Developing Porsche’s Greatest F1 Engine

Colossal power helped define Formula One in the ’80s, with turbocharged engines becoming a highly-sought after commodity. Completely outpacing every normally-aspirated contender, the force-fed machines were responsible for every world title from 1983 to 1988, and in that period, multinational corporations spent outrageous sums of money to harness the power of the demanding and unreliable turbocharger.

In response to this changing wave of technology, McLaren and Porsche combined forces to produce one of the most successful engine and chassis combinations of the decade. In only four full seasons, the Porsche-TAG TTE P01 engine powered McLaren’s cars to three drivers’ championships, two constructors’ championships, and an astounding 25 wins from its 68 races. Porsche and McLaren chased reliability, economy, and seamless engine-chassis integration to have an edge in an era known for the reckless, expensive pursuit of horsepower.

Piquet’s BMW-powered Brabhams were the most powerful cars from 1984-1985.

By 1981, the turbocharged engine had proved its potential after several arduous years of development. When Renault debuted their turbocharged RS01 in 1977, it was quick, but unreliable, and often dubbed “The Yellow Teapot” due to its color scheme and tendency to spew steam and fluids. The French engine improved over the following two years and finally won at the 1979 French Grand Prix, but the idea of forced induction still wasn’t widely accepted in Formula One. When Ferrari and BMW joined the turbo camp in the early 1980s, and the technology began receiving its due development, even the eyes of the most skeptical fans and engineers widened.

(Left) Laffite's Ligier-Renault goes up in flames. Considering how much power was pushed out of 1.5 liters, it's hardly surprising these engines were somewhat fragile. (Right) Neatly packaged, powerful and efficient, the TAG-Porsche engine was a gem.

Additionally, the turbocharger’s potential in road cars would attract sponsorship from corporate entities that would spend heavily in the rigorous testing bench that is Formula One. With privateers going by the wayside and massive budgets needed to pump life force into the insatiable, turbocharged beasts, only major manufacturers could hope to win the title. Sadly, by 1984, the dominance of turbocharged engines had improved to such a point that the governing bodies introduced the “Jim Clark Cup,” a category created specifically for the atmospheric cars which, with few exceptions, could never match the pace of the turbo Renaults, Ferraris, Lotuses, Williams and McLarens.

Unreliable but powerful, the RS01 was never off to an auspicious start.

McLaren went through a brief slump at the beginning of the ’80s, and after former managing director Teddy Mayer left, Ron Dennis stepped in to pick up the mantle. Dennis was to bring the team back to, and eventually surpass, its former glory. As a shrewd businessman with good mechanical sense, he realized that by 1982 winning would require a boosted motor. One approach to this problem would entail finding an engine built in isolation, such as a Renault V6 or a BMW I4, and installing it into the current chassis. Chief chassis designer John Barnard refused, insisting those engines would require too many compromises to the chassis. He knew that attaining dominance would require an engine and chassis built to complement one another, and opted for the very expensive route of procuring a bespoke item from Porsche.

With its experience with turbocharged sports cars, Porsche seemed like a logical choice. Initially quite skeptical of a 1.5-liter turbo’s potential against a the 3.0-liter atmospheric competition, Porsche’s engine meister Hans Mezger felt the formula would not be a fruitful one, but Dennis was insistent. Not only would a turbocharged motor produce more power, but it allowed a team to run more downforce as well; having the torque to push through the air and “mitigate” drag.

However, before they could progress from anything more than a set of drawings, Dennis would have to find someone to bankroll the project — and with turbocharger technology in its fledgling stages, that benefactor would have to be well heeled. Though seldom done these days, sponsor poaching in Formula One led to a few big names falling out with one another, while others made very valuable business partnerships.

The man with means necessary was Mansour Ojjeh, president of Techniques D’Avant-Garde (TAG), a private holdings company which sponsored the Williams team at the time, albeit without any hands-on involvement. Dennis informed Ojjeh of the project at hand and requested he become a fully involved partner in the project. Ojjeh agreed enthusiastically, agreeing to fund the endeavor as long as the motor was badged as a “TAG,” and so it began. In November 1981, Mezger and his men received a check for one-million Deutschmarks, which would go towards designing the 1.5-liter lump. A combination of sponsorship looting and stubborn engineering had the TAG-Porsche project moving forward with some urgency.

Porsche’s engine mister Hans Mezger looks proudly upon his creation.

