|The cars were hugely fast and, as the engine builders upped boost, they were able to produce qualifying-only â€˜grenade enginesâ€™ capable of delivering upwards of 1500bhp for a couple of laps before melting down|
But the origins of the turbo in motor sport go back much further than their high-water mark of the 1970s and ’80s. The Halford Special, Frank Halford’s amazing creation, was arguably the first of its kind. Like most pioneering technology, it wasn’t a complete success, and it wouldn’t be until 1952 when Fred Agabashian took his turbodiesel-powered Diesel Cummins Special to pole position at the Indianapolis 500 that forced induction looked a viable proposition for motor sport competitiveness.
In 1966 Offenhauser’s turbo engines made a splash at Indianapolis, finishing in the top six. Overall victory then followed in 1968 when their original turbos were replaced by Garrett AiResearch items. By 1973, unencumbered by the boost limits that would follow, the Offenhauser peaked at over 1000bhp, but the engine, which had its roots in the ’30s, had already been surpassed by the Cosworth DFX.
The USA motor sport scene very much led the way in turbo technology. When Porsche decided to go down the forced-induction route, it focused on the North American Can-Am Challenge. In 1972
a turbocharged 850bhp Porsche 917/10 entered by Penske Racing won the 1972 series with George Follmer at the wheel. The following year the 917/30 – the ultimate evolution of the breed – sported revised aerodynamics and longer wheelbase. More importantly, it was powered by a 5.4-litre V12 that could be boosted to over 1500bhp.
Once again the 917 proved gloriously unbeatable, and with Mark Donohue driving it steamrollered the 1973 Championship, winning all but one race. However, the 917’s time was nearly at an end, and in the aftermath of the ’73 energy crisis and following a series of savage accidents in Can-Am, the SCCA introduced a 3mpg (US) formula that the 917 couldn’t hope to meet in turbocharged form.
But the world quickly recovered from the energy crisis, and the focus of turbo development moved from the USA to Europe, and more specifically Le Mans. In 1976 the turbocharged 936 made its debut. The Group 6 car was built for the World Sportscar Championship as well as Le Mans, and it hit the ground running, taking a debut victory at La Sarthe with Jacky Ickx and Gijs van Lennep at the wheel.
The Porsche 936 was a more realistic proposition to drive than the ultimate-boost 917/30, and its flat-six air-cooled engine developed 540bhp. By this time the rule makers had concluded that turbos should have an equivalency factor of 1.4, or in other words Porsche’s 2140cc engine would equate to 3000cc of normally aspirated power. As we would subsequently see in Formula 1, this was nonsense.
The 936 went on to dominate Le Mans, with Jacky Ickx adding 1977 and ’81 to his tally of victories, and these were the golden years for the turbo at La Sarthe. In 1978 the Alpine-Renault A442B took the win, while the next year saw customer Porsche 935s take the top four slots. Turbos would continue to set the pace at Le Mans until 1988.
Once Renault had scored its longed-for victory at Le Mans, it was free to concentrate its efforts on Formula 1 and rallying. Alpine had a wealth of forced-induction experience, and was actually the first company to win an international rally with a turbo in 1972, when Jean-Luc Thérier finished first in the Critérium des Cévennes in his modified A110. But Renault’s real dream was to take its turbo to the top of the tree in Formula 1 and, although the debut of the RS01 at Silverstone in 1977 was less than glorious, it was clear to seasoned observers that it could be the beginning of something great.
Through 1978 and 1979 the Renault earned a reputation for being fast but fragile, and a series of blow-ups earned its cars the nickname ‘yellow teapot’. But at the company’s home race at Dijon in ’79 the new RS10 held together to make it to the finish, and Jean-Pierre Jabouille scored the first turbo win in F1. That was backed up by a third place by René Arnoux, who enjoyed a thrilling final couple of wheel-banging laps with Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve.
By 1980 the Formula 1 turbo era was well and truly underway and, although Cosworth DFV-powered cars would continue to take the Championship until ’82, it was only a matter of time until they would be swamped by the growing ranks of the forced-induction teams. Ultimately, reliability issues continued to plague Renault, and its star driver Alain Prost narrowly missed taking the Championship in 1981, ’82 and ’83.
Turbos really only came of age in F1 when the engine manufacturers formed allegiances with existing teams: BMW went with Brabham, and won the ’83 Drivers’ Championship; Porsche teamed up with McLaren (although the British team paid for the engines and badged them TAG in tribute to one of its biggest sponsors, winning the Championships in 1984, ’85 and ’86); Renault allied with Lotus; and Honda chose Williams, taking Championship glory in 1987. Between them, they dominated F1’s most spectacular era.
The cars were hugely fast and, as the engine builders upped boost, they were able to produce qualifying-only ‘grenade engines’ capable of delivering upwards of 1500bhp for a couple of laps before melting down. It was a high-budget, high-glamour time that ushered in the modern era of big-business F1 – and anyone who witnessed Keke Rosberg’s amazing 160mph qualifying lap of Silverstone, or Ayrton Senna’s JPS-Lotus at the ragged edge during qualifying and being followed by a storm of sparks, will never forget it.
But just like Can-Am and Indianapolis over a decade before, the turbo’s huge power and performance would prove its undoing. The FIA decided that turbochargers were making the sport too dangerous and expensive, and in 1987 capped boost levels by forcing the fitment of 3.5-bar pop-off valves for all teams. In 1988 that was further limited to 1.5 bar in the hope of making the Cosworth DFV-powered teams more competitive, but in the end the McLaren-Honda turbo MP4/4 took 15 wins in 16 races. It was a fantastic last hurrah for turbos in a sport that banned them from 1989.
Still, at least F1 largely escaped tragedy, aside from Elio de Angelis’ horrible testing accident in his Brabham-BMW in 1985. Multiple fatalities would see the book closed on Group B rallying after what is still regarded by many fans as the sport’s most scintillating years.