The Best F1 Engine Ever Made

Powering History

It is a common occurrence for Formula One fans to associate the term “most successful” to Ferrari, despite the current Mercedes’ dominion, still holds the record for the most Constructors’ World Championships, the most Drivers’ World Championships and the most GP victories. However, when it comes to engines, the most winning (and long-running) is neither a Ferrari nor a Mercedes’, but the legendary Ford Cosworth DFV (abbreviation of Double Four Valve). Sure enough, this V8 internal combustion engine was able to win 155 Grand Prix and 10 Constructions’ World Titles (of which seven consecutive) in the span of eighteen years (from 1967 to 1985), being used by a plethora of teams (Lotus, McLaren, Matra, Brabham, March, Surtees, Tyrrell, Hesketh, Lola, Williams, Penske, Wolf and Ligier to name some). To add greatness to its already impressive record, just think that every race of the 1969 and 1973 F1 season was won by DFV-powered car and that this mighty engine still holds the record for the most consecutive wins (and it is even more impressive if one considers that those victories were spread over three years and by four different teams).

Men with a Mission. Colin Chapman, Graham Hill, Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin inspect their creation.

One Plus One Equals Victory

Quite interestingly, the making of the Ford Cosworth DFV is characterized by a recurring theme: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (usually two). It all began when, after the FIA decided to double the maximum capacity of F1 engines from 1.5 liters to 3.0 liters. Lotus’ founder Colin Chapman entrusted Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin, two former Lotus engineers and now co-owners of the newly formed Cosworth company, with the design and creation of an engine that could compete against the powerful Ferrari’s. Chapman persuaded the Ford Motor Company to invest in his project and, after an initial refusal, the American firm decide to oblige, but on the condition that the budget was fixed to $300,000 (£100,000) and that the money should also be spent on the realization of a four-cylinder, twin-cam and 1.6-liter motor for Formula Two, the FVA. Although the stiff restriction imposed by Ford may seem to have been a huge hinderance for the project, it actually turned out to be the key of Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin’s success, since it prevented the two engineers from doing unnecessary and potentially dangerous experimentations and, most importantly, forced them to combine two FVAs into a single engine with a bank angle of 90º, thus creating the embryo stage of the DFV. Then, thanks to the use of a light aluminum alloy and some technical expedient to adjust the engine size, the first version of the 2,993 cc, 85.67 × 64.90 mm bore and stroke and 400 bhp producing motor that was going to change F1 forever had been born. However, emphasizing only on those technicalities would be diminishing for the revolutionary importance of the DFV, since this engine is widely considered the first modern F1 motor not only for its great power or its nigh-incomparable records, but because, for the first time in the history of motorsport, the engine was designed to be not just the powerhouse of the car, but also as a structural element which the entire rear suspension could be attached to. Therefore, the birth of the DFV also marks the start of the concepts onto which the current F1 car is based: performance does not come from the excellence of one single component, but from the perfect integration of every single one.

Jim Clarks Lotus 49 showing how the DFV engine was a stress-bearing member of the car, bolted between the monocoque and gearbox, with the suspension ‘hanging’ off the back – a revolutionary design.

The Rise and The Downfall

As we already mentioned, the DFV pretty much defined twenty years of F1 history, and its relevance was clear from the very beginning. Sure enough, the first race featuring a DFV-powered car (the Lotus 49) saw the car take pole position with Graham Hill and taking the win with Jim Clark, who, although won three other races, finished third in the Drivers’ Championship because of reliability issues. However, it was adamant to everyone that such a powerful and superior engine had no competition to speak of, as the other motors were either unreliable or underpowered. Therefore, Ford’s management decided, fearing that a lack of competitors would only tarnish Ford’s reputation, to sell the DFV to the other constructors. That choice started the golden age of private teams, as for the first time a powerful, reliable and yet simple to work with engine was available at a relatively moderate price. However, as a famous Nelly Furtado song goes, all good things must come to an end. The advent of the turbocharged engine cast a shadow onto the Ford Cosworth DFV. At first, the aspirated engine could still compete with the newly introduced turbocharged motors since the latter were still too much unreliable, complicated and heavy. Moreover, although their raw power and extra torque were fearsome features, they also had the unpleasant disadvantage of exerting a greater strain on the gearbox, driveshafts and brakes of the cars that first implemented said turbocharged engines (i.e. the Ferraris and the Renaults). Furthermore, the first turbo engines also suffered from the so called “throttle lag” a delay in throttle response which made the turbo cars very slow and less competitive on tight, twisty circuits. Unfortunately for the Ford Cosworth DFV, once the issues had been resolved, there was no game anymore. The difference with the less consuming, more power-generating turbo engines was too great, and so, after the 1985 season (during which the DFV claimed its last victory at the Austrian Grand Prix), Cosworth switched their efforts to supporting the new turbocharged Ford GBA V6. That was the end of the greatest engine ever witnessed on track in F1 history, a true milestone whose record and significance still remain unparalleled to these days.

A thing of beauty! The Cosworth DFV bolted to a Brabham BT 49

Posted by John Holmes