Sunday, 21 December 2014

Isuzu and Subaru in F1

During my career I have been lucky enough to be trained by Subaru and Isuzu UK. I have always had a keen interest of any involvement these manufacturers had in Formula One. In fact in the very early 90's both produced engines at the highest level of motorsport.


The last remaining P799WE on display at Tamiya, Japan
Isuzu is a brand well known for its rugged diesel engines powering commercial vehicles and trucks across the globe. It certainly was not known for involvement in racing. However by chance the Japanese manufacturer had an interesting yet brief flirtation with the pinnacle of motor racing, Formula One.

American car giants General Motors have owned an ever changing stake in Isuzu since the 1970’s. This is reflected in road vehicles like the Isuzu Trooper which was also sold as the Vauxhall/Opel/Holden Monterey. Its chairman Bob Eaton was a fan of the renowned British sports car manufacturer Lotus who were in spot of financial bother. After the death of their legendary founder Colin Chapman, Lotus struggled to keep afloat and General Motors purchased shares that would end in a majority stake by the end of the 80s. This led to Lotus helping with the development of the Isuzu Piazza and Gemini road cars and the acclaimed Lotus Elan, relaunched in 1989, featuring a solid Isuzu engine and gearbox. Even stranger was the ‘Lotus’ version of the Trooper/Bighorn SUV.

The 2nd Lotus Elan featured an Isuzu power train
On the racetrack, Team Lotus continued to campaign in the Formula One World Championship. In 1991 the team had an impressive line-up of Johnny Herbert and future World Champion Mika Hakinnen. Unfortunately the team’s car was uncompetitive and they searched for an engine partnership to raise their performance levels and finances. When the team failed to attract Honda they looked inwards and Isuzu expressed interest in producing an engine. They already had produced a V8 for a supercar concept, and a small team of only four people worked in secret to design a 3.5 litre engine to meet the then current F1 regulations.

Designated the ‘P799WE’ the stunning V12 engine produced 637hp on its first bench test. After some fettling this figure rose to an impressive 755hp. Isuzu sent an engine to Silvertone to have its first test in the back of an F1 car. On August the 2nd that year at Silverstone the it was mated into the back of
the Lotus 102 for 150 kilometres of testing. It was not a straight install however as the car was originally designed for an unreliable and heavy Lamborghini engine. In preparation the team bought a new engine cowling as well as a new bell housing and larger radiators. There were issues however fitting in the alternator, meaning the car had to turn off some electrical systems and could only run for a limited number of laps at a time. Lotus team manager Peter Collins commented that it was “my first experience that a racing engine started on the first try”.

There is no official record of the lap times at the test apart from this engineers account:

       "By the way, the Lotus 102C Isuzu’s best lap time was 1:30. The same day, Senna in the McLaren Honda ran a 1:24.7 second lap and MaurĂ­cio Gugelmin in the Leyton House car ran a 1:25.4 second lap. You see, the Lotus time was not the best, but MaurĂ­cio Gugelmin had the first heat tires and both McLaren and Leyton House were running F1 racing gasoline. Some of the time difference is accounted for by the difference in tires and fuel. But this was the first dress rehearsal for the Isuzu, which was also carrying 80 kilogrammes of extra weight in batteries, because the car did not have an alternator. The setting was not perfect”

Hakkinen hustling the Lotus 102
Team manager Peter Collins commented in the media that he believed “it could be possible to team up for an F1 racing effort”. It seems that Lotus were impressed by Isuzu’s attempt and would be very keen on talking them into an expensive foray into the sport as an engine supplier. Unfortunately the Isuzu board of directors were not so keen. Isuzu was in the process of abandoning its road car efforts and focusing on the diesel SUV, pickup and commercial sector. F1 was ultimately brand advertisement for a manufacturer which didn’t align with the new direction of the brand. McLaren were even approached to use a road-tuned version in their awesome 'F1' hypercar. Sensing the lack of tried and tested pedigree the engine was beaten to the mantle by BMW. The single remaining P799WE now sits on display at the Tamiya headquarters in Japan and one of the four secretive employees now works for an unnamed F1 team. It seems great potential had gone to waste.


Back in 1989, before Colin McCrae and the Impreza, Subaru of Fuji Heavy Industries was a brand known for its popularity with farmers and certainly not motorsport. The organisation had began to campaign its Leone coupe in the World Rally Championship, but not completing a full season. With an outlook to raise the brand's motorport profile Subaru set its sights on the big-time of Formula One.

