Decelerated Destruction - 1989 Zakspeed 891 Yamaha
In response to Brabham driver Elio de Angelis’ tragic death in a testing accident at Paul Ricard in 1986, governing body Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile announced its plans to drastically change the engine rules in Formula One. Throughout the 1980’s the world of Formula One had come to be ruled by flame-spitting, impossibly powerful turbocharged monsters. Ever since its introduction in the groundbreaking Renault RS01 in 1977, the turbocharger had slowly but steadily crushed its naturally aspirated opposition. The turbo domination was so devastating that naturally aspirated cars were banned from competing for the first time in the 1986 season.
FISA had no problems with the change at first, but gradually started implementing lower fuel limits to slow the inconceivably powerful cars down. Through constant research and development power figures surged during this time, reaching its absolute peak with the reportedly 1350 horsepower strong BMW M12/13 qualifying engine fitted to the Benetton B186. With the increased power came increased strain on the cars and indeed the drivers. In qualifying the teams were running special maximum boost engines, strengthened gearboxes and super-sticky tires which would only last 1.5 laps or less depending on the track. The inhuman mental and physical effort needed to drag the overpowered soapboxes to a respectable grid position without crashing and turning into a giant ball of fire took its toll, with many lesser drivers stepping out completely physically and emotionally drained.
Another major downside to the turbo engines was their added complexity, requiring specialized personnel and equipment in order to run them properly. Turbo technology was still very new, which made the cutting-edge designs used in F1 incredibly expensive. Because of this it was getting harder and harder for privateer teams to compete against factory-backed outfits.
During the reign of the venerable Ford-Cosworth DFV V8 in the 1960’s and 1970’s the gap between privateer and factory teams was a damn side smaller, as anyone could get their hands on a privately prepared engine and be reasonably competitive. The FISA wished to return to this situation, leading to it rolling out a plan to gradually ban forced induction from Formula 1. For 1987 and 1988 turbo engines would still be allowed with increasingly reduced boost, giving existing teams two years time to develop a competitive 3.5L naturally aspirated design.
In a rare twist, the FISA’s plan worked like a charm. In fact, it worked a little too well. the new engine rules made it possible for any starry-eyed industrialist to buy a bunch of off-the-shelf parts, commission a carbon fiber chassis, and lease a relatively cheap Cosworth or Judd customer engine. In short, Formula One had been given back to the masses to a certain extent.
Among a massive influx of flimsy new low budget efforts, German privateers Zakspeed were trying to hold their own. The small team headed by tuning legend Erich Zakowski had started its Formula One adventure in 1985, and had survived on the edge of a sheer cliff ever since. In the expensive turbo era Zakspeed had done the unthinkable for a privateer team, deciding to design and produce their own engine in-house.
This Ford BD-based 1500/4 turbocharged four cylinder never came close to the maniacal power figures claimed by BMW, and was lacking reliability as well. As maintaining a steady cash-flow was a never-ending struggle, Zakspeed’s engines and cars had never quite received adequate development. As a result the cars were regularly found at the back of the pack or beside the track in a puff of smoke.
For 1989, the first fully naturally aspirated season since 1976, Zakspeed was forced to abandon their unruly turbocharged problem child. Now without a suitable template to base their own engine on like they did with the 1500/4, Zakspeed went in search of outside assistance. Beside the established manufacturers, the renewed engine regime had attracted the attention of engine builders all over the world, resulting in various new designs.
As a customer team, Zakspeed could choose from the Judd CV, a bloated F3000 engine, and the Cosworth DFR, an enlarged and updated version of the old DFV. A third option was the new and exciting, but very much unproven Lamborghini 3512 V12 . Surprisingly, Zakspeed opted for a more complicated but much more lucrative way out. They started a technical partnership with the automotive division of Japanese engineering giant Yamaha, which was making its Formula One debut.
Yamaha’s surprise entry into Formula One with Zakspeed was the talk of the paddock. the tiny team had somehow managed to partner up with one of the biggest and most respected automotive engineering companies on the globe. What could Yamaha possibly gain from this? Why were they here?
The Japanese firm’s motivation for joining Formula One was very simple. Back home Yamaha had been building engines for Formula Nippon, the local variant of the International Formula 3000 Championship. F3000 had spawned from the ashes of Formula 2 in 1985, and quickly formed a means to escape the turbocharged barrage for small F1 teams running naturally aspirated cars.
In those early days Cosworth’s DFV was the only engine available, giving the British company a sizable competitive edge over the Japanese opposition after the introduction of Formula Nippon in 1987. During that time Yamaha had been struggling against an overbearing force of works Honda machines. Yamaha recognized Cosworth as a viable partner to break the Honda reign.
