12 May 2020


If you’ve already read our feature on Ground Effect, you will remember we mentioned how the introduction of more powerful turbocharged engines was a contributing factor to the banning of ground effect at the end of the 1982 season. However, that was only part one of the story as we will explain in this feature on the year of Super Fuel.

Let’s take a step back to the late 70’s and early 80’s when the world seemed just a bit more of a devil-may-care kind of place. In Formula 1 there was less focus on safety than today, and more brainpower applied to the question “how can we go faster?”. F1 engineers are a resourceful breed and between 1978 and 1983 there was much more scope for teams to interpret the rules for performance gain.

Although it was Renault that pioneered the turbo engine in Formula 1 in 1977, with these engines came greater fuel consumption. As more teams adopted the new engine format, and following lobbying by Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team, refuelling was re-introduced in 1981.

Formula 1 has always wanted to maintain an element of connectedness with the cars we drive on the public roads and those raced, and fuel has always been one of the key variables that the FIA has used to validate this, and so it was in 1981. The FIA, to maintain that validity, deemed that fuels should never exceed a Research Octane Number (RON) that was comparable with the high street forecourt. It was at this point that Brabham’s engine supplier BMW, raised its hand and suggested getting in touch with Wintershall, a petroleum subsidiary company of BASF.

Now at this point the story gets a bit hazy. Rumours were rife at the time that the fuel that Wintershall supplied was a cocktail developed by the Luftwaffe during the 40’s and quotes from Paul Rosche*, the motorsport director at BMW at the time, suggest this was the case. A further interview in 2013 with the late Charlie Whiting** seems to confirm this. However, a number of counter claims have been lodged since suggesting that this was a romanticised story that contributed to the creation of the legend.

The brew developed, using a mix of exotic chemicals (known as aromatic hydrocarbons) and conventional fuel, kept the fuel within the RON requirements yet had a staggering impact on engine performance, with the BMW power unit developing over 1,400hp. This compared to 500hp up to 900hp generated by turbo engines run by the other teams at the time.

So how could this story have developed?

Well it’s the case that a fuel embargo on Germany existed between 1939 and 1945. To get around this, old fuel recipes from the 30’s were used to produce hydrocarbon liquids from coal in turn enabling the creation of synthetic gasoline. This fuel was suitable for use in motor vehicles but needed a bit of extra kick to make it suitable for use in aircraft. To achieve this, scientists added other ingredients such as Methanol, Benzene, and Toluene to the mix.

In fact, much of this approach of enriching gasoline with additives was nothing new. AutoUnion and Mercedes-Benz had adopted this policy as early as 1934 adding ingredients such as Acetone and Nitrobenzene to their fuel. It’s fair to say that this contributed significantly to their success and the practice had similarly effective results in the 80’s.

Although there are other schools of thought who dismiss a direct connection between Wintershall-BASF’s fuel and the Luftwaffe, the one thing that they do at least agree on is the techniques employed in the 30’s and 40’s significantly influenced the development of the cocktail for BMW. Wintershall was just one of many petroleum businesses in the early 80’s that had established fuel mixes but with the support of its parent BASF it was able to progress its R&D programme much quicker especially in the area of new types of fuel additives.

If you dig deeper, you can start to understand why the Luftwaffe fuel story could have gained traction. BASF was one of the partner companies in IG Farben, the German conglomerate, along with Bayer, Hoechst, and Agfa that invented synthetic coal fuel, and was responsible for nearly all the fuel production during the second world war.

Whilst it’s unlikely that BMW simply received a barrel of 50 year old aviation fuel that was simply lifted from the back of a dusty BASF warehouse and shipped off to Munich, ingredients in the “Rocket Fuel”, as it was affectionately dubbed by Brabham, undoubtedly found their way into the 80’s cocktail. The rest of this ripping yarn will always be an active topic of conversation around any dinner table comprising of Formula 1 enthusiasts.

The Brabham fuel “had far more exciting things in it…”

Charlie Whiting

Whether you believe the legend or not what we can establish is that whatever the origins of the fuel and its constituent parts, its impact on performance is a matter of public record. After the end of the 1983 season Renault and Ferrari, who also had their own “Super Fuel” programmes operating with their fuel partners, Elf and Agip respectively, protested to the FIA that the Brabham fuel broke the RON legal limit. The protest was not upheld and as a result, Nelson Piquet, driving a Gordon Murray designed Brabham BT52 was confirmed as the 1983 world championship.

The late Charlie Whiting was further quoted as saying that the Brabham fuel “had far more exciting things in it…”. Speculation to this day is rife as to what exactly was in the fuel, where it originated from, and whether it was within the rules. We will likely never know the full story and so the legend of Super Fuel will live on.

In 2021 the Formula 1 regulations will be changing significantly contributing to what is expected to be a very exciting and closely run season. If you would like to experience the very best hospitality at one of the marquee races this year please contact JDC Promotions and let us build a bespoke package for you and your guests.

* ‘Generating the Power’, MotorsportMagazine, January 2001, p37

** (‘Poacher Turned Gamekeeper’, MotorsportMagazine, December 2013, p74)


Editor-in-Residence, JDC Promotions Media Centre