Holding on for the ride

Power was king, but its generation was often more subtle than the wider world appreciated. Irrespective of methodology, the spectacle was absolute
Writer Simon Arron

Portugal, 1984.

It is early evening and teams are taking part in the recce for round three of the World Rally Championship. For the first time, Juha Kankkunen is being co-driven by Fred Gallagher in one of Toyota Team Europe’s Celicas, hardly the last word in flame-spitting Group B cars but still capable of pumping 400bhp through its rear wheels. “As we set off,” Gallagher recalls, “Juha said to me, ‘Just wait until you see this’. As we started a stage he gave it full throttle, turned off the headlights… and there was the turbo, glowing white-hot beneath the glass-fibre bonnet.”

Fast-forward four years to Silverstone, where Roberto Moreno is testing the Bromley Motorsport Reynard that will carry him to that season’s FIA Formula 3000 title. Heading into Becketts the Brazilian slices past a Ford Sierra RS500, staple of the period’s front-running touring car teams, but is a touch bemused as the turbocharged tin-top hauls him back in along the Hangar Straight. By the late 1980s, there were 15 or more RS500s on British Touring Car Championship grids: the quickest had about 520bhp… and rising.

Motor sport and conspicuous excess have always gone hand in hand, but brute force has rarely been more nakedly apparent than it was during the 1980s, when Formula 1’s first turbo era peaked before being legislated into oblivion. In rallying, meanwhile, Lancia used both supercharger and turbocharger to improve driveability and extract the best part of 500bhp (and some say more) from the 1.8-litre four-pot in its Group B Delta S4, although the FIA enforced tamer regulations from 1987. The trigger? An accident during the 1986 Tour de Corse, when superstar Henri Toivonen’s S4 tumbled into a ravine and exploded, the Finn and co-driver Sergio Cresto being consumed within.

The roots of this power quest can be traced back to the late 1970s, when Renault pioneered use of turbocharging in F1. The rules permitted engines of 3 litres with natural aspiration or 1.5 with forced induction, an avenue that remained unexplored until the French stepped in.

“The 1.5-litre turbo was the best option available to us,” says Bernard Dudot, one of the engineers pivotal to its development. “We didn’t have the budget to develop a completely new engine, so had to take an existing 2-litre V6, from our sports car and F2 programmes, and modify it one way or another.”

The most straightforward solution was to reduce its capacity and bolt on a turbo. Dudot says, “We were helped a lot by François Guiter, from Elf, who backed the careers of so many promising young French drivers at that time. He paid for two experimental engines.

“Our first priority was reliability. It was a major undertaking, but we had a small, young team – headed by François Castaing, Jean-Pierre Boudy and myself – and what we lacked in experience we made up with enthusiasm. We didn’t really know what kind of loads we’d be putting through pistons, cranks and so on – and none of our suppliers had dealt with this kind of power in the past.

“We started out with very simple mechanical injection and very little turbo response, having to guess at the air/fuel mixture and so on, but gradually we fine-tuned things. Jean-Pierre Jabouille was excellent at engine development and knew the 2.0 V6 well, but the signs weren’t always encouraging. Once, we were testing at Jarama and Jean-Pierre said the engine reminded him of a Renault 4 along the straights… but then all its power kicked in just as he reached what should have been the braking zone. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to race it.”

The Renault RS01 performed modestly on its race debut at Silverstone in 1977, coming to a smoky halt when the turbo failed after 16 laps, but it took only two years for the technology to prove its winning potential – Jabouille taking his RS10 to victory at Dijon in ’79, a race remembered less for that than the battle between his team-mate René Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve for second place – and within two more almost everybody else was fighting to catch up. “The big breakthrough,” Dudot says, “was switching to Renix electronic injection and twin turbos.”

Over in the World Rally Championship, they had both turbocharging and four-wheel drive. Or at least, Audi did.

“Björn Waldegård turned down an Audi deal for 1981,” Fred Gallagher says, “because he wasn’t convinced the Quattro was going to be all that good! I’m not sure Hannu Mikkola believed in it either, but he signed because they were paying so well. On the first stage of that year’s Monte, though, Hannu was fastest by minutes rather than seconds over 45 kilometres. That rather opened everybody’s eyes.

