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DECEMBER 13, 2000

Futureworld: Will the piston engine ever be toppled from its current supremacy?


Peter Collins, French GP 1953
© The Cahier Archive

Continuing our look at Formula One in the new century, we ask:

Will the piston engine ever be toppled from its current supremacy?

The demise of the internal combustion engine has been predicted more times than the overthrow of Max Mosley, even though it has been the technical cornerstone of F1 right from the very start of the World Championship half a century ago. The only serious considerations have been what configuration to choose, how many cylinders to have, what capacity to adopt, whether to supercharge or turbocharge it, or whether to allow it to breath naturally.

In the early Fifties supercharged units were prevalent, until Ferrari's unblown 4.5 liter V12 ousted the long-running blown Alfa Romeo 1.5. In the late Seventies to the mid-Eighties the blown engine enjoyed a revival, primarily because Renault spotted the loophole in the regulations and introduced the 1.5 liter turbocharged powerplant as an alternative to the 3 liter unblown unit.

Today the only engines that are permitted are normally aspirated V10s of 3 liter capacity, V12s having been declared invalid at the end of 1995. Future regulations may dictate that only V8s are allowed, possibly even only V6s. Back in the early Nineties, serious consideration was given to a 2.5 liter F1 in which the V6 would have been the prime choice.

But whatever, the piston engine seems likely to continue its rule.

There has only once been a serious challenge to it in 50 years F1. The effort came, unsurprisingly, from the ever-fertile mind of Colin Chapman, the genius behind Team Lotus. But even that had roots that spread back to the Indianapolis 500.

The first turbine with a serious chance of winning the prestigious race round the 2.5 mile oval track in Indiana was the STP Paxton turbocar which appeared in the hands of Parnelli Jones in 1967. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney ST6B-62 turbine rated at 550 bhp, 'Silent Sam' or the 'Whooshmobile' as the unusual flame red contender was dubbed, damn nearly ran away with the race. In the closing stages Jones had almost a lap lead on the next man. The fact that this was Anthony Joseph Foyt spoke volumes for the turbine's domination, though Jones was as much a legend and was Foyt's equal as a wheelman. Then a $5 bearing in the gearcase failed with seven and a half of the 500 miles to go.

'You know,' Jones reflected, 'when I left the Speedway a couple of days later I felt bad. It was like I'd left home and knew I'd forgotten something, but couldn't remember what it was.'

The United States Automobile Club was horrified at this threat to its established technical mores. It had not long come to terms with the English invasion with its rear-engined 'funny' car, and wasn't about to put up with another fundamental upheaval. So for 1968 the turbine's inlet area was mandatorily reduced, to bring down its power to around 450 bhp. But Chapman had in mind a much better car than Jones's backbone-chassised speedster: the Lotus 56. This revolutionary wedge shape car was not so dominant in that year's race, partly because of its Pratt & Whitney ST6B-70 turbine's reduced power, but Joe Leonard was well placed for victory when a run under yellow flags overheated the fuel pump and led to its failure as the track went green again.

Later that season, STP boss Andy Granatelli, who had sponsored both turbine Indy efforts, set his 56s on the USAC road courses, and to the surprise of many they were very competitive. Graham Hill in particular raved about its power and smoothness at Mosport Park. USAC got nervous again, and this time it reduced the inlet area to a point where no turbine could ever be competitive at Indy again.

In Europe meanwhile the Howmet Corporation of America was running an unusual challenger in the World Sportscar Championship, following in the wheeltracks of the Rover BRM Le Mans efforts in 1963 and '65. On occasion the 330 bhp General Electric GS325-engined two-seater looked promising.

Eddie Irvine, European GP 2000

© The Cahier Archive

Europeans, however, tended to ignore it and to cast dismissive eyes over the Speedway which, had they but realized it, was at that time in its history a genuine hotbed of technical development. Four-wheel drive had already shown strongly there, then the turbines. 1968 was a troubled year for Colin Chapman, with the death of the great Jimmy Clark, and 1969 and '70 were taken up trying to establish a relationship with Jochen Rindt, and in designing and then taming the revolutionary Lotus 72. But for 1971 Chapman sprang a major surprise. One of the Indy 56 turbines was converted to comply with the F1 regulations. In went a Pratt & Whitney STN76 engine of 500 bhp, mated to the existing four-wheel drive system. The whole concept fascinated Chapman. Though the car was bulky compared to the 72, which had become the F1 standard-setter, it was only intended as a prototype for a much more advanced contender for 1972.

The 56B's story is simply told. It was too heavy and was generally unloved by its drivers. But given a choice between a sorted 72 and the experimental 56B, it was not surprising that Emerson Fittipaldi and Reine Wisell plumped where possible for the former. Initially the car only appeared in non-championship races, failing to finish its first three for niggling reasons that lay mainly in the suspension, but it would run strongly at Hockenheim later in the year in a combined F1/F5000 non-championship race, before an uncharacteristic engine failure.

But its great day so nearly came at the wet Dutch GP at Zandvoort that year. Test driver Dave Walker was entrusted with the car on his GP debut. He only qualified on the back row in dry practice, but come the race he was in sensational form. After only five laps he was 10th, and lapping quicker than established rainmasters Jacky Ickx and Pedro Rodriguez who would fight throughout for the lead. But then Walker slightly misjudged his braking going into the Tarzan hairpin at the end of the main straight, and Chapman matched the turbine's internal temperature as he saw his great chance evaporate as the unfortunate Australian parked the big car in the sand.

The 56B ran poorly at Silverstone in July, but Fittipaldi brought it home eighth at Monza. But that marked the end of turbines in F1. Observers felt the 56B could have won the Dutch GP that year but for Walker's spin, but much of the credit for the car's performance that day was put down to its four-wheel drive system. The engine had terrific low-speed torque but needed to operate in its high-rev range to gain maximum advantage. It was therefore thirsty. It also made heavy demands on the brakes as a result, because of its high idle speed. But in the wet...

Could the turbine have another chance, if the rules were changed to enable it to race again? Williams' technical director Patrick Head is cautious. 'Normally you wouldn't readily use a gas turbine engine for circuit racing because the speeds vary so much; turbines don't like that. But at Indy that wasn't the case. If an engineer were to look at the STP Paxton turbocar now, he would say that some bright minds were used to design it.'

It's interesting that Chapman blamed the failure of the 56B on its heavy four-wheel drive system which so many others thought to be one of its strengths, and planned a much lighter two-wheel drive version to take better advantage of the turbine's ability to convert torque. A turbine-engined F1 car, using the latest electronics and the Williams-designed continuously variable transmission (CVT) might provide an interesting alternative in future years, but the for the problem that turbines and CVT have long since been banned. That might easily be revised if a situation warranted it, however.

But unless there is another oil crisis, or strong environmental lobbying eventually forces a change, it seems unlikely that anything will really challenge the piston engine in the foreseeable future. As long as the major manufacturers remain involved in F1 the status quo on that score will never change. There will be lighter, more powerful, higher revving piston engines, with superior electronics, possibly new materials, and possibly further breakthroughs in valve gear design and actuation. Perhaps fuel cells which store power and allow it to be used when a designer or driver so wishes, will make their mark.

Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt wonders about the piston engine's future in F1, but concedes: 'It is a show, isn't it? So the rules are unlikely to be relaxed enough to allow in something that could force everybody to change. I think the only real threat to the internal combustion engine may be the pollution issue, but electrics are a long, long way off.'

Right now then the piston engine is set to remain the only game in the F1 town. It isn't only USAC that knows the value of technological stability.