This partnership lead to the reverse-engineered Yamaha OX77, in effect a Cosworth DFV block fitted with specially developed Yamaha cylinder heads featuring five valves per cylinder. The ingenious layout was intended to both improve power and fuel efficiency. The partnership paid off in 1988, with Aguri Suzuki (JAP) clinching the Formula Nippon title for Footwork against an armada of Honda-powered chassis.
The fantastic success of the Cosworth-Yamaha partnership enthused the Japanese company, causing them to attempt to strengthen their ties even further. As Cosworth was developing the revised 3.5L DFR for the new engine rules in Formula 1, Yamaha carefully suggested using the cylinder head design from the OX77. Respectfully, Yamaha claimed their version would surely outperform the DFR‘s traditional four-valve design.
The proud Brits at Cosworth felt slighted by the Japanese contingent’s bold claims, but decided to test the concept anyway. As discussed, a DFR was adapted to fit the intricate cylinder heads, and the Frankenstein-contraption was put on a dyno to see what it could do. The new engine responded by promptly initiating a catastrophic valve failure, shaming Yamaha deeply. Adding insult to injury, Cosworth pulled out the dyno sheets and showed Yamaha none of their claimed power improvements had been realized. Yamaha left with their heads hung low, but vowed to prove Cosworth wrong and beat them at their own game.
The result of this personal vendetta was the OX-88 3.5L V8. Compared to the 90 degree DFR the engine featured a narrower 75 degree Vee-angle to aid packaging. An adaptation of the OX77‘s 5-valve cylinder head was used, featuring stronger titanium valves to prevent further cataclysmic engine failures.
The finished unit was slightly heavier than its British competitor at 145 kg (319 lbs), but promised a 25 horsepower advantage over the DFR with 600 horsepower on tap. Like Cosworth, Yamaha set their sights on finding a viable low-budget customer team to support their engine program, which lead them directly to the struggling Zakspeed operation. There the OX-88 was mated to a very conventional carbon fiber monocoque chassis drawn up by former Ferrari-designers Gustav Brunner (AUT) and Nino Frisson (ITA). The engine’s grunt was handled by a Zakspeed-developed transversely mounted 6-speed manual transmission.
For 1989 Zakspeed would retain its lead driver, the highly talented Bernd Schneider, who would be joined by Yamaha’s protege and reigning Formula Nippon champion Aguri Suzuki. Schneider was very highly regarded as one of Formula One’s rising stars, which promised solid results for at least one of the new Zakspeed-Yamaha machines.
Sadly a pre-season test at Paul Ricard managed to spoil the party prematurely. The team had already been suffering at Vallelunga with only 25 laps completed in just four days, and their French experience was even worse. It was quickly becoming apparent Cosworth might have had a point after all. The OX-88‘s complicated valve-train made the engine difficult to cool. In the sprint-format Formula Nippon this hadn’t been a problem, but Yamaha had failed to take the much longer Grand Prix distances into account.
The issue was complicated by incessant vibrations caused by the engine’s shoddy conversion from a 90 to a 75 degree Vee-angle, as Yamaha’s engineers forgot to adapt the crankshaft accordingly. This severely compromised its balance, making the engine vibrate in a violent fashion. Furthermore, the high-strung timing belt was regularly giving up the ghost at varying engine loads. When the engine did stick together for a while, its performance was also incredibly underwhelming.
Instead of the claimed 600 horsepower, the engine really only put out around 560. This was 50 less than a comparative Cosworth/Judd engine, and as much as 120 less than the front running cars powered by Renault, Honda and Ferrari. The smidge of power that was actually available only presented itself at the top of the rev range, as the OX-88 possessed a very narrow powerband. On low speed sections, this meant it acted like it had turbo lag despite being naturally aspirated.
The unbelievable embarrassment didn’t stop there however. At the third pre-season test at Jacarepaguá in preparation for the Brazilian Grand Prix, one OX-88 lasted no more than 5 seconds, immediately destroying itself after being started up. A grand total of eight engines lost their lives during the extremely hot sessions, making the whole ordeal a perfect storm of embarrassing mechanical failures. In the end Schneider and Suzuki gained little from the tests, as they had completed very few laps with the car in working order.
Despite the numerous technological hurdles the team still had to face, the two cars made it in time for the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix. There both drivers would have to guide their unfamiliar machine through Formula One’s most recent addition to the circus: the dreaded pre-qualifying session. Ever since the reintroduction of naturally aspirated engines, tiny underfunded teams had been set up left, right and center, all vying for a coveted place on the grid.
By 1989 this number had by far exceeded the maximum of 26 grid places. Some 38 cars were entered for the Brazilian Grand Prix, which also exceeded the maximum amount of 30 participants in the qualifying session. In response the FISA introduced the pre-qualifying session, in which scoreless and brand new teams would duke it out early on Friday morning. The five fastest cars would earn a chance to actually qualify for the race, but only 26 of the 30 qualifiers would actually be allowed to start. As Aguri Suzuki was a newcomer and Bernd Scheider had failed to score points with the outdated 881 in 1988, both drivers were entered into pre-qualifying.
