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Volkswagen Almost Entered F1 in the 1980s With a VR8 Turbo Engine

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The Brabham BT55 at Interlagos during the 1986 Brazilian Grand Prix

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

Two of the biggest stories of this year’s Formula 1 season have revolved new manufacturers entering the world championship for the 2026 season. Audi announced its entry, partnering with Sauber for its factory team. Porsche came close to finalizing a deal to partner with Red Bull Racing before negotiations collapsed. Both Volkswagen Group manufacturer has gone Grand Prix racing before. However, neither automaker was under Volkswagen ownership when they last appeared on racing’s most prestigious stage.

Motor Sport 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 upscaling the concept to eight cylinders for a Formula 1 car. The story is largely recalled by Peter Hofbauer, Volkswagen’s then-head of powertrain development. The 1.5-liter turbocharged VR8 engine concept was shopped to Judd, as a prospective technical partner, and a few potential customer teams. Like many stories around secretive F1 projects, there are plenty of discussions in paddocks, upscale restaurants and boardrooms.

Hofbauer believes that the narrow-angle vee engine conceived for a transverse application in a hatchback could have been successfully applied to F1.

“The output of a high-power engine comes from the speed at which you can run it — and the smaller the cylinder the faster you can run it,” he says. “This VR8, an eight cylinder with only one head with these stacked cylinders, would give you an enormously compact and light machine, so the power-weight ratio would be superior. The power density is the key number here.”

A VR8 F1 engine would have had a high centre of gravity had it been mounted upright in the car. Hofbauer explains that this was never the intention. It would have been canted over in the way that BMW did with its straight four in a line of Brabham Formula 1 cars. He also hints at a more extreme arrangement that would most likely have pre-dated Brabham’s low-line BT55 of 1986.

Unfortunately, Volkswagen’s finalized VR8 F1 engine never even reached the dyno. The project was scrapped because the production VR program was delayed. The VR6 would be used in VW’s road cars starting in 1991 after Formula 1 banned turbocharged engines. Like a lot of opportunities in Formula 1, sometimes it just comes down to timing.

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

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