Formula 1

Up in smoke: The worst F1 engines

6 Mins read

Ferrari has been having a nightmare season when it comes to engines. The factory team’s supply seems to have been cleaned up after an initial spate of failures, but customer team Sauber continues to go through more powerplants than ATS did drivers.

However Ferrari’s problems pale into insignificance compared to other engine builders down the years – many were (not so) revolutionary concepts, others complete donkeys from world-renowned car manufacturers.

Some engines were so bad they never made it past testing and into an actual race car. Others never made it into production after other shortcomings.

Some people are somehow destined to work with the most rejectful F1 outfits; when it comes to obscure and pretty useless car designs, Enrique Scalabroni’s your man (though buying the old Peugeot V10s of the mid 90s and trying to run your own team around them in 2002 means he wouldn’t exactly be out of place in this list either). With engines, Al Melling had a knack of signing up for projects that would never materialise.

Scott Russell Engines is probably a name you’ve never heard before – because they never got around to building an engine that actually raced. A run of the mill V8 was produced and tested, and then the company died when their second project failed. Not that it was a surprise, a 135 degree V12 was never a good idea (though it too General Motors a while to see that, after initally backing the project they pulled the plug soon after).

Once again Melling failed to deliver on his next project – though it didn’t really matter in the end, the team that was supposed to be using his new MCD V10s went bust after one race. Just like the chassis department, the 1997 works Lola engine fell at the first hurdle.

Guy Négre and Franco Rocchi both had the same idea – but at least one of them kept their dignity intact when their ‘revolutionary’ engine turned out to be as good as worthless.

MGN (Négre’s outfit) tested their unconventional W12 engine throughout 1988 and 1989, ending with an on-track test in the back of a two year old AGS JH22. The test gave some pretty clear indications about the new engine’s performance – there wasn’t any.

Credit where it’s due, the idea wasn’t that bad – an engine with (potentially) the power of a V12 and the compactness of a V8 had its advantages. Three cylinder banks with 60 degrees between them was what gave the W12 its compact size, but then again smaller size does not mean less weight.

Rocchi had been a long serving Ferrari engineer – he came up wit the W3 engine concept way back in the 60s while working there, but Ferrari never put the concept into action. Eventually he went solo and created the W12 engine by himself.

This was during the winding down of the turbo era – the insanely high cost of turbos had forced the FIA to ban them, and many teams were in need of a new engine supply. Italian businessman Ernesto Vita thought he saw a great opportunity to make a quick buck – buy the engine rights from Rocchi, then sell it on to one of the smaller independent teams on the grid.

The only problem for Vita was the team bosses had the sense to steer clear of such an experimental engine, which most outsider observers were expecting to be a complete failure.

As it turned out, they were pretty modest about Life in the run up to the 1990 season. It was undoubtedly the biggest disaster in Formula One. It made Andrea Moda look like a professional outfit.

Vita decided to showcase the ‘potential’ of the W12 himself, buying the failed FIRST F1 project. Former March engineer Richard Divila started work on the project before he went off to fulfil his 1989 contract with Ligier, so the car was left in less capable hands. When he came back to analyse the finished product, he could only describe the abomination as an “interesting flowerpot”. He later went to court to get his name completely erased from anything related to the project, not wanting his name associated with the ‘deathtrap’ that had been built.

Still, the project went ahead. Gary Brabham walked into the Life factory (yes, believe it or not this wasn’t run out of Vita’s garden shed) expecting to only test the car, not sign a 2 year deal. He realised his mistake 2 races into his F1 career and quit after being several seconds away from making it past pre-qualifying – and somewhat lucky the car even lasted long enough to actually complete a flying lap.

Bruno Giacomelli decided he had some time to kill while being Leyton House’s test driver and replaced him – he didn’t make the car go any faster. Life even gave up on their own engine and instead put in the Judd V8 the car was originally designed around – and it was still miles off the pace.

Just to put into perspective quite how slow the Life was – at the season opener in Phoenix Brabham was half a minute behind the next slowest car, Claudio Langes‘ EuroBrun!

There was one car slower than Brabham that day though, Bertrand Gachot‘s Coloni-Subaru. It had a time of over 5 minutes – because it broke down on his only quali lap. Motori Moderni had been producing turbo engines for the last few years prior to 1990 – and in conjunction with Subaru they created a flat-12 engine – two cylinder banks at 180 degrees gave the motor a low centre of gravity, combined with a lack of power and woeful reliability.

The size of the engine created a big problem – whatever car it was put in would need a very wide floorplan to accomodate the shallow but wide engine, compromising aerodynamics as well. As a result the Coloni C3 was an absolute disaster, failing to pre-qualify for a single event all season – though this was partially the chassis’ fault, as the revised C3C with a Cosworth DFR fitted also didn’t make it out of pre-qualifying from Hockenheim onwards.

The concept wasn’t entirely useless – while the flat-12 built by Mercedes was also rather heavy, it won a World Sportscar Championship even fitted to the back of a Sauber C9 sportscar, and driven by the rather more talented duo of Karl Wendlinger and Michael Schumacher. The Subaru unit however died at sportscar manufacturer Koenigsegg – after being used in one of their prototypes, they ditched it in favour of a much more conventional Ford V8 for later models.

The Subaru was probably Japan’s biggest failure in their many forays into Formula One, but many others never even made it to the racetrack. Isuzu created a V12 engine to put in the back of Lotus’ 1991 effort, but after a single test the project vanished into thin air, hidden in a cloud of secrecy. HKS, who spend most of their time modifying Nissan Silvias to go round corners sideways had a crack at a V12 as well, installed into the back of a Lola F3000 test hack. It never went any further, instead going to F3 with a modified Mitsubishi straight-four.

There was nearly a fairytale ending for the last of the less successful Japanese engine builders though. Yamaha started out with a V8 engine with the Zakspeed team – basically an evolution of the Cosworth DFV with 5 valves per cylinder the biggest change. Bernd Schneider only progressed beyond pre-qualifying once in 16 attempts that year, while team-mate Aguri Suzuki didn’t manage it at all.

Yamaha took the following year off and went back to the drawing board, and returned in 1991 with a V12 motor. It was an up and down couple of seasons, the occasional DNQ seasoned with a point now and again. Brabham had more success with it than Jordan – after 4 DNQ’s and a sole point in the hands of Stefano Modena they scrapped the V12 in favour of linking up with Judd for a new V10 powerplant. It went through constant evolution for the next 5 years – and at the end of those 5 years Yamaha’s work nearly came good. Damon Hill led much of the 1997 Hungarian GP, and looked set to claim both Yamaha and Arrows’ maiden F1 victory, only for the engine to let go with a handful of laps remaining. The car limped round to the finish, but couldn’t stop Jacques Villeneuve from snatching the lead away with only a few corners left in the grand prix.

The cause of the failure? A washer worth 50p.

As much as I would like to say there is a diamond in the rough when it comes to independent engine builders – there isn’t. Only now is Cosworth truly independent – the 155 wins they racked up in the pre-turbo era with the legendary DFV were in conjunction with Ford, so they were actually on Team Goliath rather than spearheading the Davids of Formula One engine builders. Repco and Coventry are undoubtedly two of the biggest, but in more modern times it seems ever less likely some eccentric Englishman in his garden shed can knock together a V8 and win a Grand Prix with it.

It’s a shame really – we won’t be able to see many catastropic engine failures and have bonfires on the track anymore.

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About author
Alasdair Lindsay is a Regular Contributor to TCF and can be found on twitter at @AlasdairLindsay
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