The Formula 1 engine is typically thought of as a cacophony of screaming pistons, exotic fuels combusting at rates far beyond that of ordinary road cars, flame-spitting exhausts, and a maniac in control of it all through the throttle pedal. We’ve seen almost every conceivable combination and configuration of engine, with periods of large variety and ones like the current crop, where the whole grid’s set of engines are only separated by as much as 10-15bhp. It is inevitable that in the ever-evolving and fast-paced world of Formula 1, that the pinnacle of technology is not reached, and certain engines fall way short of both their makers and the standards of F1’s expectations. These are just a select few of those powerplants that just didn’t spark any enthusiasm…
Life W12 – 1990
The Life Racing Engines team came about in the late 80’s as a means of showing off the engineering prowess of their quirky W12 engines. Designed by the former Ferrari engineer Franco Rocchi, the man behind the 3.0 V8 fitted to Maranello’s 308GTB and GTS in the 70’s, it consisted of three banks of four cylinders in a ‘W’ shape. The thinking behind this was to get the power of a V12 but in an engine that had similar dimensions to a V8 (although the extra bank of cylinders meant the engine would always be slightly taller than the average V8).
In an era of new engine manufacturers emerging to try and take advantage of the new engine regulations in F1 (3.5 naturally aspirated units replaced the monster 1.5 Turbos), companies like Judd, Yamaha, Ilmor and Cosworth (through Ford) were all fighting amongst themselves to break through and supply better teams. Italian businessman Ernesto Vita decided he wanted a piece of this, and invested in Rocchi’s concept to try and get it picked up by a big team in 1989, to no avail. Vita decided to keep on pushing and founded a whole team to parade this engine for the world to see. The Life F190 was based on the FIRST F3000 car, a car that had failed the necessary crash tests in 1989, but had been modified for that and also to fit the W12 engine. Two shakedowns were completed in early 1990 at Vallelunga and Monza before heading out to Phoenix, Arizona for the first Grand Prix of 1990.
The Life team arrived in the paddock with one chassis, one engine, and a hotch-potch collection of spare parts. The optimism on Vita’s part for the engine was soon dashed, as it proved to be both woefully down on power and not even reliable enough for a full hot lap. Compared to the Honda v12 which was putting out a good 625bhp at least, the Life unit was good for 450bhp at best. The chassis was also very outdated, weighing in at 530kg where other cars would be around 500kg, meaning it was difficult for the car to crack even 220kph, nevermind pushing through the 300kph barrier as F1 cars routinely did. Gary Brabham, son of Sir Jack, had signed to drive for the team, but had been so embarrassed by the humiliation handed out to him as he trundled round in pre-qualifying he left after two rounds, to be replaced by the veteran Italian Bruno Giacomelli, a driver whose career had looked so promising ten years previously when he led in his Alfa Romeo at Watkins Glen, now reduced to being a moving chicane even in the depths of pre-qualifying, a haven for rubbish F1 efforts in that time. He commented at the San Marino Grand Prix that he was scared of being struck from behind by another car, such was the sloth-aping speed of the Life car. The car never ran more than 8 consecutive laps before some ailment would befall it, and even when the recalcitrant engine was replaced with a far more dependable Judd V8 unit, it didn’t fit properly in the car and caused the engine cover to blow off as it circulated round Estoril. The team pulled out of the last two races, and were never to be heard of again.
The Life car and engine did feature in the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2009, being driven up the hill by Arturo Merzario on behalf of the owner, an Italian tuner and enthusiast who had spent a good deal of time working on the engine that so embarrassed those involved with it 20 years before.
Renault’s 110° V10 – 2001
Renault are one of the most respected and revered names in F1 engine-building, from their pioneering work in Turbocharging in the late 70’s, through to establishing the V10 as the definitive modern F1 engine in the 90’s with Williams and Benetton, and even powering Sebastian Vettel to his first World Championship last year aboard the Red Bull RB6. Renault engines, still produced in Viry-Châtillon, are still producing the goods at the pinnacle of motorsport. However, in 2001, an innovative idea pushed through into racing gave the Regié the worst possible start to their latest period in the sport.
