Over the last 100-plus years, there has been such an incredible array of different types, styles, and configurations of engines in motorsports.
Our list today is going to focus on the Top 20 in history. In some cases there might be one year of a very specific motor, while in others it might be a foundational architecture that has proven it's worth over decades of proven usefulness.
Please let us know what you think we got right, and wrong. We know you will.
The Small Block Ford
Also known as the Windsor motor family, Ford introduced the new platform in 1962. The exceptionally small package size makes it very popular in a variety of motorsports. They were of course a big hit in The 5.0 liter classes of road racing all over the world in the 60s and 70s. Like their brothers at Chevy, the small block Ford is still used heavily to this day in series like NASCAR and Australian Supercars. That doesn't even consider all the weekend warriors who use the small block Ford engine platform in their race cars.
Despite Ford replacing the Windsor V8 with the 'Mod', or modular motor platform in 1996, the pushrod Fords are still available, and highly desirable, even through Ford itself.
Ferrari V12 3.0 liter V12
Ferrari is probably best known for its V and flat 12s. Before Colin Chapman showed the world that a rear/mid engine car was the right configuration, and when Enzo Ferrari still believed horsepower trumped aerodynamics, there was the legendary Ferrari V12. In that historic era, the most well-known is probably the Colombo 60° V 12, named after Giocacchino Colombo. It raced in various configurations and displacements from 1947 through 1989, when it was ultimately replaced by a 65° angle 3.5 liter F1 engine architecture.
The Colombo V12 ranged over the years from 1.5 to 3.3 liters. They may single-handedly be responsible for helping Ferrari establish itself as an engine building powerhouse, especially through the 50s and 60s.
In its first appearance in 1947 under the hood of Ferrari's 125S sports racer, the engine pushed the engine maker to 6 victories out of 14 races that year. Over the years, the platform received various cam and valve permutations, but always retained the basic architecture, affirming it's relevance until it's replacement 40+ years later.
Honda RA168E turbo V6
Over the years, Honda has produced a dizzying array of spectacular engines. The RA168E 1.5 L 80° V-6 turbo is near the top of that list. 1988 was the final year,and arguably the pinnacle, of the turbo engines, developmentally. Boost had been reduced from 4.0 to 2.5 bar, thus reducing horsepower by nearly 250, to merely 650 hp. The diminutive Honda engine allowed the McLaren team to utilize the low line chassis layout that was pioneered by Gordon Murray in 1986 as was discussed here.
By allowing the lower chassis,the space-efficient Honda package allowed the McLaren MP 4/4 to become the most aerodynamic and lowest CG car in the field.
The two driver team of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost took first and second in nearly every race. They won 15 of 16 races that season -perhaps the most dominant team in F1 history.
The Ford FE engine platform
The FE (for Ford-Edsel) is otherwise known as the big block Ford. This engine has been housed in some of the most prolific race cars in history. Several Cobras had the 427. The GT40s had it. NASCAR ran it in Galaxies and Fairlanes in NASCAR through the 60s. In the 1964 NASCAR season, they won 30 races with it.
In 1967, the engine proved capable of not just winning, but dominating LeMans, with its brute power and rock-solid reliabiltiy, it took the famed 1-2-3 finish. For a while, there was even a single overhead cam version of the engine that was so effective, NASCAR banned the version known as the 'Cammer', effectively restricting its use to the dragstrip. The Ford Big Block is simply the stuff of legend.
The Citroen 2.0 liter turbo
Not unlike the Ferrari V10, much of the success of this engine can be attributed to the driver. When Sebastian Loeb raced in the WRC from 2002 through 2013, he won 9 championships, with 78 wins out of 168 total races - Every one of them with this engine.
The engine is a pretty standard 2.0 L turbocharged four-cylinder. It generates somewhere in the range of 300 to 350 hp. There are several engines that are probably more technologically impressive. What makes the Citroen most impressive is that it just never stops. It has proven over the years to be stone reliable, despite all the harsh conditions being thrown it's way. Any engine that sees that much success deserves recognition.
The Chrysler Hemi
The original generation Hemi debuted in 1951. It of course derives its name from the hemispherical combustion chamber. The more prolific motorsports-inspired generation of the Hemi was introduced in 1964 for NASCAR. They finished 1-2-3 in the 1964 Daytona 500. The engine was so dominant, NASCAR change the rules, effectively banning it, thus eliminating any special limited production engines. Fortunately for consumers, that only compelled Chrysler to make it publicly available in production cars.
