Back to the drawing board
Cosworth might not currently supply F1 engines, but it doesn’t need its name on a cam cover to remain involved at the sport’s top tier. The firm’s influence – and rich heritage – extend as broadly as ever across our industry
Writer Simon Arron
The auditorium is packed with all the usual stuff – chairs, screens, lecterns – but two sides of the room are lined with a particular strain of jewellery, a finely polished array of some of the most successful engine designs in motor racing history. And there, just behind them, slightly incongruous in this digitised world, is a lovely old drawing board. The very one, indeed, on which Keith Duckworth sketched out the Double Four Valve, or DFV.
Cosworth has much of which to be proud.
This year will be the 30th since a DFV last featured on a contemporary Formula 1 grid, but with a record 155 world championship Grand Prix wins to its credit (between Zandvoort 1967 and Detroit 1983), it remains central to almost any conversation about Cosworth. The fact remains, though, that the company hasn’t scored a GP victory since Brazil 2003, when Giancarlo Fisichella took a fortuitous, rain-affected win in his RS1 V10-engined Jordan. As recently as 2010 Cosworth had four teams under contract – Williams, plus newcomers HRT, Lotus (later Caterham) and Virgin (Marussia) – but custom dwindled as its partners either defected or folded. By 2013 it had only Marussia on its books, and last season’s switch from 2.4 V8s to 1.6 V6 turbos heralded Cosworth’s departure from F1 – on the surface, at least.
Visit the company’s HQ, though, and you don’t get the impression that Cosworth is twiddling its thumbs. Just around the corner from Northampton Town FC’s Sixfields Stadium, you’ll find a sprawling mass of industrial units of different shapes and sizes – but each is stamped with the Cosworth logo. At the far end of this industrial hive, a brand-new building stands taller and broader than any other. That, too, is Cosworth’s: when it opened recently, the production line was already booked to full capacity for the first three years.
So, Cosworth, what exactly are you doing?
“There are two key areas in racing,” says Pio Szyjanowicz, head of communications and partnerships. “Electronics, through data control and acquisition systems, steering wheels, instrumentation and chassis controllers, and wind tunnel test systems, so we are still very involved in F1. On the mechanical engineering and engine side, we’re engaged in a number of programmes – but it’s very difficult to start mentioning where, because we’re tied by confidentiality clauses and our role in some series might become a bit obvious.
“We’re also very interested in sports car racing – and in this hybrid era there’s a huge overlap between the technology in F1, sports car racing and even road cars. Some of our partners are very interested in this, because Cosworth can take technology developed for motor sport and apply it to niche, high-performance road cars.”
Jason Watkins, global sales manager, adds: “In terms of the motor sport sector, we are involved in all major series around the globe. Our electronic systems feature on every racer in Indycar, Indy Lights and the British Touring Car Championship. We provide scrutineering systems, data acquisition, some engine management systems in the Le Mans Series and we’re involved in the World Endurance Championship, so we’re very much still at the forefront of professional motor racing, certainly on the electronics side. With road cars, a younger generation is now coming through and might have heard stories about Ford Sierra Cosworths and so on from their fathers, but today we’re known for work with the current generation of high-performance Japanese cars.”
Szyjanowicz: “Go to California and you’ll hear everyone talking about Cosworth in terms of a Subaru Impreza engine upgrade, rather than Formula 1.”
For a few years Cosworth dabbled outside its traditional heartland, working in aerospace and defence. “The plan was to find adjacent industries, just a step away from where we were operating, with very high levels of precision engineering and relatively limited volume,” Szyjanowicz says. “We went through an expansionist, exploratory phase, from reverse-engineering a Deltic engine for a Royal Navy minesweeper through to making wearable electronics – intelligent body armour – and diagnostic systems for wind turbines. It took a very long time to get any return on our investment, though, and in retrospect it didn’t make sense for Cosworth to diversify while at the same time trying to keep our core automotive and motor sport businesses turning over.”
Watkins: “Those long gestation periods didn’t really complement our motor sport model, where what you do one week usually differs from whatever you do the next. They were alien to a company that’s used to a reactive, dynamic environment.”
Eventually one or two car companies made contact, asking what Cosworth had been doing and whether it was in the market to produce some high-performance parts. “It was a light-bulb moment,” Szyjanowicz says. “The automotive industry is set up for producing 250,000 engines a year, or much smaller quantities in F1, but what if you want to produce 15,000 engines a year for your halo vehicle? How do you get that number of engines made? It’s too big a volume to be small and too small to be big. Manufacturers have tried to fit this into their mainstream production schedules, but things break and it stops the line, which becomes very expensive. Our new factory is specifically set up to produce 15,000 or so units per year. If we wanted to do that successfully, though, we couldn’t continue our previous strategy with targets half a mile wide but only an inch deep.”
The sideline projects were cast aside and Cosworth returned to its roots. “It’s interesting,” Watkins says, “that I came from working in defence and found a greater level of secrecy with some of the automotive and motor sport projects than I’d encountered before!”
Among the bustle of present and future, one of Cosworth’s factory units is steeped in the past, filled with cabinet upon cabinet of original drawings sketching out a glorious pedigree.
“We have an archive dating back more than half a century,” Szyjanowicz says. “The DFV remains the most successful F1 engine of all time and many are still raced, but we don’t have the bandwidth as a business to focus on the new and the now, building a new engine factory and so on, as well as digitising this archive and making all the old parts available.”
Why was everything kept? “Simple,” Watkins says. “Engineers never like to throw stuff away.”