“Ahead of the event, Henri Toivonen and I were making pace-notes in our works Sunbeam Lotus when Michèle Mouton pulled up alongside in her Quattro and challenged us to a drag race. We looked at each other, thinking, ‘Right, we’ll show her’, but then she was gone. The writing was on the wall…”

Three years later, Gallagher won in Cyprus alongside Quattro driver John Buffum – the first time an American had won a major FIA rally outside his homeland (when Road and Track profiled Buffum in November 2012, it pointed out that America had put more men on the moon than it had produced points-scorers in the WRC). “One of the stages was so twisty that we averaged only 47kph,” Gallagher says, “but we had so much traction that we still beat everybody else by a minute.”

Back on track, Formula 1’s long-standing Cosworth customers were gradually finding new partners to help them embrace the technology introduced by Renault and embraced by Ferrari and Toleman (with Hart) in 1981. Brabham was first to make the move, with a four-cylinder BMW during 1982, while Lotus struck a customer Renault deal for ’83 and McLaren phased in a Porsche-designed 1.5 V6 financed by team partner TAG.

“Niki Lauda was supposed to test the car first,” says his 1983 team-mate John Watson, “but he was in Ron Dennis’s bad books after saying something out of turn, so I was dispatched to Porsche’s test track at Weissach.

“My first recollection is of the horrendous throttle lag – you had to anticipate the power coming in by a whole second or so. Porsche said it hadn’t noticed any such problems and pointed me towards a fairly scruffy 956 Group C car, to which they’d also fitted one of the new F1 engines for test driver Roland Kussmaul to evaluate. I tried it and found far less throttle lag, but there was a Vesuvius-style eruption when Ron and [designer] John Barnard turned up. TAG was paying and Porsche was simply a service provider, so apparently had no business sticking the motor in a 956! I suspect someone got a severe bollocking for that.

“The F1 car made its debut at Zandvoort, with Niki, but I had one by Monza. The lag was still there, although it had improved, but it was a pig to fire up because of the sequential injection. You needed the engine to spin at high speed to get fuel into the cylinders and the starter didn’t always turn it quickly enough.

“The conventional balancing act with a DFV car – brake, turn, apex, exit – was all about rhythm, but at that stage it was difficult to achieve with the turbo. There were momentary flat spots in the power curve and you had to completely rethink the driving process. It had about 750bhp in its infancy – and that was quite a step from the 510-515 I’d been used to with the DFV.”

Watson wouldn’t enjoy the TAG-Porsche’s best years – he lost his seat to Alain Prost for 1984, the first of three straight title-winning seasons for McLaren – but found refuge in sports car racing’s Group C era, in which Porsche was allowed to mate cars and engines.

“Those things were pretty powerful,” Watson says. “The 956 was the first thing I raced after leaving McLaren. It was a quick, torquey car with lots of downforce, although extra weight counted against its nimbleness – relatively speaking. In the mid-80s, though, I remember testing a Jaguar XJR-6 at Paul Ricard and Jonathan Palmer was there in his Formula 1 Zakspeed. He was obviously quicker than us through the corners, but couldn’t keep up along the straights.

“My favourite memory from that period is probably the 1984 Fuji 1000Kms. Derek Bell and Stefan Bellof usually drove together, but Derek had a chance to win the IMSA title and was competing in the States, so I was asked to fill in. It wasn’t an easy race, absolutely flat out from start to finish, but Stefan was unbelievably quick in those things and everybody in the team absolutely adored him. He was a lovely guy, devoid of bullshit and politics. It was nice to share one of his wins as he headed for the title.”

Williams was among the last of Formula 1’s traditionalists to abandon its Cosworth roots, introducing the Honda-powered FW09 at the end of the 1983 campaign prior to its full-time adoption.

“Most of the pathways to extend the life of a DFV-powered car had by that stage been closed off,” says Patrick Head, then the team’s technical chief. “I’ve no wish to sound bitter about it, but most of the political power seemed to be with the manufacturer teams, Ferrari and Renault with their turbos, and I think they were a bit irritated that we’d been able to hang on to them for as long as we had with our DFVs.

