Mercedes have put an F1 engine in a sports car – but Renault did it to an MPV

F1 history

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The F1-engined Mercedes AMG Project One is an extraordinarily bold car. But it’s not the first time a road car has been equipped with a Formula One engine. The Renault Espace F1 was arguably an even more radical creation.

The three-pointed star has turned a full Formula One power unit with its bleeding-edge hybrid technology into a ‘conventional’ road car. It has a price tag to match too, not that there are any examples left to buy.

However Formula One engines haven’t just found their way into two-seater sports vehicles. The Renault Espace F1 – the world’s fastest MPV – surely ranks as the most outlandish of these machines.

In the mid-nineties Renault was looking for new ways of using its hugely successful F1 engine programme to promote its road cars. The French manufacturer hit on an inspired idea. Having popularised the multi-person vehicle with the Espace, launched in 1984, Renault marked its tenth anniversary by equipping one with its latest F1 title-winning engine.

1991 Renault Espace
Renault took one of these…
Williams FW15C, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011
…and added this.

Creating the Espace F1 was not the work of a moment. The aerodynamic shortcomings of the slab-sided car meant major surgery was needed to accept its radical transplant: a 3.5-litre normally aspirated V10 Formula One engine plus the semi-automatic gearbox and rear suspension. These were all as found in the 1993 Williams FW15C, which won the constructors’ championship and took Alain Prost to his fourth and final title.

Former F1 constructor Matra, who manufactured the standard Espace for Renault, took on the task of fusing the two under the guidance of former F1 designer Gerard Ducarouge. Bespoke front suspension was created along with most of the bodywork below the window line. Carbon fibre was used extensively to strengthen the body and form the vast rear wing which kept the beast on the ground.

The car was developed at the Paul Ricard circuit (which returns to the F1 calendar this year) by Eric Bernard, who had ample experience of the drive train as it also powered the Ligier he raced for most of 1994. At that year’s Paris Motor Show Renault pulled the covers off Frankenstein’s family car and took it to a series of events for demonstrations.

Although the seven-seat configuration of the original Espace could not be retained there was still room for three passengers in addition to the driver. The rear couple sat either side of the screaming V10 and could peer down at it through transparent plastic.

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Prost was among those who took the opportunity to drive it. Among the most famous passengers of the car was Frank Williams, who was taken for hot laps by his then-driver David Coulthard.

Renault Espace F1 interior, 1994
The Renault Espace F1 powerplant was on display
The Espace F1 offered supercar levels of performance in a machine which looked like it belonged on the school run. The shriek of an F1 engine has surely never sounded more incongruous than when it came from this one-off creation.

For F1 drivers used to a low-slung cockpit, being perched high in the Espace was a strange sensation. Unsurprisingly the unwieldy body shape and high centre of gravity made for extremely tricky handling.

At 1,300kg it weighed two-and-a-half times as much as a contemporary F1 car. But with well over 700bhp on tap the Renault Espace F1 covered the 0-60mph sprint in 2.8 seconds and topped out at 317kph (197mph). That’s the kind of road relevant technology we can all enjoy.

Of course unlike Mercedes, Renault did not create a production version of the Espace F1. Like Ford’s Supervan, this was strictly a prototype, and the sole example now resides in the Matra museum.

Renault Espace F1 pictures

Renault Espace F1 videos

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Renault Espace F1, 1994
Renault Espace F1 rear, 1994

Author information

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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31 comments on “Mercedes have put an F1 engine in a sports car – but Renault did it to an MPV”

  1. Thanks for this feature, Keith. A nice slice of history, and something I’d never have thought would be done by a manufacturer.

  2. I remember it very well. Thanks.

    1. +1.

      Best minivan ever.

  3. Pat Ruadh (@fullcoursecaution)
    4th January 2018, 12:15

    Ah the Renault Espace F1….
    I remember fondly blasting this Frankenstein creation this around Laguna Seca in Gran Turismo 2.
    Pity it never had a production run like the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton

  4. The best car in Gran Turismo 2. I thought it was a fantasy thing back then, couldn’t believe myself when I researched it and saw the real thing.

  5. That’s mad! Great feature!

  6. Ford have put race engine’s in Transit van’s before. The 1st Supervan had the engine from a GT40 installed, The Supervan 2 used a DFL engine (DFV modified for Group C) & the Supervan 3 was fitted with a 1993 spec F1 Ford HB engine.

  7. That Williams is clearly a repainted FW14 …

    1. That Williams looks so svelte and sexy though…

    2. Hakk the rack
      5th January 2018, 7:24

      Correct, that’s Mansell’s beauty in UnRothmans skirt:)

  8. I SO miss that sound.

  9. Mercedes should’ve gone for something like this too.
    Put a F1 engine in one of their racing trucks and watch it pull a trailer with a F1 car at 120mph.

  10. I’ll never understand why this wasn’t used as a Safety Car when they began being used frequently. How cool would that have been? If they used it now bet some drivers would crash out just to hear the thing.