Development began during the height of the ground effect era. During this period, cars generated huge amounts of downforce from the underbodies, which were not flat, but wing-shaped to suck the car closer to the asphalt. The cornering speeds these cars were capable of made them rewrite most of the course records, but they also placed major strain on the drivers, who hated the excessively stiff suspension and the back-breaking bouncing that could occur when airflow under the car was disturbed. The drivers weren’t the only ones unsettled by the ground effects — they were a major source of contention between engine and chassis men as well.

Barnard and his men wanted the engines high in the chassis and narrow in design to enhance airflow across the underbody. This would necessitate a relocation of oil and water pumps, and very compact packaging. Conversely, Mezger’s team wanted a layout wide enough to house the turbos, intercoolers, radiators, and associated plumbing so they could be accessed with some ease. Obviously, the contrasting desires from the chassis and engine teams made development an arduous process.

The packaging had to provide adequate room for the motor without disturbing the aerodynamics.

Since aerodynamics are such an important part of an F1 car, Barnard and Metzler quickly realized that something as broad as the proposed boxer layout would not make a suitable compromise, so an 80-degree V6 became the chosen layout. Ironically, this debate became irrelevant by the time the engine made its debut in the 1983 season, when the ground effects were banned. The subsequent return to flat-bottomed cars gave the engine more room to work with, however the narrow design was retained.

It’s hard to believe such an unassuming block could power an F1 car to three world titles.

The V6 was accompanied by twin turbochargers supplied by a German firm, KKK. With high boost levels in mind, the designers took into consideration the issue of pre-detonation. By relying on a narrow 30-degree angle between the intake and exhaust valves, the compact combustion chamber limited surface area, which reduced the likelihood of knock.  The bore and stroke were 82 and 47.3 mm, respectively, which allowed for high revs. When it debuted at the end of the 1983 season at the Dutch Grand Prix, its rev limit was set to 11,800 rpm and generated 715 hp in race trim.

Though Porsche was confident in its motor, it was the diplomatic Niki Lauda who went behind Dennis’ back and convinced Marlboro — McLaren’s main sponsor — that the motor had to be sorted before the ’84 season began. With the cigarette titan on his side, Lauda was able to race with the new powerplant for the last three seasons of 1983 and sort out some of the teething issues. By the following year, they started on a strong note with McLaren’s Alain Prost winning the first race at Rio de Janeiro. In its first full season, the engine produced 820 hp in races and 870 hp in qualifying. By 1987, its last year of competition, the motor revved all the way to 12,600 rpm while power rose to 960 hp and 1,060 hp in race and qualifying trim, respectively.

So much of the Porsche-TAG’s success was due to the demanding Lauda and his insistence on refining the motor.

Plenty of boost required huge quantities of fuel, and consequently, economy became a crucial part of success. The drivers had to use their fuel wisely and adjust their boost pressure accordingly as the races went on; at times dropping revs and boost to make it to the checkered flag. Mid-race refuelling was banned from 1984 onwards, and cars would commonly empty their tanks towards the closing stages of the race; weaving back and forth down the straights in order to fling the last drops of fuel into the collectors.

The engine’s fuel-efficiency was largely due to the compact V6 layout, which stood as the best compromise between a V8 and an I4. Since all turbocharged engines were restricted to 1.5 liters, the V6 was preferable to the I4 because its shorter stroke and smaller bore allowed it to rev higher. The V6 bested the V8 layout because of its smaller size and reduced internal friction, which improved economy and kept oil pressures low.

All pertinent data was relayed through analog gauges that belied the machine’s sophistication for the time.


Additionally, the V6 architecture helped improve efficiency. The TAG-Porsche used overlapping rod throws on opposing cylinders. By transferring the air between opposing pistons and avoiding continuous compression and expansion inherent in engines with one crankshaft throw per cylinder, this perk reduced energy consumption, crankcase vibration, and oil pressure. In addition, its cooling system was well-integrated, efficient and very effective. The dense, varied layers of cooling channels led around the valve seats and other unconventional locations, which contributed to the engine running at reasonable temperatures. This meant fuel wasn’t needed for cooling, thus improving economy.

Even with the ancillaries attached, it’s hard to believe such a tiny motor could make so much power.

Perhaps the gearhead’s ultimate paperweight, a TTE P01 piston can be had for a couple hundred bucks.