“When our first Honda engine arrived, it was basically just a block, with the heads attached and then two turbos in a box. It didn’t come with any technical information. We were still communicating by telex at the time, so I sent a message to Japan, asking what they wanted us to do about thermal balance and so on. I still have the response, which read ‘Please make what you think’…

“We had to do rather a lot of research to find out what might be required. We had all sorts of installation problems initially, but were getting on top of things by about mid-1984. Before that it had been all about understanding how to keep the engine cool and building a gearbox that was strong enough to take the torque.

“We’d also moved to flat-bottom rules, which made it more difficult to create downforce. There was a small rear diffuser, but its effectiveness was very limited. We did have big wings on the cars, but they weren’t as crude a solution as they might have appeared. It took a lot of work to get a good aerodynamic flow and they did their job very well. It was quite a refreshing time in many ways and very interesting, with lots of practical engineering solutions required.”

Last of the F1 converts was Tyrrell, which began using a Renault turbo during the summer of ’85 and for a while let drivers Martin Brundle and Bellof alternate between that and the sport’s final DFV.

Just how powerful were the turbos? Precise figures are tricky to define.

“We started with about 520bhp,” Dudot says, “and hoped to improve by 30bhp or more per year. By our final season, 1986, we had 900bhp in race trim. We reckoned that went up to perhaps 1500bhp with qualifying boost, but had to extrapolate that figure because our dyno couldn’t register more than 1200!

“During the whole of that time, we did very little work on the engine itself – all the development was focused on the turbocharging, fuel injection systems and so on. In 1977 we were revving to 10,500rpm and that had risen only to 11,000rpm by 1986.”

Head feels 1500bhp is about right. “Honda couldn’t tell us how much power the V6 had in qualifying trim,” he says. “Its dyno measured up to 1000bhp, which the engine passed at 9500rpm, and we were using 13,500.”

Brabham was the first team to win a title with a turbocharged car, with BMW in 1983, and McLaren the era’s last, with Honda in ’88. Is it possible to describe the sheer physicality of a full-boost qualifying lap?

Brundle is prepared to try.

“I recently drove an ex-Senna Lotus 98T-Renault that’s very representative of what we had at the time,” he says. “The boost was set at 3.6 bar, which was what we used in races, and it gave you a big kick in the back, exactly as I remember.

“The brutality always got me. At the start of a qualifying run you’d pretty much creep out of the pits, because you didn’t want to bring the tyres in too quickly. As soon as you did that, you’d be taking life out of them. That meant being gentle for the first half lap or so, but at the same time you had to be very careful to keep an eye on your mirrors, because while you were pootling around you knew others would be hard on it in the middle of a 1400bhp, 5.5-bar qualifying lap. I’m fairly sure you lost a bit of power during the run, though, simply because everything got so hot. People talk about cost controls now, but back then we used different engines for qualifying and the race – in fact we fitted a fresh floor and engine every day.

“Towards the end of a warm-up lap almost everything would be up to temperature and, when you got to the pit straight, you could just let go. I remember that in Adelaide and Monte Carlo, for some reason, it felt as though the scenery was coming towards me at warp speed rather than me driving towards it. You went into the lap in this ridiculous car, with front tyres not quite fully optimised, and understeered your way through the first turn before getting back on the throttle as early as you could. By halfway through the lap, everything would be just right and you had massive amounts of both power and grip. Almost always, though, the rears would begin to struggle before the lap’s end. With the wastegate and everything blanked off, there was very little lag and in that state it was very pleasurable to drive. Some tracks were absolute heaven – Spa, for instance, with all that power and space.

“All your reference points went out of the window, because you’d gone from about 850bhp in the morning to whatever we had in qualifying, but it was exactly the same car and didn’t have any extra downforce. The level of mental recalibration required was immense. You’d do your lap, cool off and then chuck the tyres away. It’s hard to conceive now, isn’t it? A set of tyres designed to last five or six miles…”

Extreme times, then, in every sense. “It probably was a profligate period,” Head says, “but we tended to be so buried in the competition that we didn’t really notice. With Honda we never had a bespoke qualifying engine as such, although I think others did. We cranked up the boost, which would take out a bit of its life, and then always fitted a fresh V6 for the race.”

