In the early 1990’s Formula 1 was still busy recovering from the savagery of the first turbo era. The 1989 season had been the first to exclusively run 3.5L naturally aspirated engines, which saw the playing field change drastically. With the expensive and complex turbo engines gone it had once again become fairly easy for privateer teams with modest budgets to enter and be reasonably competitive. At the same time, a symmetrical rule change in the world of endurance racing saw Group C adopt the same 3.5L naturally aspirated engine regulations, which meant major manufacturers were also in the mix with new engine designs.
These two factors culminated in the marriage of several entry level teams with major manufacturers as engine suppliers. Such a partnership was mutually beneficial. It provided much needed funding and attention for the struggling small teams, and gave the manufacturers precious development time as well as an easy way to buy their way into F1 once the team started to get successful.
Once such team was Footwork Arrows. The team had been in the business since 1977 as simply Arrows, but had been taken over in 1990 by Japanese businessman Wataru Ohashi, president of Footwork Express, a logistics company. For 1991 the team was formally renamed to Footwork, and the extra funding provided secured a deal with Porsche to use their mysterious new 3512 V12 engine designed by Hans Mezger. Porsche had previously supplied the McLaren team with TAG-branded V6’s in the turbo years, scoring three consecutive titles in 1984, 1985 and 1986.
As Arrows the team had relied on BMW 4-cylinder turbo’s during the turbo era, and had switched to customer Ford DFR V8’s in 1989. Even though the Ford was not a particularly bad engine, it lacked power to run with the big boys. The venerable powerplant’s 620 horsepower paled in comparison to the 700+ horsepower found in the top running Renault V10 and Honda / Ferrari V12.
The new Porsche engine promised to catch the front runners in terms of power, but suffered from a few major drawbacks. In a curious decision by the eager Germans, the power take off shaft was located in the center of the engine, similar to Porsche’s old flat 12 as used in the famous 917 Le Mans racer. Since the Typ 912 flat 12 was actually two flat sixes slapped together, this made a heap of sense. In the much more speed focused Formula 1 however, it really didn't.
The eccentric “double V6” layout meant the engine was hopelessly complex and very, very bulky. Race ready the big lump weighed a colossal 189 kg (418 lbs), which compared unfavorably against the Ferrari (139 kg / 308 lbs) and Honda (159 kg/ 352 lbs) V12’s. In a series were every single gram counts, this was a monumental disadvantage. A further disappointment came on the testing bench, when the behemoth was found to be substantially underpowered at just 670 horsepower at 13.000 rpm. This meant the Porsche was as much as 40 horsepower down on the front runners.
The Footwork team ran into another giant hurdle when the discovery was made that they could not get the Porsche engine to fit in their new-for-1991 FA12 chassis. As a last minute stopgap the simple and boxy Arrows A11B chassis was hastily adapted to accept the 3512, and entered in the first two races of the season as the Footwork A11C.
The new engine was mated to a transverse Hewland 6-speed semi-automatic gearbox, a feature still very exotic in F1 at the time. In the hands of Alex Caffi (ITA) and former Ferrari driver Michele Alboreto (ITA), the A11C only managed to qualify once (Alboreto, US GP) and failed to finish with engine troubles.
Alex Caffi failed to qualify the rush job A11C for the 1991 United States Grand Prix at Phoenix' street circuit.
The sleeker FA12 was finally ready with Porsche power for the third round of the 1991 season, the San Marino Grand Prix. The car featured an innovative semi-raised nose with a single support for the front wing. The design looked vaguely similar to Bennetton’s fully raised example, but was not quite as effective. Sadly the aerodynamic improvements did little to aid Caffi’s pace, as he failed to qualify. He was some 8.4 seconds down on the pole sitting McLaren of Ayrton Senna.
Alboreto had been pushing hard to prove the new car’s worth, but all his experience could not save him from what would happen in pre-race testing. As he approached the treacherous and bumpy flat-out Tamburello corner, something broke in the front suspension of his FA12. The car plowed straight on into the unforgiving concrete barrier, narrowly missing a slip road, and ignited instantly upon impact. Amazingly Michele Alboreto limped away with only a broken foot and hopped into an A11C, displaying truly immeasurable testicular fortitude. Sadly he eventually failed to qualify despite his extraordinary bravado. Alboreto was almost 5 tenths of a second behind his team mate.
At Monaco Michele Alboreto managed to drag the FA12 into 25th on the grid, marking the first time for the FA12 chassis to start a Grand Prix. Sadly an engine failure caused by faulty seals around the unusual center power take-off forced him out of 19th place on lap 39.
Alex Caffi had already retired in practice in spectacular fashion by clipping the barrier at the swimming pool, which destroyed his right front suspension. With no way to stop he ended up cleanly splitting his brand new car into three pieces on the armco of the next corner. He was surprisingly unharmed, but with the car disintegrated he was unable to set a time and did not qualify for the race
Alex Caffi's horror crash at Monaco, 1990.
At the Canadian Grand Prix Alex Caffi was replaced by former Ferrari driver Stefan Johansson (SWE), after Caffi ironically broke his jaw in a road accident after his Monaco Grand Prix shunt. With two highly experienced Ferrari alumni behind the wheel, both Footworks found their way to the starting grid for the very first time. Alboreto was fastest in 21st, with Johansson managing 25th.
Unfortunately Michele Alboreto’s race only lasted two laps, as his throttle linkage failed. Stefan Johansson kept on keeping on however, and was running as high as 13th when the same problem hit him on lap 48. Another double retirement made the weekend a familiar dismal failure for Footwork Porsche.
Next up on the calendar was the Mexican Grand Prix held at Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez. The pressure was on more than ever. In a truly disastrous turn of events 4 of the team’s 7 engines had failed in Friday practice alone. With little in the way of spares, the team prayed vigorously for the fragile Porsche’s to keep together.
Luckily the engine stayed in place for Michele Alboreto, who qualified in 26th on the grid. Stefan Johansson was not as fortunate, and missed out on a race start due to inevitable technical difficulties. Unsurprisingly Alboreto’s engine gave out early on lap 24, and the team’s limit had been met.
After the consistent disappointment of the Porsche 3512, Footwork decided to dump it in favor of the trusted Ford DFR V8 for the French Grand Prix. The FA12 chassis was again retooled to fit the smaller Ford, and given the designation FA12C.
The Footwork FA12 was a good idea gone horribly bad. Despite backing from one of the world’s leading motorsport engineering companies, it lacked any and all competitiveness.
The unusual, heavy and underpowered engine design delivered by Porsche was needlessly complex, woefully unreliable and far too slow. A mediocre chassis did little to offset the deficit. With Ford power the FA12C chassis finally managed to finish on three occasions, with a best result of 10th (Caffi) at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Porsche shamefully pulled out of Formula 1 after the Footwork debacle, but not before developing a more conventional V10 unit. This V10 was then further evolved for the stillborn 2000 LMP project, before finding its way into the glorious Carrera GT supercar.