Renault had left F1 at the end of 1997 as a works effort, leaving the Williams and Benetton teams it had supplied before with units to be looked after by Mecachrome, a company affiliated with Renault but not the full works service. It was seen as an odd move by the company, who had just won both titles with Williams in 1997, and had themselves been powering the constructors title winners since 1992. The Renault V10’s were the best in the business, and yet they pulled out. A few seasons pass by, with aging Renault units still circulating under the Mecachrome and then Supertec names, Supertec being a company of Benetton boss Flavio Briatore’s that took over the Mecachrome supply. In 2000 the F1 world then hears that Renault is re-entering the sport, and is buying the ailing Benetton team in the process. This may have been a reaction to the growing manufacturer interest in the sport, having seen BMW, Ford (through Stewart and then Jaguar) and Honda move back into F1 with works engine supplies. The French manufacturer immediately begins a development program of their new V10, which went against common trends in F1 in using a 110° bank angle for the cylinders, rather than going for either 72 or 90, both of which were used throughout the rest of the grid. The thinking behind the wide angle was to make the engine have a lower centre of gravity, to allow for better handling with minimal trade-off in power. Renault debuted this engine in Benetton’s 2001 car, the B201 (they were now owned by Renault, but were to be renamed in 2002). Driving were Giancarlo Fisichella and young Briton Jenson Button, who had been loaned to the team by Williams off the back of a great debut season in 2000 (Williams having a prior contract to run Juan Pablo Montoya), and a sense of renewed optimism pervaded around the team, who had been dragged back into the midfield in the late 90’s, being left behind by the arms race between McLaren and Ferrari.
The first half of the season was an unmitigated disaster for the team, as the lack of development in the radical RS21 engine showed through lack of power and terrible reliability. Benetton were fighting with the perennial backmarkers Minardi, Prost and Arrows for grid position, and were finding it very difficult to finish races, with only a point to show from the first 11 races (thanks to Fisichella navigating his way through the wet Brazilian GP). Work carried on relentlessly at Viry-Châtillon to improve the engine and save some dignity in what essentially was the first year of the reborn Renault works team.
A revision to the car’s aero package, combined with the introduction of effective launch and traction control systems (‘unbanned’ at the Spanish Grand Prix, leaving those who hadn’t been using it on the sly to catch up), meant that the car became much more competitive in the second half of the season. Coupled with Renault finding a little bit of reliability in the RS21 engine, and the season ended on a much higher note than it started, with both Button and Fisichella finding the points in Germany, and Fisico scoring the only podium of the year for the team at the Belgian Grand Prix, Button having suffered from the bulk of the mechanical failures towards the end of the year. The RS21 was quickly ditched by Renault for a more conventional layout in 2002, and that was the engine that laid the path to their double title successes in 2005 and 2006. The 2001 season merely served as an interim year for experimentation in the end, a lesson best learned early on for the new incarnation of the Renault team.
BRM’s Hefty H16 – 1966-7
1966 saw the engine regulations in Formula 1 change again, as now 3.0l naturally aspirated, or 1.5l forced induction (not to be tried out by anyone until Renault in 1977) engines were now permitted. BRM’s initial plan was to build a V12, but that rather sensible idea was rejected in favour of developing a H16 engine, essentially two wide-angle V8’s placed on top of each other. It was developed out of BRM’s 1.5 V8’s used previously in F1, placing two banks of 8 on top of one another and gearing the crankshafts together. The idea of this engine was attractive to BRM as they sought to utilise the previous development of their V8 and incorporate what they already knew into the H16, hopefully stealing a march on their rivals who would presumably have to start from scratch.
The engine was certainly powerful, giving out a rumoured 400bhp+ in early 1966, but due to what Tony Rudd claimed was ‘not following his designs clearly’, and others said was the initial designs being too edgy, the casings and lots of parts were overengineered, making the engine heavy (reportedly causing Lotus to get 6 men to carry one unit when they first took delivery of one of their H16’s) and also unreliable – as the design had not been followed to the letter and thus was compromised. Many of the engine’s early mechanical failures were due to what Tony Rudd claimed was ‘violent and destructive crankshaft vibration’, a sensitive area of the engine given that essentially two engines were meeting to become one. Crankshafts were subsequently reinforced with balancing weights, only to cause more blow-ups when these weights flew off the crankshaft, destroying the engine block.
BRM weren’t finding much luck with the unit fitted to their car, which used the engine as a stressed member of the car, and customers Lotus, who had built the type-43 around the H16, were suffering from huge reliability problems, with star driver Jim Clark not even scoring a point until mid-season, although that was in a Lotus-Climax (featuring an enlarged version of the old 1.5 Coventry Climax engine). The engine did have it’s successes, Clark winning the ’66 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen with the H16 fitted to his Lotus, but by now Colin Chapman had done a deal with Ford and Cosworth to produce the DFV, a engine that was capable of producing more power than the H16, with half the weight. BRM had also been developing a V12 for customers in F1 and sportscars, with encouraging results, so they put their plans for a B-spec H16 engine on hold and went for the V12 in their own cars for 1967 onwards, leaving what Jackie Stewart called a ‘boat anchor’ sinking into the background.