Williams also dipped its toes into rallying during the decade, responding to Austin Rover’s request to create a Group B car. “They wanted us to stick a Rover V8 in the front of a Metro shell,” Head says, “but when works driver Tony Pond came to look at progress he decided he wouldn’t be able to drive such a car. He’d have been sitting more or less in the back. That’s when we decided to lop off a couple of cylinders and swap things around.” The mid-engined Metro 6R4 was born – and remains a popular club rally staple to this day.

Traditional engineering wasn’t the only solution, though.

“Keeping our intake air cool was very important for both performance and for responsiveness,” Dudot says, “so at Austria in 1980 Renault team manager Jean Sage bought bags of ice from a local fishmonger as a cooling aid. It must have worked, because Jean-Pierre Jabouille won, but the Renault pit smelt of fish all weekend…”

Modern F1 turbos might sound very different, with much of their waste energy captured and recycled and fuel-flow limits, but there are similarities between events now and 30-odd years ago. “With regard to fuel consumption, it’s nonsense to say things are completely different in 2014,” Brundle says. “Back then I drove with an eye on the gauge absolutely all the time. It was incredibly accurate, too. Coming out of the final corner at Adelaide in 1986, I remember seeing the reading drop to 0.0 and thought, ‘There’ll be a bit left, like there usually is in a road car’, but it cut out instantly and Stefan Johansson nicked what should have been my podium position as I coasted to the line.”

His recollections are a little clearer than those of Alain Prost, who won the first two of his four F1 titles in McLaren-TAG turbos.

“In a way I almost cannot tell you what those cars were like,” he says. “When I was reunited with my 1983 Renault at Goodwood a couple of years ago, I could not remember how I was able to drive it in period – especially at circuits such as Monaco. I’ve tested recent cars from Lotus and Red Bull and they reminded me very much of my last F1 car, the Williams FW15C of 1993, with a Renault V10. Everything felt similar and it wasn’t a problem. But I really don’t understand how we coped in the mid-1980s with all that power: it was just so different. When modern drivers try a car from this period, with their feet right at the front of the chassis and heads 20cm above the cockpit, the reaction is always the same: ‘Shit, how could you drive one of those?’”

Greatest cars
Website poll results

1 Mclaren MP4/4
Abetted by Honda power, Prost’s brain and Senna’s commitment, has there ever been a more potent F1 cocktail? One Jean-Louis Schlesser trip away from a GP clean sweep in ’88.

2 Porsche 956/962
Among the most familiar silhouettes in sports car racing history: won seven straight Le Mans 24 Hours (1981-87) and countless other races. Dominant is too weak a word.

3 Audi Quattro
All-wheel-drive pioneer with wonderfully distinctive five-cylinder soundtrack and great reputation, but won only four world titles (two apiece for drivers and manufacturers).

Greatest drivers
Website poll results

1 Ayrton Senna
There have been many fast drivers over time, but few quite this brisk – and far fewer with even a fraction of his charisma. Sometimes brutal, but always engaging.

2 Alain Prost
Managed to conjure almost Senna-like speed, despite usually looking as though he was taking a Sunday drive. Didn’t stop him taking four world titles, mind.

3 Gilles Villeneuve
Huge natural talent all too often masked by cars that didn’t do him justice. And he was also very good at looking after tyres – a sign of great finesse, frequently overlooked.

From Motor Sport April 1987

With the first Grand Prix of 1987 only a few days off, the line-up has been announced officially by FISA. There are two cars each from McLaren, Lotus, Williams, Ferrari, Ligier, Benetton, Arrows, Brabham, Zakspeed and Minardi, plus one Osella: all have turbocharged 1.5-litre engines. The remaining five places will be filled by cars complying with the new category of 3.5 litres without turbochargers or superchargers.

