The History of Volkswagen Brands in Formula 1

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2015

The History of Volkswagen Brands in Formula 1

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    The Lamborghini-designed and powered Modena Lambo 291 in 1991.
    The Lamborghini-designed and powered Modena Lambo 291 in 1991.Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

    Last weekend's resignation of Volkswagen Group chairman Ferdinand Piech has potentially opened the door for the company to enter Formula One. Piech and F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone have an acrimonious relationship and last December, the BBC's Andrew Benson wrote, "At least one of them would need to leave their current position before a VW Group brand could enter F1."

    Now that one of those obstacles is gone, speculation can shift from "if" to "when" VW will join the world's pre-eminent motorsport series.

    But which of the German company's many brands would fly the Volkswagen flag in F1? From Bugatti to Porsche to Lamborghini, it has no shortage of marques with previous experience in F1 and pre-war grand prix racing.

    As my colleague Neil James pointed out, though, even if VW decided today to enter F1, it would likely be two or three years before they could actually get a team on the track. In the meantime, let's take a look at the grand prix histories of the company's various brands.


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    Bugatti was a dominant force in grand prix racing in the 1920s and 1930s. The brand that exists today, as a VW subsidiary, is linked to the original Bugatti cars in name only—well, that and the fact that VW bought founder Ettore Bugatti's guest house to serve as the headquarters for the revived Bugatti marque, per Car and Driver.

    Nonetheless, Bugatti's impressive racing pedigree is well known. With its most successful race car, the Type 35, Bugatti won three straight Italian Grands Prix from 1926 to 1928, four French Grands Prix in a row from 1928 to 1931, the first-ever Monaco Grand Prix in 1929 and a host of other races.

    The great Tazio Nuvolari took his first grand prix victories at the wheel of a Bugatti T35 before moving on to Alfa Romeo. And Louis Chiron—the Monegasque who still holds the record as the oldest driver to start an F1 race—also got his start in grand prix racing in Bugatti cars, winning regularly for the brand.

    Bugatti's last appearance in an F1 race came at the 1956 French Grand Prix at Reims. Maurice Trintignant drove the new Bugatti T251 but retired after just 18 laps—an ignominious end to the company's illustrious grand prix history.


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    Sir Henry "Tim" Birkin at Brooklands in 1930.
    Sir Henry "Tim" Birkin at Brooklands in 1930.Len Putnam/Associated Press

    Bentley has a nearly non-existent grand prix racing history, but there is one famous moment: In 1930, Sir Henry Birkin entered his Bentley Blower in the French Grand Prix at Pau.

    When he could not convince company founder W.O. Bentley to produce a supercharged racing version of his 4.5-litre car, Birkin put his own money and time into developing the car, per the BBC's Ben Truslove.

    After retiring from the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Birkin arrived at Pau and qualified sixth on the grid. The race was 25 laps of the almost-16-kilometre circuit, and Birkin's Bentley finished second, three-and-a-half minutes behind the Bugatti of Philippe Etancelin.

    Bentley went into receivership later that year, ending its racing program, and was eventually purchased by Rolls-Royce. Birkin died three years later after falling ill at the Tripoli Grand Prix, where he was driving a Maserati.


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    Auto Union Type C at the 2012 Goodwood Revival.
    Auto Union Type C at the 2012 Goodwood Revival.Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

    While Audi has enjoyed recent success in the World Endurance Championship, its racing roots stretch back to the pre-war years when the mighty Auto Union team battled Mercedes-Benz for grand prix supremacy in the 1930s. 

    Audi and three other German car manufacturers formed the Auto Union company and they, along with Mercedes, were sponsored by the German state, as Adolf Hitler sought to showcase German engineering.

    Hans Stuck took Auto Union's first win at the 1934 German Grand Prix, held at the Nurburgring. Before the end of the year, Stuck would also win in Switzerland and Czechoslovakia. The following season, Stuck came third in the European Championship, winning the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

    In 1936, Auto Union had their best season. Bernd Rosemeyer won three of the four races comprising the European Championship, winning the title, with Stuck second.

    The next two years saw Mercedes back on top, but Hermann Paul Muller won the 1939 European title—the final one before the Second World War—for Auto Union, despite winning just one of the championship grands prix.

    After the war, Auto Union continued to build road cars, but not racing ones. In the 1960s, the company was purchased by Volkswagen, but the Audi brand name was retained.


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    Dan Gurney in 1962.
    Dan Gurney in 1962.Associated Press

    Ferdinand Porsche designed the first Volkswagen Beetle and also developed the Auto Union grand prix cars, so the Porsche company's ties to VW go beyond a simple shareholder relationship.

    From 1957 to 1962, Porsche had a works F1 team, although it only raced two complete seasons—1961 and 1962.

    In 1961, behind Dan Gurney's three second-place finishes, Porsche ended the year third in the Constructors' Championship. The following season, Gurney took the team's only victory, at the French Grand Prix, where he was more than a lap ahead of second-place man Tony Maggs.

    Despite finishing fifth in the 1962 constructors' standings—ahead of Ferrari—Porsche withdrew from F1 at the end of the season. Motor Sport Magazine's Paul Fearnley wrote that:

    F1, even in 1962, was too expensive for [Porsche]—the British garagistes, with their bought-in drivetrains and modded off-the-shelf running gear, were reckoned to be spending half as much—while its challenger was too divorced from its road-going product to have much usefulness in either their improvement or promotion.

    In 1983, Porsche rejoined the sport as an engine supplier to McLaren. The project was supported by Mansour Ojjeh's Techniques d'Avant Garde, and the 1.5-litre V6 turbocharged engines were branded TAG-Porsche.

    The next season, Alain Prost and Niki Lauda combined to win 12 of 16 races with Lauda taking the drivers' title by half-a-point. McLaren were not as dominant in 1985, but did win a second straight constructors' title, with Prost taking the Drivers' Championship.

    Prost won again in 1986 in his Porsche-powered McLaren MP4/2C, but Williams-Honda took the constructors' title and repeated in 1987. For 1988, McLaren switched to Honda power, while Porsche once again disappeared from F1.

    The company made one more attempt as an engine supplier in 1991. But the Footwork team, powered by Porsche V12s, struggled to qualify for the early races of the season and suffered retirements whenever they did. After the Mexican Grand Prix, the team switched to Ford engines, ending Porsche's involvement in the sport.


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    Derek Warwick in the Lamborghini-powered Lotus 102 in 1990.
    Derek Warwick in the Lamborghini-powered Lotus 102 in 1990.Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

    The last VW brand to compete in F1 was Lamborghini (although it was not owned by Volkswagen at the time).

    From 1989 to 1993, Lamborghini provided V12 engines to a variety of teams, including Larousse, Lotus, Ligier and Minardi. Overall, the project was not particularly successful, although Larousse did score the only podium in team history at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix with a Lamborghini engine. That third-place finish would also prove to be Lamborghini's best finish.

    In 1991, Lamborghini designed a chassis to pair with its engine for a new team owned by Mexican businessman Fernando Gonzalez Luna. However, as Joe Saward wrote for, Gonzalez Luna took off with the money he had raised for the team before it ever got on the track.

    Having already invested the money to develop the car, Lamborghini renamed the team Modena and supported its operations for the 1991 season. After a disappointing campaign with no points scored, though, the team was allowed to die.

    After two more years as an engine supplier, with just five points scored in that time, Lamborghini exited F1 and was bought by VW in 1998.

    Looking forward, if Volkswagen does decide to enter F1, which brand should they use? Let us know in the comments section.

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