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GP Week : Issue 188
the wider automotive industry. In the early 1990s, Tony Wallis and a dedicated team including Ian Cameron and Andrew Thomas at (the now re-named) Bishop Innovation rendered initial development of their rotary valve concept for the internal combustion engine. While the wider automotive industry no longer believed the rotary valve engine was a viable alternative, thanks in no small part to the 130-year development of the poppet valve, Bishop Innovation targeted Formula One as the ideal venue to showcase the advantages of rotary valve technology. Mercedes-Ilmor quickly saw potential in the project and joined forces with Bishop to develop the new technology. Initially, 300cc single cylinder bottom ends (below the cylinder head) were shipped from Mercedes-Ilmor to Bishop’s workshop in Sydney, Australia, where Wallis’ team would concentrate on cylinder head design, meticulously squeezing out more and more reliability and performance. Their work included a full dyno simulation of the Hockenheim Grand Prix to test endurance. “We simply gave over control of the engine to the computer and hoped it was still running when the test was completed two hours later,” Wallis remembered. While the endurance tests were a success, Mercedes-Ilmor was leaving nothing to chance, insisting that all testing for the rotary valve engine should be correlated with its poppet-valve counterpart. In 2000, these back-to-back tests against a single cylinder poppet- valve engine showed the rotary to have a 6 per cent power edge; allied with improved reliability. By 2003, this power advantage had increased to 20 per cent, maximum torque was 5 per cent higher, and minimum specific fuel consumption 6 per cent lower. But according to Wallis, the poppet valve is somewhat antiquated in durability terms. “The reciprocating nature of the poppet valve is responsible for the wear and tear of the valve train and cylinder head assembly,” he explained. “To increase power, both engine speed and breathing capacity must simultaneously be increased – there’s simply no reason to run the motor faster if the engine is struggling to breathe. As a result, the valve train inertia forces increase as engine speed to the power of 3.5 – double the engine speed at which maximum power occurs and inertia forces increase 11-fold.” Increasing inertia forces dramatically reduces engine life, and by 2004 the manufacturer arms race in Formula One between Ferrari, Mercedes, Toyota, Renault, Ford, Honda and BMW saw engines last a meagre 350 kilometres. Teams were using up to three engines per car every race weekend. With a price tag of over $500,000 per engine, it wasn’t exactly a great selling point for F1’s road car technology. A remarkable feature of the rotary valve technology was that it eliminated the irksome inertia forces, dramatically improving cylinder head and valve train life. The Bishop development encountered the same issues with gas sealing, oil sealing lubrication, friction, and thermal distortion (resulting in valve seizure) that had stymied all previous rotary valve experiments. But Bishop focussed on allowing the inevitable valve distortion to be tolerated without the valve’s periphery coming into contact with its housing. The approach was an instant success, allowing Wallis and his team to proceed without any further seizure or friction issues. As is often the case with technological breakthroughs, the Bishop-Mercedes Ilmor project ran into opposition in the form of the car companies who could claim monopolies both in Formula One and the wider automotive industry as a whole. Honda’s assessment of the rotary valve was unsurprising given their lack of progress with rotary motorcycle engines in the 1980s. “Whilst rotary valve mechanisms have been studied and researched for a number of years by automotive companies and experts, none have been satisfactory,” a Honda spokesman said at the time. “Besides, the rotary valve mechanism has sealing problems, or power loss if it is too tightly sealed, and a lack of longevity and therefore durability.” As recently as 2010 the major players still didn’t get it, with Ferrari saying: “The rotary valve still has several unresolved problems affecting reliability and engine life; distortion of components resulting in sealing problems, friction and wear.” Were the car companies so narrow minded they could not see the potential staring them in the face? Or was their opposition to the rotary valve technology more calculated? Consider this: given equal power, the small size of the rotary valve package, plus the low weight and centre of gravity represented a demonstrative advantage. Combine this with its obvious potential for increased power, and it becomes clear that the rival technology posed a definite threat to Formula One’s status quo. In May 2003, then-FIA president Max Mosley told the world’s media that F1’s manufacturers had told him they were collectively spending £1.4 billion a year on engines and that something had to be done. There was no better time for the sport to embrace a new technology, dramatically reduce costs, and flaunt Formula One’s green credentials at someone else’s expense and hard work – notably Mercedes-Ilmor’s. But just as the new, lightest ever (roughly 78kg) V10 rotary was being tested in October 2003, changes were made to Article 5.1.5 of the engine regulations that were solely designed to ban rotary valve technology. Article 5.1.5 read: “Engines must have 2 inlet and 2 exhaust valves per cylinder. Only reciprocating poppet valves are permitted.” If the general consensus was that the rotary engine wouldn’t work, then why not let it compete and prove the cynics right? Since then, the introduction of KERS technology has proved a costly exercise for teams and manufacturers, but its non-mandatory baptism during 2009 proved there was actually room for divergent technology in Formula One. While the rationale for radical changes to the 2014 engine regulations is said to be efficiency, rotary valve technology remains banned despite its smaller size, lower weight, improved fuel efficiency, and its ability to run higher compression ratios all contributing to... efficiency. In three years of working with rotary valve technology Bishop’s engineers accomplished what it took the car industry sixteen years to achieve with its pneumatic valve equivalent. But it is always the innovator who faces the harshest criticism. As Wallis said, “innovators are inevitably challenged by experts who use their existing knowledge to demonstrate how a new idea won’t work. Often they are right, but sometimes they fail to recognize new elements that can counteract their criticisms.” Here’s to innovation. F1 >>> FEATUrE 25 GPWEEK.com // 25 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: