F1’s missing engine – the Wankel

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Mazda 767 rotary engineThis year marks 40 years since Mazda started using the Wankel rotary engine in its road cars.

It’s a classic example of an innovation that could have benefited enormously from being perfected in the white heat of technological progress that is Formula 1.

What a shame it was never allowed to compete.

Today F1 cars are restricted to V8 power. But all manner of different engines have been used in the past with varying degrees of success: V10s, V12s, W12s, flat-12s, 1.5-litre V6 turbos…

Rotary engines potentially give more power than a standard piston-based engine with the same cubic capacity. Instead of pistons rotary engines use a curved triangular rotor spinning in an ovoid chamber to create spaces for compression and ignition of gases.

The animation on the Wikipedia article on Wankel engines explains it far better than I can.

Mazda 787B, Le Mans, 1991Mazda harnessed Wankel power (named for its German inventor Felix Wankel) for sports car racing to and its 787B sports car won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1991 (with F1 drivers Volker Weidler, Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot at the wheel).

F1 rules prevented teams from running the engine. Some of Mazda’s modern road cars featuring the rotary engine – such as the RX-8 – are excellent, but the engine still has certain problems, such as high oil consumption.

Was development in F1 the missing ingredient that could have made this radical engine great?

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