Carlo Chitti and the Subaru F12
Rather than design in-house, it was decided to find an engine producer with experience in the sport to take the lead. The team looked to Carlo Chitti of Motori Moderni, Italy. Chitti was an aeronautical engineer who worked on the famous Shark Nose Ferrari F1 car of 1961 and also worked with Alfa Romeo in motorsport through the 70's and 80's. He had impressed with a V12 he was developing. Subaru requested an engine with its cylinders lying flat, similar in layout to its road cars. Former Japanese rally driver Yoshio Takaoka would oversee the project for Subaru.  It was thought that if they won races with a flat engine layout then new customers around the world would flock to the dealerships. With a low centre of gravity a flat engine is ideal in road cars but in the world of [then] modern F1 things were quiet different. A flat engine took up valuable lower space on the car that was used to produce downforce, reducing grip. It also provided a lot of difficult design challenges. Rather than use Subaru’s huge resources back home their decision to outsource a complicated design to a small outfit would come back to bite them.

The Subaru powered Minardi M188 at Misano
Famous F1 minnows Minardi showed interest and arranged a test that year at Misano, Italy. The new 'F12' engine produced a good amount of torque on test day, pulling well at the bottom of the rev range. However after 6 laps a gudgeon pin failed and sent a conrod through the crankcase. Further testing continued, but after early promise of its capabilities it was apparent that the engine was overweight. Nissan had also arranged a takeover Fuji Heavy Industries putting doubts on Subaru's commitment to the project. Minardi walked away and looked elsewhere for engines.

Betrand Gachot trying to get a hold on the ill mannered C3
However the Nissan ownership had little affect to their ambition. A 51% stake in the struggling Scuderia Coloni F1 team of Italy was purchased. Former owner Enzo Coloni was employed as team manager and the team debts were paid off. For now the team would run a single car driven by Bertrand Gachot. With the new F12 engine that promised so much now only producing 500hp on the test bench, Subaru had come to the realisation that this engine was not competitive. Carlo Chitti was asked to begin designing a new conventional V12 engine to be ready for next season. For now a small amount of engineers at Coloni would try their best prepare a single car for races. Fitting the flat 12 into the back of their Coloni C3 was a challenge and the team had little time until the first race of the season at Phoenix, USA. Running out of time the car, engine and parts were flown over to America and the car assembled for the first time in the pit lane. The first official test however would not be on the track but in a nearby supermarket car park. The car was 140 kilogrammes overweight and sported bulky sidepods tailored around the Subaru F12. The car was in no state to post a competitive lap time and didn't get past pre-qualified. The whole weekend turned out to be an expensive car shake down.

The car continued to struggle through the next race weekends in Brazil, San Marino and Monaco but was unable to pre-qualify. Down on power the extra weight of the engine also made had made an already ill-handling car worse. By the 30th of May Subaru could not stomach any more and sacked Enzo Coloni as team boss. They also took full ownership of the team, purchasing 100% and putting its European division in charge. Unable to change the team name until next season due to regulations they continued on as Subaru Coloni, and planned to relocate in the UK. By this time Carlo Chitti had nearly finished designing the new V12 but Subaru explored other sources for next season's engine. Talk in paddock suggested the relationship was about to end. Reports suggested UK engine makers Judd were looking to supply Subaru next year. Bertrand Gachot put in a stellar performance at Mexico, beating rival EuroBrunn and Life cars in pre-qualifying. However there was still not enough pace to qualify for the race. At the following event at France the engine punched a hole in its casing, and two weeks later at Silverstone it spluttered around on only 8 of its 12 cylinders. Subaru could not endure any more and by July pulled the plug on its F1 project completely. The team was sold back to Enzo Coloni debt free but without engines or sponsors. Coloni sourced Ford engines and continued to campaign that season. They finished the year having not qualified for one race.

The whole project had been an expensive disaster that perhaps was doomed from the start. One can't help think what could have been achieved if Subaru had developed the engine completely in house on a bigger budget. Thankfully the brand had much more success in motorsport when it finally committed to a full season of the World Rally Championship in 1993, teaming up with Pro Drive. By 1995 they won the championship with Colin Mcrae, and 3 years later the popular Colin Mcrae Rally computer game for the Playstation sold out. The popularity of the Subaru brand skyrocketed and boy racers everywhere aspired to own an Impreza turbo. A legend was born...

The Impreza's rally sucess and appeal hit new heights 


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