The platform is nicknamed 'The Elephant' because of its significant size. That makes it less viable than it's Ford and Chevy competitors for most other weight / size sensitive racing series. But despite that, the engine architecture is so robust, a derived version of the 426 Hemi still powers every single Top Fuel and Funny Car in drag racing to this day, even if the car is badged to another manufacturer.
The Ferrari F1 V10
Ferrari utilized a V10 engine only for the Formula One series between 1996 and 2005. The 90° 3.0 liter variant in particular was used from 2000 through 2005. The engine was responsible for 57 wins out of 88 starts from 2000 through 2004. 2005 was not as successful, but that is largely attributed to Ferrari sticking with Bridgestone tires, when all other teams went to the much more effective Michelin's that year.
Having Michael Schumacher as your top driver definitely did not hurt the engine's reputation, but The stout Ferrari powerplant is no doubt a significant contributor for much of his success.
The Small Block Chevy
Zora Arkus Duntov drove Chevy's new V8 in the 1956 Pikes Peak Hill Climb. That was the beginning of what may be the most extensible engine platform ever created. Sure, there are broad deviations in the different models, but the foundational pushrod architecture has been stubbornly retained since the mid 50s. It has been used in nearly every form of motorsports imaginable, and often times with great success. Not bad for a 60-year-old. And it's still going strong.
The Porsche flat 6
The Porsche flat six is, in many ways the German equivalent of the Small Block Chevy. First developed in 1961, it appeared in the 911 in 1964 as a 2 liter air cooled single overhead cam engine. Over the years, displacements have changed, occasionally forced induction added, casting materials upgraded, and sometimes water even made its way into the cylinders and heads. But at its core, the engine has essentially been the same.
The boxer motor has powered everything from 914's through some of the 908s, the 935s, 956s, 962s, and even the Porsche Indy Car of the 70s.
In sports car racing, it has become an evergreen choice with it's bulletproof reliability. Because of its extensive use in such a variety of different cars and series, it's unimaginable what the total tally of wins is for the flat six Porsche. To this day, A flat six-powered 956 still currently holds the record for the fastest lap at the Nurburgring at 6:11:13. Wow.
The 1994 Ilmor (Penske) Mercedes
Ilmore, a British auto sports engineering company, has a rich history of winning engines. But in 1994, Ilmore had been working with Penske on exploiting a loophole in the CART series rules for that year's Indianapolis 500. In essence, pushrod-based engines were allowed to run 3.43 versus 2.65 liters of displacement, as well as run greater amounts of turbo boost. They secretly developed the Indy-only engine, which was believed to ultimately produce 200 hp more than other engines in the field that year.
The car otherwise suffered handling difficulties, and the engine was not exactly bulletproof, but despite those issues, with nearly 1000 hp available, Al Unser Junior gave the Penske team the 1994 Indy 500 victory. Not surprisingly the loophole was closed for the next season.
The Mazda R26B 4-rotor
The four-rotor naturally aspirated Mazda R26B engine, powering the 787B car entered 21 races, and won only one of them. Statistically speaking, it doesn't sound all that impressive.
But the one it did win was the 1991 24 Hours of LeMans. That victory remains significant for two reasons: it is the only victory by a Japanese marque, as well as the only victory with a car not using a typical reciprocating piston engine design.
The Porsche flat 12
The Porsche flat 12, in simple terms, was two flat six engines siamesed together. Like it's flat six little brother, the flat 12 came in a variety of displacements, ranging from 4.5 to 5.0 liters, both in normally aspirated as well as turbocharged varieties. In the different variations of the Porsche 917, it may be one of the most legendary motors in road racing history. In its early normally-aspirated days, starting in 1969, it generated approximately 520 hp. In it's final turbo permutations in the Porsche 917–30, it was developing somewhere in the range of 1100 to 1500 hp, depending on boost levels.
It was a remarkable engine, technologically speaking. Many of the components were made of titanium, magnesium, and other exotic alloys. The engine's physically large size forced the driver position so far forward that the feet of the driver were forward of the front axle - a dangerous place to be, especially with that kind of power behind you.
The Cosworth DFV 3.0
The Cosworth DFV 3.0 liter engine is only the most successful engine in Formula One racing. It made its debut in Jim Clark's Lotus 49 at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1967.
The DFV, which stands for Dual Four Valve, pioneered four valve per-cylinder technology. The engine was used for so many years, it was responsible for 12 Driver's Championship victories and 10 Constructor's Championships, as well as winning the 24 Hours of LeMans, twice. It also won the Indy 500 10 times. There may be no engine that has won so many significant races over such a long period of time - from 1967 through 1981.
