Volkswagen nearly entered F1 in the 1980s with a VR8 turbo engine

Volkswagen nearly entered F1 in the 1980s with a VR8 turbo engine

The Brabham BT55 at Interlagos during the 1986 Brazilian Grand Prix

The low-back Brabham the Volkswagen F1 cars would have looked like.
Photo: Michael King (Getty Images)

Two of the biggest stories of this year’s Formula 1 season revolved around new manufacturers entering the World Championship for the 2026 season. Audi has announced its entry, in partnership with Sauber for its factory team. Porsche nearly struck a partnership deal with Red Bull Racing before negotiations failed. The two manufacturers of the Volkswagen group have already participated in Grand Prix races. However, neither automaker was owned by Volkswagen when they last appeared on racing’s most prestigious stage.

Sports car has a story about Volkswagen’s canceled 1980s F1 project in its December 2022 issue. During the development of the VR6 engine, VW seriously considered extending the eight-cylinder concept for a Formula 1 car. The story is widely remembered by Peter Hofbauer, then head of powertrain development at Volkswagen. The 1.5-liter turbocharged VR8 engine concept was purchased from Judd, as a potential engineering partner, and a few potential customer teams. Like many stories around secret F1 projects, there’s a lot of talk in the paddocks, high-end restaurants and boardrooms.

Hofbauer believes the narrow-angle V-engine designed for transverse application in a saloon could have been successfully applied to F1.

“The power of a high horsepower engine comes from how fast you can run it – and the smaller the cylinder, the faster you can run it,” he says. “That VR8, an eight cylinder with a single head with those cylinders stacked, would give you an extremely compact and lightweight machine, so the power-to-weight ratio would be superior. Power density is the key number here.

A VR8 F1 engine would have had a high center of gravity if it was mounted vertically in the car. Hofbauer explains that was never the intention. It would have been angled the same way BMW did with its four straights in a line of Brabham Formula 1 cars. It also hints at a more extreme arrangement that would most likely have preceded Brabham’s low-end BT55 from 1986.

Unfortunately, Volkswagen’s finalized VR8 F1 engine never even made it to the test bed. The project was scrapped as the VR production schedule was delayed. VR6 would be used in VW road cars from 1991 after Formula 1 banned turbocharged engines. Like many opportunities in Formula 1, sometimes it’s just a matter of timing.

Be sure to read the full story of Volkswagen’s first attempt to join the F1 grid here.

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