The writing was on the wall. You either had a turbo engine or were desperately searching for one. And yet a 15-year-old engine design took the 1982 title, its reliability and packaging —two of creator Keith Duckworth’s favourite motifs—allowing it to keep the pressure up on the turbos until they were unfit to boost.
There were two more Cosworth DFV wins to come in 1983 (John Watson at Long Beach and Keke Rosberg at Monaco), plus one for the Mario Illien-designed, narrow-valve-angle DFY (Michele Alboreto at Detroit). But the latter’s win at Caesars Palace in ’82, and Rosberg’s world championship-clinching fifth place in the same race, really was the end of the road for Formula One most successful engine.
The story of the DFV’s birth, of Ford PR boss Walter Hayes persuading his ‘suits’ to stump up the £100,000 for the engine’s development, has filled a book and made a movie. What’s just as interesting is the story of the engine’s later years, when competition approached from an unexpected area: turbos.
Throughout the 1970s, DFV was king. Alfa Romeo, BRM and Matra offered opposition, but the only real foe was Ferrari. If the DFV could beat Enzo’s beloved vee and flat 12s, then most people were happy.
And we really do mean ‘most people’. Satisfied DFV customers ranged from major teams like Lotus and McLaren to low-budget, almost-one-man-bands who had scraped enough cash together fora DFV and a Newland transaxle, and knocked up a suitable chassis in which to mount it: Maki, Martini, Merzario — the list reads like a ‘phone book. That anyone and everyone was using the DFV had a massive bearing on its success and longevity.
Dick Scammell started at Cosworth in 1975 as a development engineer, ran the development shop in 1982, and ended his career at Cosworth as Managing Director in the late ’90s. He knows better than anyone why the DFV had such a long life and why that life came to an end in ’83.
“Most race engine builders are constantly in search of more power,” he says “but at Cosworth, it wasn’t that simple. We had a huge number of engines spread out around numerous teams. Up until 1970, Cosworif, rebuilt all customer engines itself, but then other engine-builders began rebuilding and servicing the DFV for various teams. Reliability became a huge issue for us, really at the expense of development work.
“If you’re only developing and building engines for one team, as is usual today, you can be much more adventurous with your development. You’re dealing with only a few engines, so if a new part doesn’t work, ifs easy to junk it and start again. With the DFV, any mistake was a disaster.
“Onetime, we had a faulty batch of valve spring retainers made. Small parts like that were made in big quantities and weren’t individually tested. Anyway, we had some retainer failures and had to get everybody’s engines in to be checked. A total nightmare.”
Having an engine that could match or beat Ferrari’s engines is, of course, only one part of the battle. Naturally, every team wanted their DFV to produce more power than anyone else’s, and that meant going to specialist engine-builders who could dedicate more time to the job.
‘Reliability became a huge issue for us, really at the expense of development’
New Zealander John Nicholson became one of the largest Coswodh specialists outside of the company itself, and handled engine development for McLaren from the early 1970s through to the beginning of the ’80s. He backs up Scammell’s point that Duckworth was more concerned about reliability than development. He adds: “If I’m cynical, Keith most probably also wanted to keep the engine alive for business reasons.
“We were constantly trying to improve the DFV’s power output and were the first to use aluminium liners, which saved about 10Ibs. We also built a short-stroke version before anyone else tried it.
“One of the problems was that the engines differed so much. Our very best engines would show 500bhp on the dyno in the mid-70s, and others would only manage 420-440bhp. We couldn’t work out why some were so good and some were weak. Casting quality in those days was a bit hit-and-miss, which certainly didn’t help.”
Between Jim Clark’s memorable winning DFV debut at Zandvoort (June 4, 19671, and Rosberg’s already-mentioned final Monaco fling (May 15, 19831, the most significant other date in the DFV’s history is July 16, 1977: Sikerstone was the venue; the debut of Renault’s paradigm-shifting turbo V6 was the occasion.
Duckworth was anti-turbo right from the start, not just because it threatened the dominance of his engine, but because he thought it would send costs through the ceiling. He didn’t have to worry in the early days of turbocharging, because Renault took a long time to iron the bugs out. But in 1980, the score was turbos three victories, DFV 11. In ’81, it was turbos five, DFV eight. In 1982, it was evens. The DFV was (gamely) fighting a losing battle
John Watson, who drove a McLaren with DFV power in 1982 and ’83, recalls: “By ’82, the electronics were much more sophisticated and high boost pressures could be used in the race, not just for qualifying. Their horsepower was far higher than our Cosworth’s 520bhp, no matter when.
“That said, raw power isn’t everything. The DFV was extremely driveable, with very good throttle control. The ideal for us would have been circuits with lots of quick corners but linked by very short straights.” Rain would not have gone amiss either, but every race of 1982 was dry.
And the DFV was about to wither and die— in F1.
“It was at the end of its development,” says Scammell. ‘The new cylinder heads [on the DFY) gave it a bit more power, but a complete redesign was necessary. The valve gear was the limiting factor. You just couldn’t take a DFV above 11,000rpm without courting disaster. It’s a problem we spent years trying to fix, but never managed it. And without dramatically increasing rpm you can’t significantly increase horsepower”
And you can’t keep winning.