Scuderia Coloni was a small Italian race car constructor which had met with immediate success in Formula 3. Driven by future Ferrari F1-driver Ivan Capelli the small outfit won the F3 championship in only their second year in 1984. After an unsuccessful Formula 3000 adventure the ambitious team quickly moved on to Formula 1 for 1987. However, Enzo Coloni’s outfit struggled to keep up both in terms of speed and budget. Coloni failed to qualify for many a Grand Prix, and did not possess the funds necessary to fly the cars to overseas races in their very first season. Despite these setbacks they managed to score an impressive 8th at the 1988 Canadian Grand Prix.
The team debuted their third chassis, the C3, at the 1989 Canadian Grand Prix. The car was designed by Belgian Christian Vanderpleyn, formerly of the small French team AGS. Although basically a decent chassis, the car suffered from a chronic lack of development and was tremendously slow in a straight line. The average performing Ford-Cosworth DFR V8 couldn’t propel the C3’s mediocre aerodynamic design any quicker. Driven by Roberto Moreno (BRA), Pierre-Henri Raphanel (FRA) and Enrico Bertaggia the car managed to qualify for just three races that season.
Disappointed with yet another dreadful season, Coloni started shopping around for more power. Their salvation would come from a very unexpected angle. Japanese manufacturer Subaru had witnessed rivals Honda and Yamaha enter Formula 1 as engine suppliers, and wanted to do the same. To this end they contacted Italian engine constructor Motori Moderni, responsible for the turbocharged V6’s used by Minardi from 1985 to 1987. Subaru commissioned Motori Moderni owner Carlo Chiti to develop a 60-valve, 3.5L flat-12 engine in the company’s trademark boxer configuration.
The flat-12 layout had been used very successfully by Ferrari during the second half of the 1970’s, but died out when ground effect became the norm at the turn of the decade. The low and wide layout meant the cylinder heads were completely in the way of the ground effect-inducing Venturi tunnels, so Ferrari switched to a turbocharged V6 for 1981. Ground effect was banned after 1983 however, so this was no longer an issue. Carlo Chiti considered the design an advantage in the 3.5L formula, as it had a very low center of gravity, aiding balance and handling. The finished unit was eventually badged Subaru 1235.
Subaru then looked for a team to carry their brand new powerplant, initially courting Minardi. Minardi even helped develop a manual 6-speed transmission for the engine, but Subaru decided to abandon their partnership and instead chose Minardi’s bitter rival Coloni as their partner. Subaru then bought half of the Coloni team to keep a closer watch on the ambitious new project. In the process the team’s name was changed to Subaru Coloni Racing.
Accommodating the large flat-12 into the C3 chassis was no small feat. The modifications were enough to warrant a new designation, spawning the C3B. The new car’s defining feature was the double air intakes feeding both cylinder banks of the flat-12. Despite the backing of a major manufacturer, Coloni was down to one car for the 1990 season. Driving the single chassis was Belgian Bertrand Gachot, who would later be part of Mazda’s 1991 Le Mans winning team.
The renewed team hoped to improve on their dismal track record, but was again harshly disappointed. The ambitious 1235 engine was promised to deliver at least 600 horsepower according to Carlo Chiti. Dyno tests proved however that Chiti had been bragging in typical Italian fashion. Just 560 horsepower was actually coughed up by the big flat lump. This was actually 30 horsepower less than the Cosworth DFR Coloni had previously used.
Furthermore, the engine was dramatically overweight. The bare block weighed just 10 kg more than the DFR, which seemed perfectly acceptable. A race ready engine with all its ancillaries in place however weighed a whopping 112 kg (247 lbs) more than the Cosworth.
Bertrand Gachot got a first taste of the engine’s lack of pace in pre-qualifying for the 1990 US Grand Prix. Coloni’s mechanics struggled to even get the car ready to run. After a short test drive Gachot was sent out to try and set a time good enough for the top 26. His American adventure was cut short right after leaving the pits, as electrical faults put a swift end to the team’s ambitions. In Brazil the car failed to reach main qualifying again, setting a time of 1:34.046. This was only good enough for second to last in pre-qualifying, and 17 seconds slower than the pole time set by Ayrton Senna in his McLaren MP4/5B. Coloni responded to the C3B’s apalling pace by desperately shaving off 21 kg of its total weight. A time of 1:33.554 and 5th place in pre-qualifying at Imola admittedly was an improvement, but still denied Coloni their chance to actually start a Grand Prix.
Subaru was understandably displeased with Coloni’s performance, and bought the remaining 49% of the team to assume total control. The change of ownership yielded no improved results however, as Gachot consistently finished at the back of the pre-qualifying field.
A time of 1:39.295 at Monaco meant the car again finished second to last in pre-qualifying, 18 seconds adrift of pole position. In Montreal Gachot was again set to finish second to last. A crash gave him a much needed change of scenery however, and he failed to set a time.
In Mexico the session was cut short when the cumbersome Subaru sprung an oil leak. The leak proved prophetic when the engine failed completely at Paul Ricard, France. A final entry in pre-qualifying for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone saw no noticeable changes. For the eight and final time Bertrand Gachot and his Coloni C3B failed to even reach qualifying.
Severely disillusioned by their catastrophic Formula 1 debut, Subaru sold the team back to founder Enzo Coloni. He promptly retrofitted the C3B with the Cosworth DFR and soldiered on, calling it the C3C. The now bright yellow car failed to qualify on two more occasions before becoming a consistent last place finisher in actual Grands Prix that season.
The Coloni C3B never really had a chance. Its chassis was built by a chronically underfunded team, and its engine was conceived for a manufacturer that had heaps of ambition, but little to no experience in the field of road racing.
The embarrassment of its massive failure lead to Subaru never attempting to enter Formula 1 ever again. Coloni soldiered on as a private entry in 1990, but quickly pulled out of F1 at the end of the season