Cosworth switched to digital operations in 2002, prior to which everything had been done on paper. “We’re quite fortunate,” Szyjanowicz says, “that our Northampton site had a fair amount of space in which to keep adding more and more sheets.”
This is where Matthew Grant enters the tale. Grant worked at Cosworth for 17 years, but left when the most recent F1 project concluded at the end of 2013. He set up Modatek (www.modatek.co.uk), which specialises in supplying bygone Cosworth parts. “While I was working on the F1 project,” he says, “I asked if I could tackle some of the historic stuff as a sideline. We started to build a portfolio of spares and suddenly I had a customer wanting throttle slide covers for a DFR. The tooling had long since disappeared, but using Cosworth’s reverse-engineering expertise we made 3D CAD models and had them machined from solid. They were much stronger than the original, but looked exactly the same and were genuine Cosworth bits made to the original drawing. When I left at the end of 2013, these guys were happy for me to carry on selling their parts. I’m very aware that I represent the name. If the factory is too busy to produce something, I can get it done elsewhere – but always from original Cosworth drawings.”
It was effectively Cosworth’s customers that set the ball rolling. “People began asking for parts that were running out, no longer existed or had never actually existed after about 1983,” Szyjanowicz says. “We still had the drawings, but nobody knew how to make the bits. Matthew got involved after digging out drawings from the archive and taking a modern view of the production engineering. How could he go about making such and such a part 30 years after it had last been produced? He’s the only non-employee with access to our archive and we’re very keen that he should handle that side of things and bring our back catalogue to the market place.”
Grant relishes the task, but admits it can be slightly daunting. “I feel a bit of responsibility,” he says, “because these guys have authorised me to go out and sell historic parts and I have to make sure I protect the name, because it is so important. You could buy the components for a DFV or an FVA from almost anywhere, but it’s the Cosworth name people want – provenance is sometimes more important than technical ability. If they’re rebuilding an engine, they don’t want to do it with bits from anywhere – they want genuine Cosworth parts.
“A guy running a Benetton with a Ford HB could go out and get bits made, but might prefer to work with Cosworth to ensure he’s got the most authentic car possible. Otherwise you start diluting and diluting things and you might as well fit a Duratec engine or something, because at what point do you say, ‘Hang on, that’s not original’? I love the fact that people want to keep them genuine.
“I won’t try to make anything cheaper or faster – customers will get Cosworth parts as they were originally designed. I won’t dilute the brand.”
Motor racing is awash with former Cosworth employees – Rob White at Renault Sport F1 and Porsche LMP1 technical director Alex Hitzinger, to name but two, and there are a fair few in the Mercedes F1 engine plant at Brixworth – but there are also lower-profile operations, small-scale engineering cottage industries run by ex-Cosworth people in the Northampton area. Grant calls upon these as a matter of course. “I’ll show them what I need,” he says, “and it’s a case of, ‘Ah yes, I remember making that all those years ago’. So it’s not just being made from the same drawing to the same tolerances, but is being made by the same bloke on almost the same machine.”
Not so much Cosworth DFV, then, as Cosworth DNA.
In some eyes, such craftsmanship is quite literally perceived as art. “We’ve had approaches from galleries who want to put Cosworth bits on display,” Grant says, “just because stuff that was made 30-odd years ago still looks so good today.”
Szyjanowicz adds: “People look at an engine and don’t imagine quite how intricate the internal parts are. Then you show them a few bits and they say, ‘What? All of that’s in there? Why didn’t you make the outside look like the inside?’ ”
Such artistry begins at source. Grant says, “I’ve found drawings by Keith Duckworth and Colin Chapman for the layout of the Lotus 49, a fantastic work of art, and there were also some of Keith’s notes about balancing a crankshaft. It’s on four sides of A4 and I wish I’d read it when I first started at Cosworth, because I’d have been much cleverer by now. We’ve kept all the notes, because they’re so important for future generations.
“The stud spacing on the DFV block was basically Jim Clark’s bottom width – it was designed around his backside – and these stories should be passed on. We still have all the early test reports from the DFV, MAE and FVA, too.”
Szyjanowicz: “The trouble, nowadays, is that paper is not perceived as terribly interesting.
We have to make this sort of content engaging for modern youngsters, who can make their own intake manifold in a couple of days with 3D printers. You used to need a 30,000sq ft machining centre to do that in a week…”
Is Cosworth interested in returning one day to F1 as an engine supplier? “Absolutely,” Watkins says. “We’re following developments very closely,” Szyjanowicz adds. “Given our history, our engineers couldn’t help but keep track of what’s going on, even if there weren’t any contracts involved, because it’s part of who they are. It’s amazing to see the thoughts that come out of that.”
There is no inkling, though, that the past will ever be abandoned. “One of the wonderful things about the historic scene,” Szyjanowicz says, “is that people can get hands-on access to the technology. They can get involved, touch it, feel it and service it. Given the level of progress in modern F1, only a handful of people get to see the technology and even fewer to touch it.”
The irony is that contemporary F1 cars effectively become obsolete far more quickly than their 30-year-old counterparts, simply because it takes too many people – and too much computing power – for an ambitious individual to run them.
“With the advent of pneumatic valvetrains in the early 1990s,” Grant says, “you suddenly needed a clean room to do an engine rebuild, with the air-con set up to make sure no debris came through. There was a leap in build quality, and people have to go through the lessons we learned all those years ago if they want to keep things running. In 20 years, I don’t imagine we’ll see a driver and his mate running a Mercedes W05 or whatever. It would require an awful lot of stripped-down technology to enable modern cars to run in private hands…”