On Sunday night in Interlagos, the F1 fraternity brought the curtain down on the V8 engine era with a bang. Well, not a bang exactly: despite the enthusiastic efforts of half the paddock to rev those units to destruction, not a single engine went pop, despite being blitzed to oblivion – exhaust tails blazing white-hot as they were punished well beyond their usual duty cycle.
Right now, those V8s will either be nestled in packing crates, bobbing slowly home on the waves of the South Atlantic, or else safely home and housed in unassuming industrial units in the home counties, where they’ll presumably gather dust for years.
That was the end, and this is the beginning. For make no mistake, a new engine formula is a very big deal in grand prix circles.
By sheer coincidence, McLaren’s very first grand prix – at Monaco, in 1966 – coincided with the introduction of the most influential and long-lasting engine formula in the history of the sport.
That ’66 season saw the arrival of the ‘3-litre Formula’ – relatively modest powerplants that were mated to light and nimble space-frame chassis – all honed by the British ‘garagistes’ (Cooper, Lotus, Brabham and, of course, McLaren) to devastating effect.
The archetypal 3.0-litre engine was Cosworth-Ford’s DFV – a compact and tidy V8 that was neatly packaged, efficient and super pokey, instantly giving it the edge over all its rivals. From 1968, it was available off the shelf, too, which made it the ‘go to’ power-plant for teams without a works engine deal. Indeed, Bruce McLaren took his team’s first-ever grand prix win driving a car powered by a Cosworth.
The Perfect Lap Video - Part 1 (Engineers)
The DFV was still the engine to have throughout the 1970s, despite Ferrari’s gorgeous flat-12 creeping closer to the top step. In the mid-’70s, both Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt’s championships were won with a grunty little Cosworth V8 bolted into the back of their M23s. It was a simpler time: design a half-decent chassis, and the little Cossie would more than do the rest.
The advent of underbody aerodynamics in 1977 gave the DFV a second-wind, too, as the flat-12 low-line layout was unsuited to the sculpted underbodies that ground effect aero demanded.
In all, McLaren won an incredible 30 grands prix – its first 30 – using Cosworth V8s. Even more incredibly those wins covered a 15-year period, spanning from 1968 to 1983.
However, the DFV’s supremacy was eventually usurped – intriguingly, not by a rule-change, but by the exploitation of a long-written equivalency formula that had lain dormant in the rulebooks, and which had never been deleted.
It was in 1977 that Renault chose to pursue the route of using 1.5-litre turbocharged motors instead of their ‘equivalent’ 3-litre cousins. At first, the turbo engine could only take baby steps – the units were testy, heavy, complicated and unresponsive, often exploding violently beneath a blanket of thick white smoke.
From through the haze, however, the writing became clear: a 1.5-litre turbo had more clout than a normally aspirated unit, and, slowly but surely, the sport took notice. By 1985, the whole field was turbo-charged.
It was during that brief stab of turbo flame that McLaren established dominance with its sensational TAG-Porsche V6s, which will celebrate their 30th anniversary next year. Like the DFV before it, the TAG Turbo was a masterpiece of packaging – it wasn’t the most powerful, or the most efficient, but it covered all the bases superbly. When mated to John Barnard’s seminal MP4/2 series of cars, it was almost unstoppable, winning 25 grands prix in just four seasons – all with either Niki Lauda or Alain Prost behind the wheel.
But history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
As speeds escalated – not only in Formula 1, but also in Group B rallying, where the turbo-charger also reigned supreme, a spate of dangerous, fatal accidents prompted the FIA, the sport’s governing body to act. In a swift stroke, they brought the curtain down on the turbo-era, progressively phasing it out in F1 by reducing boost pressure through 1987 and ’88 before re-introducing naturally aspirated engines from 1989. High revving non-turbos were seen as being more relevant to both the sport and the car industry.
During that switchover era, McLaren – and Honda – prospered.
In hindsight, Honda’s decision to persevere along the turbo-charger route for 1988 was a wise one, for they won 15 of the season’s 16 races; but, with boost pressure limited down to 2.5-bar (from 1987’s 4.0-bar) and fuel capacity cut to a swingeing 150 litres (down from 195 litres the year before), there was definitely no guarantee that a turbo would be the thing to have.
Yet, Honda’s engineers worked miracles – both with fuel efficiency and power output – to create perhaps the defining engine of the turbo era, the RA168-E.
For 1989, it was all-change again.
“Always remember, turbo boost pressure is less expensive than high revs,” Honda’s then-president Nobuhiko Kawamoto.
Yet, that season was the first non-turbo season for over a decade; 3.5-litre naturally aspirated engines – which had been sympathetically phased in at the same time as the turbos were phased out – now governed Formula 1.
Once again, speeds escalated – do they ever not? – and the mighty 3.5-litre engines were pegged back to three litres, once more on the grounds of safety, for 1995.
This formula was a keeper, lasting for a decade. But it was during this era that engine regulations also became more prescriptive – as a three-litre V10 became the engine of choice (V12 stalwarts Ferrari eventually bit the bullet and nixed their beautiful, screaming 12-cylinder engine at the end of 1995), and the FIA clamped down on engine variations, allowing only V10s.
At the end of 2005 – by which time those V10s had become 20,000rpm screaming monsters – were once again put in check, new regulations effectively lopping off a pair of cylinders to create our most recent formula – 2.4-litre V8s.
The Perfect Lap Video - Part 2 (Drivers)
It was around this time that the FIA’s engine regulations became even more prescriptive. In the interests of economy, engine-life was slowly extended, then vee-angle and bore and stroke was dictated. Finally, in 2007, engine spec was frozen – with only minimal changes permitted – to ease the crippling financial burden of continual year-on-year engine development.
Again, it was a time when McLaren could prosper, its Mercedes-Benz V8s emerging as the most powerful and reliable on the grid. A nice combination to have.
For 2014, the sweeping engine regulations will once again dominate proceedings, with the advent of a 1.6-litre turbo-charged V6 with sophisticated energy recovery systems once again set to make Formula 1 the centre-point for high-technology engine development.
So deep is the change, we’re no longer even calling them ‘engines’ any more. ‘Power-train’, I hear, is the de rigueur name for these new units, simply because their integration is so complex and over-arching that the mere term ‘engine’ would denigrate their elevated levels of sophistication.
Hmm, an engine regulation change that abolishes the word ‘engine’ – that’s a pretty big leap.
Expect serious fireworks in 2014, it’s going to be just as fascinating watching the technical teams grapple the near-vertical technical cliff-face as it will be watching 22 grand prix drivers trying to tame tail-happy, torque-overloaded chassis through Casino Square.
It’s going to be fantastic.