Though dogged by the problematic Bosch Motronic MS3, a sophisticated-but-finicky engine management system, the TTE P01 didn’t guzzle quite as much as the Renault or BMW powerplants. It wasn’t incapable of finishing the fuel before the checkered flag was thrown, but rarely would a McLaren finish prematurely due to an empty tank. As the turbo era wore on and fuel tank sizes were reduced in an effort to equalize competition between the atmospherics and the turbos, this advantage payed huge dividends.

The TAG-Porsche’s great fuel economy made it a respectable motor, but was its integration into the chassis which made it part of a great package. In order to complement the chassis and improve handling, the TAG-Porsche needed to be sufficiently light, compact and rigid. The engine block and the one-piece cylinder heads were cast in aluminum, while the connecting rods were made of titanium. The result was an exceptionally light and stout engine, weighing in at a scant 145 kg without turbos, intercoolers, or exhaust — lighter than some of its six-cylinder rivals by as much as 35 kg — and the only contemporary turbocharged F1 engine that was lighter was the 135 kg Hart four-cylinder, which was a total flop.

Though Prost was never the outright favorite in 1986, he managed to win through consistency and cunning moves.

Barnard insisted that the entire engine be a stressed member of the chassis so it could contribute to the overall rigidity of the car. As I4 engines were too narrow on top to be sufficiently stiff, the stout V6 held an advantage in this regard, and had no problem enduring the immense G-forces it was regularly subjected to. Furthermore, the inherent rigidity of the TAG-Porsche engine allowed it to be bolted directly to the chassis, whereas the flimsier four-cylinder units usually needed a complex and heavy subframe to link the engine and chassis together. This gave the mechanics more room to work with, and more room to house all of the turbo plumbing. 

The twin-turbocharged TAG-Porsche motor benefited from a smoother powerband than some of its rivals, namely the single-turbo BMW. The ability for a softer power delivery provided another advantage: improved tire conservation. Though the first TAG-Porsche motors had an archetypal turbo-powerband and wheelspin was never far away, this on/off switch power delivery was refined in years to follow.

However, this wouldn’t be much of an advantage without mechanically sympathetic drivers like Lauda and Prost. The most successful users of the TAG-Porsche, these two were renowned for their ability to conserve their fuel and tires throughout the entire race. With a calm, smooth driving style, they worked in harmony with the engine, masterfully harnessing power to excel while others were floundering about on worn rubber. This meant that, while not necessarily the most powerful nor the sole occupants of pole position, the McLaren-TAGs were capable of hauling in the rest of the field, even at the end of the race.

In their first full season, in 1984, the McLaren-TAGs attained two pole positions and eight fastest laps, but more tellingly, won 12 out of 16 races. That year, the more powerful BMW-powered Brabham driven by Nelson Piquet achieved nine pole positions but only one win. Clearly, the motor’s design principles had worked by providing the drivers with a usable car that would provide consistent performance throughout a race.

Winning the 1984, 1985, and 1986 drivers’ titles, it seemed that the McLaren-TAG was the car to beat. However, things change quickly in F1, and the following year, it was apparent that the Honda-powered Williams were in a class of their own. Compounding this disappointing reality, the turbocharged cars had boost pressures limited to 2.5 bar, turning their races into economy runs. In this department, the highly-sophisticated Honda engine, another 80-degree V6, bested the Porsche unit with superior economy and even more power.

With their great minds at work, Lauda and Prost regularly stood on the top steps of the podium.

At the end of 1987, TAG’s patronage ceased. With its funding cut, Porsche ended its most fruitful period in Formula One. Though Prost managed to take home three wins that year, the Williams Hondas mercilessly outgunned the Porsche-powered cars, and chances for a title were slim to none. The following year, McLaren hired Brazilian sensation Ayrton Senna, who brought along the dominant Honda engines from his previous team. The combination of McLaren and Honda would prove to be one of the most successful partnerships in the history of Formula One, with both drivers winning all but one race in 1988. For the 1989 season, turbos would be banned as a consequence of sky-high running costs and dangerously high speeds.

If the motor was to demonstrate anything, it was the value of compromise. Though not the strongest engine across the boards, it was unique among its contemporaries because it was, for a time, the most well-rounded engine that excelled in economy, power delivery, and chassis integration. The TAG-Porsche motor went on to show that in order to win, the engine and chassis must work in harmony; the engineers must address every potential performance factor; and the package must provide consistent, dependable performance. It also helps if that engine can chuck out 1,000 horses.

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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