F1’s missing engine – the Wankel

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This 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 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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Tags: f1 / formula one / formula 1 / grand prix / motor sport

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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6 comments on “F1’s missing engine – the Wankel”

  1. What, no mention of NSU? Give them a break, they went bust making the Wankel engine usable (terrible problems with sealing the combustion chamber) and then producing the first Wankel road car – the NSU Ro80 (wonderful car by all accounts but guzzled oil). Mazda merely bought the technology from the ruins of NSU, although they did work on it for years afterwards, admittedly.

    The Wankel would have changed F1 in the same way the turbo did. Have a look at this video of a kart fitted with a tiny Wankel:


    The sound of it is interesting too – there’s hardly any!

  2. I was going to ask for more information about NSU, but then I read the phrase ‘tiny Wankel’ and couldn’t stop sniggering…

    1. Not sure why you said that you “couldn’t stop sniggering.” Mazda’s rotary is no joke!…as many car manufactures like Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and many more so-called top quality car companies have found out in racing as well as in production. Mazda was the first car with the rotary RX-7 to achieve the fastest mark to a 100 victories then any other car in history!

      In the hey-day of IMSA racing, it was Mazda that dominated racing with it’s “tiny little” rotary over much fatter horsepower cars. And last but not least, it was Mazda in 1991 and its 4 rotor 787B Group 1 World Endurance Racing car that won the greatest Endurance race in the world, The 24 hours of Le Mans over the likes of Mercedes, Porsche, Renault, and Jaguar. The other 2 cars they fielded in that race (rotaries also) came in I believe 6 and 12.

      Lastly, it was Mazda and their world class sports car, the RX-7 that saved Mazda from going belly-up as a company. Later of course, their Mazda Miata also helped save the company as well. But it was the rotary that initially did it.

      Mazda has long since conquered the ‘oil seal’ problem with the rotary. Yes, the engine does use a little more oil still then a piston engine. However, like the old cigarette commercial of many years ago, ‘Virginia Slims”, Mazda and their rotary have come a long ways baby… The rotary is one of the premier engines in the world.

      The miss-guided air-heads like F1 and Indy, don’t want the rotary because it does not follow so-called conventional engine wisdom. Well, if these racing leagues call themselves a place of innovation, then why not allow the rotary to prove itself in such a so-called premiere racing venue? Why not? Their just full of it! But that is ok, because Mazda still has solidified itself in racing car history. But maybe also one day those leagues will get a clue and let this fantastic engine show them what this ‘tiny little’ engine can do.

  3. LOL I really must edit more carefully!

    NSU was a small (not tiny) German car manufacturer that decided in the early 1960s that the Wankel engine could be their passport to becoming a big German car manufacturer. They poured everything into development of the engine and produced a rather stylish family saloon known as the Ro80 with the last of their funds. As I said, it was a pretty good car (now a classic) but it gained a bad reputation thanks to excessive oil consumption. In 1969 the firm collapsed and was bought by Audi, and so became a part of VAG. Well, the company finally became a big German manufacturer, didn’t it? ;)

  4. Wankle is a piston killer with now most modern seals with standing high presure tips and the 4 rotor. They call it witch craft.

  5. Does anyone know what became of the Lotus engineered V6 turbo engine that they were developing in the early eighties, it had an engine driven supercharger feeding the twin turbos to reduce or cancel the turbo lag prevalent at the time

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