Over the 72-year history of Formula 1 racing, there have been numerous permitted engine layouts and configurations, with strict rules in place to restrict the power output and displacement of the powertrains. This has often lead to the vast majority of the cars in any given season to feature pretty much the same engine. This is none the more evident with the current regulations since 2014 resulting in every team using a 1.6-litre V6 block. On some occasions we have been fortunate enough to see a wide variety of cylinder counts in the paddock, such as in 1982 when we saw naturally-aspirated V12 monsters going toe-to-toe with puny little 4-cylinder turbo vehicles!
However, in this article we will take a close look at some of the more wacky and truly unique powertrains used by F1 teams of yesteryear. In fact our first candidate doesn’t have any cylinders to speak of…
1. Pratt-and-Whitney STN76
Those of you who know anything about aircraft may have looked at the name of the engine and thought “Hang on a minute, don’t Pratt and Whitney make jet engines?”. And you’d be right. They do make turbine engines for jet aircraft, even to this day. But back in 1971, they must have decided to have a little bit of fun and teamed up with Lotus to make a gas-turbine driven car for Formula 1.
It was plonked into the back of the Lotus 56 driven by Dave Walker, Reine Wissell and none other than Emerson Fittipaldi at select races of the 1971 World Championship. Due to its unique throttling characteristics it didn’t need a gearbox or clutch, delivering immense power which ramped up gradually as you put your foot to the floor.
In part due to this smooth power delivery, the turbine-powered Lotus excelled in wet conditions and in its debut race at the Dutch Grand Prix, Dave Walker gained 12 positions in just 5 laps before spinning out. It was featured in a further 2 Grand Prix, with a best result of 8th at Monza with Fittipaldi behind the wheel (unfortunately not enough for points at the time).
2. BRM P75
Now let’s have a look at an engine that at least looks like it belongs in a car. Well I say “an engine”, when really it’s 2 engines! After a rule change for the 1966 season upped the maximum engine displacement from 1.5 to 3 litres, engineers at BRM thought “well why don’t we weld 2 of our existing 8-cylinder 1.5 litre engines together and see how that goes?”. So the BRM P75 is basically 2 flat-8 powertrains stacked on top of one another.
Unsurprisingly the engine was extremely powerful, but due to its complexity it was marred by reliability problems from the start until it was finally absent from the grid come the end of the first race of the 1968 season. Due to the sheer size and energetic output of the powertrain, it needed separate cooling systems for each half of the engine, making the cars it was used in much heavier and also thirstier than their counterparts.
It retired in 75% (30 out of 40) of its outings but did manage to eke out a victory at Watkins Glen in its first season, sat in the rear of a Lotus rather than a BRM.
3. Life F35
The Life Racing Engines F1 team was an ill-fated outfit which participated in 14 Grand Prix but never actually started a single race. This was in part due to their woefully sluggish engines.
The engine itself was masterfully concocted by Franco Rocchi, who used to work as an engineer for Ferrari. It was by almost all means a fantastic engine, but was designed all the way back in 1967 so by the time it was being tested in 1990, it was far and away the least powerful Formula 1 car on the grid. It produced a meagre 480 bhp compared to most other teams’ engines which produced from 550 to 600 horsepower.
It has to be said that the engine was wonderfully unique, consisting of 3 banks of 4 cylinders rather than the usual 2 banks of 6 cylinders you would typically find in other W-12 layouts.
Heavy and lethargic, the Life F35 and Life L190 it was located in was several seconds off the pace of even the next slowest team, and didn’t even manage to get out of pre-qualifying once.
4. Zakspeed 1500/4
When Zakspeed entered the prestigious sport of Formula 1 in 1985, they decided to do so with their own engines. Dubbed the 1500/4, as the name suggests it was a 1.5 litre 4-cylinder powertrain with the pistons arranged in a straight line.
They used this engine until 1988 but had very limited success, only mustering a measly 2 points (courtesy of Martin Brundle at Imola in 1987) over the course of 4 whole years.
5. Porsche Type 753
The Porsche 753 engine was used in the constructors 1962 effort, the 804. Its unique in that it had 8 cylinders despite having a displacement of just below 1500cc. Furthermore, the engine was air-cooled.
Packing close to 200 horsepower, this may not seem like a huge amount but due to the lightweight construction of both car and engine, the package was deceptively quick. In fact, the 753 powertrain gave Porsche their sole race victory to date (as a constructor), with Dan Gurney piloting their car to a win at Rouen-les-Essarts.
6. BMW M12
Perhaps weird isn’t the best way to describe this absolute marvel of engineering but I think it deserves a place in this list. The BMW M12 was designed and manufactured at the dawn of the turbocharged F1 era and packed a serious punch. Despite only being a little 4-cylinder block, with the help of a ginormous turbocharger it produced up to 850 bhp when it was first introduced in 1982.
This number kept increasing year on year and by 1986 the Benetton B186 along with other teams’ cars using the M12 were purported to have at least 1400 horsepower for qualifying runs. To this day, F1 cars have never been more powerful!
On a good day, the M12 powered the fastest cars on the track, and gave victory to Nelson Piquet on its debut season. Overall it achieved 9 wins, but unfortunately the engine was prone to failure so the number of retirements was markedly higher.
Moreover, due to having a single turbocharger as supposed to twin turbochargers found on other more competitive vehicles, turbo lag was a massive issue. On some configurations the lag would be as long as 2 seconds, requiring the drivers to start accelerating mid-way through a corner to maximise straight line speed out of it. The M12 was hard to handle, but when the stars aligned it gave the ultimate reward.
7. Subaru 1235
A 3.5-litre Flat-12 engine powered Coloni’s sole vehicle for 8 rounds of the 1990 Formula 1 World Championship. The engine wasn’t actually built by Subaru; they instead asked Italian engine manufacturer Motori Moderni to make it for them.
The idea of the Flat-12 layout (the only one on the grid at the time) was to lower the cars centre of gravity since the car would sit lower to the ground. This would allow for greater cornering speeds and make the car more aerodynamic as the bodywork wouldn’t protrude as much.
However, the design caused more problems than it solved. It was very wide and bulky, necessitating a whole array of extra parts that competitors simply didn’t need. This made the car very heavy, and since the 1235 wasn’t very powerful in the first place the project was doomed from the very start.
Coloni didn’t manage to even pre-qualify once out of 8 tries and decided to revert back to a Cosworth DFR for the remainder of the campaign.
So there we have it. Some of the wackiest engine designs we’ve seen to date in the world of F1. Just in this list there has been several letters of the alphabet and even a freaking plane engine! This is why we love Formula 1!