As if by a miracle, Bernd Schneider’s car survived long enough to put him 5th on the leaderboard in pre-qualifying. The German’s undeniable talent had a clear hand in achieving this, as Aguri Suzuki lagged behind his teammate in 11th by a scarcely believable 2.6 seconds.
Schneider impressed further by achieving a 25th and second-to-last placing on the grid, allowing him to start Yamaha’s very first Grand Prix. Predictably the underpowered machine ran 5 seconds off the leading pace, but astonishingly the engine managed to survive in the smoldering Brazilian heat. Sadly Bernd was not to get Yamaha’s first finish however, as Eddie Cheever (USA) and his Arrows collided with his Zakspeed while lapping him.
After the relative success of Brazil, the team plunged into a deep dark abyss filled with mechanical woes and a chronic lack of speed. Both drivers would fail to even pre-qualify for the San Marino, Monaco, Mexican, United States, Canadian, French, British, German, Hungarian, Belgian, Italian, and Portuguese Grands Prix.
Failure to pre-qualify did not just mean the team wasn’t allowed to start the race. The sessions started at 8:00 sharp on Friday morning by design, so the teams excluded from the races could immediately be forcibly removed from the circuit without too much trouble. For a small team like Zakspeed this was devastating, as any sponsors present on invitation would witness the team they paid for pack their bags two days before the actual race. Naturally Zakspeed’s consistently dismal DNPQ’s angered their sponsors greatly, and one by one they started to leave.
The team would get one final ray of light at the infamous 1989 Japanese Grand Prix. In addition to other desperately needed refinements, the 891 now sported a distinctively smoother sloping airbox. Powered solely by the strength of Bernd Schneider’s talent and sheer willpower, the abysmal car made it to the grid for the second time in its agonizing career.
Schneider recorded a respectable 3rd time in pre-qualifying, and piloted the car to a stunning 21st position on the grid. Aguri Suzuki again couldn’t hope to keep up, stranding in pre-qualifying in 8th place, 0.7 seconds from his teammate.
On race day, Bernd Schneider’s valiant effort disintegrated along with his gearbox after completing only a single lap. Again Yamaha had been denied a race finish. Once again their machine had failed in an embarrassing display of ineptitude, and this time it was even in front of their home crowd.
Normal business resumed for Zakspeed and Yamaha for the final round of the season at Adelaide for the Australian Grand Prix. Both drivers again failed to cram the apathetic piece of scrap metal into qualifying and onto the grid. The appalling result meant that Aguri Suzuki had failed to pre-qualify in every single race he entered.
By the end of the 1989 season Zakspeed’s future was in serious doubt. Title sponsor West Cigarettes had left the team due to their godawful results, along with numerous smaller donors to the Zakspeed cause. Yamaha reassured team owner Erich Zakowski they would retain their exclusive engine deal for 1990, but rumors about the Japanese firm switching to Minardi were already flying around.
“There have not been the results expected this year. Among these, the quality of some of the parts supplied to us early in the year was not very good and our electronic management system was not right. We are switching to the Bosch system. Improved performance is expected in 1990.” - R. Yamashita, Director of Automotive Engine Operations.
With Yamaha’s assistance an upgraded B-spec of the 891 had already been produced, intended to test an improved version of the plagued OX-88 engine. In January, 1990, the car was tested at Estoril, Portugal, and showed a massive gain of 7 seconds over the older car. Reliability had not been found however, which meant the 891B was subject to the same breakdowns its predecessor had endured.
After yet another public failure, Yamaha finally decided to abandon the OX-88 engine and the Zakspeed partnership. The decision completely left Erich Zakowski and his team for dead. Without sponsorship, engines and any money at all, Zakowski was forced to fold his Formula One team after five years of courageously struggling to get by.
The Zakspeed 891 Yamaha was the result of a partnership of a tiny underfunded German team and a giant Japanese engine builder with a hefty grudge. After being shunned by Cosworth, Yamaha tried everything in their power to beat their former sensei. Sadly their brainchild, the epically slow and fragile OX-88 V8 was a cataclysmic failure for the proud engine builder.
A badly balanced crankshaft, an over-strained timing belt, impossible to cool 5-valve cylinder heads, a peaky powerband and virtually no power at all made it one of the worst engines in Formula One history. Yamaha’s failure was so great it took one of the most charismatic small teams with it in its fall. Evidently learning nothing from the excruciating experience, Yamaha would go on to make the OX-99 V12 for the ailing Brabham team in 1991, and continue to be the scourge of many struggling privateer teams to come.