Wide Berth - 1989 Minardi M188 Subaru Test Mule
Throughout the 1980s, the world of Formula One revolved around one clear mantra: more boost. Ever since the slightly haphazard introduction of the turbocharger by Renault in 1977, turbo engines had resolutely taken control of the sport.
By the end of the 1985 season, the speed difference between forced induction engines and the few naturally aspirated units still in use by less fortunate teams had become so great the FIA was forced to act. For 1986, naturally aspirated engines would be banned outright for the first time in F1's history.
However, just as F1 turned turbo across the board, a tragic incident forced an immediate abandonment. During a test at Paul Ricard, the Brabham BT55 of Elio de Angelis (ITA) suddenly lost its experimental rear wing in the Verrerie Curves, while traveling at an estimated 290 kph (180 mph).
The sudden loss of rear downforce immediately caused the car to become airborne, after which it flipped backwards several times, before cartwheeling over the barriers, ending up upside down.
At this point, a torn fuel line spilled onto the searing hot turbocharger, igniting the car almost instantly. With the back of his extremely low car hanging off the barriers, De Angelis was unable to free himself from the wreckage unassisted.
Despite the assistance of Alan Jones, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost, all of whom had pulled over to help, a criminal lack of fire marshals at the scene resulted in life-threatening injuries. Elio de Angelis was then airlifted to a nearby hospital, where he succumbed to cardiac arrest brought on by his heavily smoke damaged lungs the next day. He was just 28 years old.
Having competed since 1979, De Angelis was a popular figure in the paddock. As a result, his loss moved the FIA to put forward a phased ban on turbocharged engines to mitigate the ever increasing power levels and speeds. For 1987, boost would be limited to 4.0 bar (58 psi), followed by a decrease to 2.5 bar (36 psi) in 1988, and an complete ban on forced induction in 1989.
Already in 1987, five teams elected to switch to the new 3.5L naturally aspirated formula. These five teams, Tyrrell, March, AGS, Larrousse and Coloni, were relegated to using a bored out version of the positively ancient Cosworth DFV V8, in rotation since 1967. The engine had essentially fled to the International Formula 3000 Championship once turbos had become dominant in 1985, but was able to return under the new regime.
With the turbo cars still present and exceedingly powerful, the Ford-Cosworth teams would all contest what was essentially the B-Class of Formula One, containing the Jim Clark Trophy for drivers and the Colin Chapman Trophy for constructors. For 1988, Williams, EuroBrun, Benetton, BMS Scuderia Italia, Ligier, Rial, and Minardi were set to join the fray, invariably powered by either the Cosworth DFZ or the new Judd CV V8. The one exception was Zakspeed, sporting a unique Yamaha OX88 V8.
Minardi also selected the tried and true Ford-Cosworth for their 1988 challenger, the unassuming M188. Gian Carlo Minardi's plucky young team had only been in business since 1985, and its cars had always been propelled by the highly questionable Tipo 615-90 1.5L twin turbo V6 supplied by Carlo Chiti's Motori Moderni organization.
Both reliability and outright power had always been a problem with the Italian powerplant, giving hope the switch to Cosworth would rid the team of its engine-related woes. However, between Adrian Campos (ESP), Pierluigi Martini (ITA) and Luis Perez Sala (ESP), the car recorded eleven retirements, seven failures to qualify and one failure to classify. With just one point scored by Martini's 6th place at Detroit, the year was far from a success.
Near the end of the season however, a lucrative opportunity emerged. Minardi was contacted by former engine supplier Motori Moderni, which had just developed an unusual 3.5L, twelve cylinder boxer engine on orders from Japanese manufacturer Subaru.
At the time, Subaru had seen Honda and Yamaha enter the sport, and wanted a slice of that same cake. After seeing a proof of concept for a 3.5L V12 designed by Carlo Chiti. Though impressed with his design, Subaru wanted to keep a link to its road car range, which almost exclusively featured boxer engines. At their request, Chiti promptly designed the 1235 using elements of the earlier V12.
Carlo Chiti had previously experienced the benefits of a flat engine while working at Alfa Romeo at it head of motorsport. Though the engines were obviously very wide, they were also incredibly low, keeping the center of gravity low as a result.
Ferrari had also scored numerous successes with this type of engine, but the advent of underbody venturi tunnels necessary to generate ground effect had eradicated the type in the late 1970s. As this technology was banned in 1983, and F1 cars were once again running flat bottoms, Chiti theorized the advantages of old were once again relevant.
One key difference between these engines and Motori Moderni's design was the use of separate crankpins for each cylinder. This causes each set of opposing pistons to move away from each other simultaneously, instead of one piston receding while the other extends. When a minimum of six pairs are present (a flat six), this results in a perfectly balanced engine, as all the actions cancel each other out perfectly.
By contrast, a 180 degree V-engine lacks this characteristic, instead behaving like a squashed V12, which possesses a less balanced operation. This inherent smoothness was seen as another clear advantage, although the technology hadn't been tried since 1962's Porsche 804.
With the engine finished, Subaru and Motori Moderni were off to find a team to use it in competition, as Subaru had no desire to start its own operation from scratch. Remembering his long-time link with Minardi, Carlo Chiti suggested using his contacts to give Subaru an easy way into Formula One.
With the deal made, a 1235 was supplied to Minardi's factory in Faenza, where it was married to a year-old M188. A great deal of work was needed to adapt the chassis to accept the bulky engine, as it had been designed around a compact 90 degree V8.
On either side, large holes were cut in the M188's engine cover and sidepods to fit the engine's cylinder heads through. New panels were then bolted over the gap, and left open at the front to act as airboxes for the intakes. The 1235 was then affixed to the chassis as a stressed member, and mounted to Minardi's own 5-speed manual transmission.
With the engine fitted, Minardi took to the Italian track of Misano for the first shakedown test in May of 1989. At the wheel was Pierluigi Martini, who came back after a few laps with some decidedly bad news. The car felt much slower than it had with the Cosworth V8. As it turned out, it definitely was.
Data from dyno tests determined the 1235 produced just 560 horsepower, some 30 less than the old Cosworth, which was already the least powerful engine on the 1988 grid. As if the chronic lack of power wasn't bad enough, the big boxer proved to be something of a heavyweight. Race-ready, the complex motor weighed a shocking 262 kg (577 lbs), as much as 112 kg (246 lbs) more than the V8.
Seeing as the 1235 appeared to be a massive step back from the readily available and race-proven DFZ, Minardi was quick to back out of the deal. With their engine weighed and found wanting, Subaru and Motori Moderni were left to look for another buyer.
Eventually, they found a second customer with Enzo Coloni. Subaru even bought half of Coloni's team, jumping into the mad world of Formula One against all better judgement. The following season, the heavily modified Coloni C3B was rolled out, opening the second chapter of Subaru's misguided assault on the established order at the pinnacle of motorsport.