The BMW S14
The original DTM series was much closer to actual production cars than it is today. As time marched on, the rules changed and more extensive modifications were allowed. DTM became one of the most popular forms of motorsports in Europe. In 1987, the first year of its introduction in DTM, the BMW S14 engine won the championship right away. It was simply a 2.5 L inline four cylinder, dual overhead cam, 16 valve engine. It wasn't that the engine was outright dominant - It won its first championship without even winning a race! What makes the S14 so impressive is how similar the engine is literally derived from the road going based 2.3 liter version. It's also probably one of the most recognizable versions of the true spirit of the M division of BMW.
The Audi R10-18 TDI
The Audi R8 was a very proven car which had won LeMans five times since 2000. To make the decision to replace the gas-powered V10 after that kind of success with the R10 turbo diesel was a serious risk.
Audi had little choice. They have been so successful, they were going to have a restrictor placed on their engine, as well as carry heavy ballast to make the race more competitive. Audi decided to change their formula instead.
The R10 TDI is a 5.5 liter V12 Diesel with twin turbos. The immediate issue the new diesel engine caused was weight gain. It was approximately 150 pounds more than the typical V10 gas engines it was to compete against. Despite the weight, the advantages of diesel were a broader power band and increased fuel efficiency.
Interestingly, Audi was not the first manufacturer to run a diesel engine at LeMans. Delettrez, a French company, did it first in 1949. But nobody has done it as successfully as Audi. They have won 36 of the 48 races the car has entered.
If you include the R15 and 18 variants of the engine, it has won all but 1 of the 24 Hours of LeMans since 2006.
The Alfa Romeo 158/159
The Alfa Romeo 158 engine was a 1.5 liter straight eight with a Roots-type supercharger developed to compete in the Grand Prix and Formula One series starting in 1937. Giocacchino Colombo, the creator of the Ferrari V12 family, was also principally responsible for engineering the Alfa Romeo 158 engine.
The engine was continuously refined over time, as well as to meet new rule allowances. Initially producing around 190 hp, it ultimately produce 425 hp in a two-stage supercharger permutation for the 1951 Formula One season, their last as a full-team entry. They later went on to provide Formula One engines, but none with the success of the Alfa 158. In its 54 combined Grand Prix and Formula One races is entered, it won 47 of them.
AMG Mercedes DTM 4.0 V8
The engine shares very little in common with a road going Mercedes. It utilizes the same basic architecture, but AMG had done some significant work. The custom-built Mercedes Benz dual overhead cam 32 valve 90° V8 is one of the winningest cars in the German Touring Car series. The AMG-tuned Mercedes engine produces somewhere in the range of 476 hp, and is pushing a car under 2400 pounds, with driver. The engine in this configuration was campaign from 2004 to 2006, winning 21 races out of 33, and providing Mercedes with two Constructor's and two Driver's Championships. In a series that typically has a variety of different winners, that is outright dominance.
The Nissan turbo 6s
There are so many remarkable six cylinder engines that could have made this list. But the different variations of the Nissan turbocharged V6 stand out. The same engine fundamentally competes in both the JGTC 300 and 500 series, and is dominant in both, winning 12 of the available 20 championships in Super GT since it's creation in 2005.
The Renault F1 V6 Turbo
In the mid-70s, the turbo era had started in Formula One. Renault led the charge with their 1.5 liter turbocharged V6. Initially it was exceptionally powerful, but earned the nickname of 'Yellow Teapot' because of its highly unreliable nature.
Over the course of many years, they slowly debugged the engine and made it significantly more reliable. They also added innovations such as static ignition and pneumatic valve return. At the end of that turbo era, they had scored five victories and 19 pole positions - not out right dominance, but a big move in forced induction when the normally aspirated 3 liter engines were otherwise dominant.
The Miller / Offenhauser Indy I4s
The Miller Offenhauser engines, in a variety of displacements, won the Indianapolis 500 fifteen times in a 20 year period from 1921 to 1941. Just to give some context, they were not just beating up on other local-grown American cars. The 1923 Indianapolis 500 field was populated with 11 Millers, five Bugattis, three Mercedes, three Packards, and one Duesenberg. The Miller-powered cars took the top four spots that year.
From the very beginning, Harry Miller was designing his engines with two cams and four valves. His 183 cubic inch engine (3.0 liter) was generating 185 hp at 4400 RPM. Not bad for 1921. By 1924, he was using a centrifugal supercharger on a 2 liter engine, and raising output to 235 hp.
Miller was responsible for some other incredible innovations for the time, such as the use of front wheel drive and 4 wheel drive in racing during the 20s, but his engines were the hot ticket. You had to have them to win in the day. The records speak for themselves.