    1. If I remember well, It was actually used as the first ever safety car for a couple of times (Silverstone was the first race), than Mercedes realized the marketing potential and immediately signed a deal with Mr. Ecclestone, the rest is history…

  11. Glad others remember this from Gran Turismo 2. What an absolute beast.

    BTW – how clear are those pictures from 1994?!

  12. I think Porsche did it even before Renault through its Porsche 911 that was equipped with a V6 Tag engine that was used by McLaren in the 1984 season. The car was used in order to develop/test the engine.

    Ferrari tried that too with the F50 which was meant to be an F1 car for the road, unfortunately it didn’t get the credit that it deserve because it was eclipsed by the what is considered by many the greatest supercar of all time the F40.

    There is also another car with a fascinating story that is probably unknown for most of the F1 fans. In the late 80’s Alfa Romeo signed a contract with Ligier to sell them a new V10 engine. The contract was cancelled as well as Alfa commitment in F1 after FIAT takeover in 1986. The Fiat board didn’t actually want to start an internal competition with Ferrari. However, The V10 engine was already produced in 15 units, with a 72° angle, 620 bhp, 13000 RPM and 383 NM of torque at 9500 RPM. The problem was how to test the engine so the Alfo 164 procar came to light.

    The car has a kevlar chassis, pushrod suspension and has a top speed of 350 km/h and an acceleration of 0-100 in 2.1s
    The only official appearance of the car came in the 1988 Italian GP with Patrese behind the wheel and that’s it. In 1996 when Ferrari revealed it’s first V10 engine the 046 there was a certain Pino d’Agostino(the father of the the V10 Alfa) within the engine department lead by Paulo Martinelli. The two engines shared many similarities including an unusual V angle 72°/75°, so it was Alfa Romeo again behind the sportive renaissance of Ferrari !

    1. @tifoso1989, in the case of the TAG-Porsche engine, I thought that Porsche’s test hack was a 935 chassis, which was one of their Group 5 racing cars, rather than a 911.

      It also has to be said that the engine in the Ferrari F50 might have started out in F1, but was extremely heavily modified by the time it ended up in the F50 and so only bore a limited relation to the 036 engine it was derived from.

      1. There are a few photos of a TAG-powered 911 at McLaren HQ from a couple of years back – it’s a white 930 Turbo with Ruf wheels and no other external tell-tales. That doesn’t rule out that there may also have been a 935 though.

        On the V6 topic, back in 2013 there was a spy video of a taped-up LaFerrari lapping Fiorano with a clearly-not-a-V12 soundtrack and turbo whistle – basically the initial testbed for the 2014 F1 motor.

        Similar to the F50, the Porsche Carrera GT used a distant descendant of an F1 engine (the abandoned 1992 V10) – like the Ferrari it was heavily redesigned for endurance racing, but unlike the 333SP the Porsche 9R3 never raced. Porsche used the spares to build a concept supercar for the Paris Motor Show, and it was well received enough that they ended up turning it into a production car, minus the sequential gearbox.

  13. Ferrari were the 1st to do this in a car the public (very rich) could buy (F50) and register for the road. I’d take that v12 over the megahoover Merc are using.

  14. I never knew about this but I certainly enjoyed watching it on YouTube after. Wow.

  15. The realization that I am old when more people commenting remember it from Gran Turismo 2 than the real thing…

    The 911 with the 1.5 TAG-Porsche engine is actually at McLaren’s Technology Centre so I am not sure if Porsche or if it was McLaren itself. In several articles about the TAG-Porsche TTE PO1 engine, I could not found references to using a 911 as test-bed for the engine.

    And the Ferrari F50 didn’t have an F1 engine. The V12 engine was indeed developed from the F1 engine but it was not the same. It was still a V12 with 65° but the displacement was increased to 4.7L (as opposed to 3.5L). The F50 engine came actually from the Ferrari 333 SP that was racing in 1993.

    1. F50 engine was as close to the F1 engine as you could get on the road with 90’s technology. The Merc engine is also not the F1 engine. It can do more miles than an F1 season with as much if not more power. It will also be heavier. Given a free choice of engine no one would want a 1.6 v6 turbo, think I would prefer the new Aston hypercar plus Merc make commercial vehicles, should put the engine in a sprinter van or an E class taxi it’s more their thing. Smelly brand and their godawful Germany.

  16. We need this in modern racing games..!!

  17. I remember reports on this in 1994 as if it was yesterday ;)
    It’s incredible that this car doesn’t look very dated, it still looks quite modern and aestethically pleasing to a modern eye.

    I would be scared to death sitting next to THIS engine like THAT, when it’s roaring like crazy.

  18. Remind me why we can’t have an F1 driver’s support series with this thing and the Ford Supervan 3 filling the grid?

  19. Then F1 still was about fun. A serious business and sport, but fun.
    today you cant even joke around with your cousin (male/female/not chosen yet) because there’s ‘online backlash’ – and although I havent seen proof of diminished sales this backlash is apparently the worst thing that could happen to a company ..
    Even when 2 minutes later a new tweet fart of a president or other celebrity causes new uproar and becomes the issue of the next 4 hour news cycle

  20. the body shape looks very much like a modern day hatchback

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