These will represent the beginnings of the new formula due to come into effect in 1989, in which turbochargers will be banned and engines limited to 3.5 litres. They will comprise two Tyrrells, one March, one Larrousse and one AGS, all using versions of the long-in-the-tooth Cosworth V8, known as the DFZ. They will compete among themselves for their own championships (the Jim Clark Cup for drivers and the Colin Chapman Cup for constructors), and will race concurrently with the turbocharged cars. Most front-running turbocharged 1.5-litre engines have 800-900bhp in race trim, and with the best will in the world a DFZ will not have more than 580bhp, so we must keep our fingers crossed that nobody gets hit…

The turbocharged engines will be fitted with a boost-control valve supplied by FISA and set at a maximum 4 bar, this limit being enforced in qualifying and the race. It is all a bit academic as few teams have exceeded 4 bar, and certainly not in race trim. The media erroneously refer to these control units as ‘pop-off valves’, which is precisely what they are not, as they do not suddenly pop off at 4 bar and release all the pressure. They fade the pressure progressively, in the same way that a rev-limiter fades the ignition, rather than cutting it off. These units are manufactured in the USA and will be issued to the teams at random; they must not be tampered with, it says!

Having banned two-stage turbocharger layouts, and now having put a limit on boost pressure, FISA feels it has controlled the power outputs of F1 engines. With Goodyear imposing a one-specification tyre, and fuel tanks being left at 195 litres, it looks as though F1 is going to be slowly strangled during 1987. I hope the engineering concerns behind the sport do not get bored and leave. Although it looks a bit gloomy on the face of it, I suspect the engineers will find ways of improving things so that their drivers can lap the circuits faster than last year. If you cannot go faster than you did last year, it might seem a bit pointless to go at all.

With Goodyear reducing its F1 involvement, the extravagant winter testing sessions have been drastically reduced, though teams like Lotus and Williams have been pretty active.

For what it is worth, for you never know exactly what teams are up to in private testing, the Williams team looks like carrying on where it left off in 1986 and has the big advantage of not having been forced to make any major changes. The FW11B is a logical development of last year’s successful cars, in the same way that McLaren is continuing with a further development of John Barnard’s brilliant MP4. Barnard is now at Ferrari, trying to sort out an interim car with a new 90-degree V6 engine in place of the 120-degree unit used previously, and an in-line gearbox rather than the transverse gearbox used for so long.

The new Lotus 99T will have Honda power of equal potential to Williams, and Benetton is starting an exciting new phase as it begins racing with the Cosworth-designed Ford V6 turbocharged engine, which showed good promise in the Carl Haas Lolas last year. While the tail of the Grand Prix field might be a little dull, there will certainly be no shortage of excitement up at the front. Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell will continue the Williams-Honda attack, Ayrton Senna will spearhead Lotus-Honda, Alain Prost and Stefan Johansson will have Porsche power in their McLarens, Michele Alboreto and Gerhard Berger will have the best of Ferrari, and Teo Fabi and Thierry Boutsen will have the Ford-powered Benettons. Any one of them could be on pole position for the Brazilian GP on April 12. We might be in for some stifling of technical progress in the immediate future, but there is no stifling of driver talent. “If you can’t beat them, join them” is an old saying and it looks as if Bernie Ecclestone has applied it. A few years ago he thought that he and his Formula One Constructors Association could go it alone and break away from FISA and the FIA. Ecclestone and Mosley actually drew up and printed rules for their own championship, but it fell flat on its face. Ecclestone ran the FOCA part of the FIA World Championship entry, and FISA looked after the manufacturers’ teams. By a mutual trust/distrust situation, FISA and FOCA buried the hatchet (in each other’s heads, some would say) and worked together to everyone’s benefit, with the result that the F1 World Championship has maintained its position as the top branch of motor racing, regardless of what some US enthusiasts like to believe.

Now the FlA has invited little Bernie to join it in an official capacity, that of vice-president ofpromotional affairs, and he has accepted. His job is to push the various championships. Some are in the game for business, not sport. I suppose we can view Ecclestone’s new position as FIA marketing managing.

Bernie marketed F1 to the world, in spite of the FIA. Now he has joined it, the sky will be the limit. A Grand Prix on the moon next? After all, we now have a Grand Prix behind the Iron Curtain, and who thought that was possible? Our Mr Ecclestone, bless his little heart. DSJ