 titles fell to 1.5l V6 turbos, while 1989-90 were won with normally-aspirated3.5l V10s. The most unusual success, however, was 1991’s RA121E V12, with which Ayrton Senna took his final title in the McLaren MP4/6. Many theories are put forward as to why Honda decided to ditch a highly successful V10 engine – one answer is that they did it simply because they wanted to. It’s the only V12 engine to win an F1 title.

Mercedes PU106A Hybrid: 2014

90° turbocharged, direct injection 1.6l V6 hybrid featuring MGU-K and MGU-H
Mercedes’ PU106A power unit from 2014 has developed into a considerably more powerful form.
Mercedes PU106A Hybrid
Every era of F1 has its dominant teams and its dominant technology. In the modern times, that team is Mercedes and that technology is its hybrid engine. F1 was certainly ambitious with its new engine project. In one go it downsized, re-introduced turbo-charging and direct injection, beefed-up its kinetic energy recovery system, and added a revolutionary second energy recovery system powered by the flow of exhaust gases. The new hybrids were incredibly expensive, massively complicated but easily the most efficient and eventually the most powerful F1 engines ever raced. The cream of the crop is Mercedes’ PU106A power unit from 2014. While Mercedes have had years of greater dominance, and the engine has developed into a considerably more powerful form since, this is the one that set the standard and kick-started a dynasty.